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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The trouble with freelancing

A lot of people who do what I did don’t last as long at it as I have. I officially stopped working for the man and became a full-time freelancer in May of 1994. That means I’m starting my 16th year in just a few weeks. I know when I tell people I make my living from writing and editing, it sounds Romantic, like I’m living the life of a knight-errant or, since I do get to write poetry, some type of medieval minstrel. The reality is it’s more like the life of a vagrant, just roaming here and there with no visible means of support and no real goal in mind.

A lot of people I know who made the same leap, do it for three or four years, but then they go back and take a job. That's because we're not making our living by writing the things we love--great poetry, amazing fiction, soaring new journalism essays that fill the pages of The New Yorker. It's a small percentage of writers who get to earn money that way. What most of us do is called contract writing or work for hire. We work for agencies, pharmaceutical companies, health plans. We write very specialized pieces aimed at computer geeks, investment bankers, physical therapists, or people with diabetes. Getting to set our own schedule means never taking a day off because if you don't work, you don't get paid. And if you don't have any work in front of you at the moment, you have to scramble to find a client and pick up another assignment.

After a few years of doing that, of living in a constant state of uncertainty about where your next pay check is coming from, a job with paid sick time and vacation, with a 401K and office colleagues to talk to during the day seems mighty appealing. Even if your client list is pretty secure, it's that not having people to talk to during the day that can get very oppressive. I have, over the past fifteen years, gone back to teaching part time on occasion, not because I needed the money, but because I just needed the human contact.

I had perhaps my best financial first quarter since I started freelancing this year. I was busy. stretched completely to my limits. I was working so many weekends I'd have trouble knowing exactly what day it was. Things are finally quieting down and I can breathe a little easier. Except...

The end of March. Did you hear that crashing sound? That was the roof of my security shelter crashing down around me. Two long-term contracts that formed a solid monthly income base just ended. Just like that. Boston Globe Media decided not to continue publishing a magazine that I had been managing editing for them for 11 years. Not only did I feel I was getting laid off, but I had to contact the writers who wrote regularly for me and tell them I'd have no more work for them in the foreseeable future. Then right after I got that word I found out the newsletter for health care providers I had been writing for the past five or so years was not going to be published anymore, and the publishing company that did them was closing.

That's the the way business I'm in goes. I'll get more work. It's just that right now I'm feeling a little wistful for the job security of a tenured faculty member that I left to follow my dream. On the bright side, I am going to have more time to get back to the blog. I've missed it.


  1. You were sure brave to step out of the security a long time ago. I have the feeling with this set back it will only be temporary. (I pray it only be temporarty for you) It is difficult times all over. Several of my family members have found themselves on the other side of the door now too.

    (but my blood is boiling after seeing Obama bow to the king of Saudi, we on one sale away to being owned by another country) He didn't even bother to pretend to bow to the Queen of England!

    Scary Scary times for America!

  2. And Grandpa we missed you! But truth be told I'd rather miss you and know that you are busy and doing OK!

    I hear you about the human contact thing. There were times in the early 90's, when I worked from home, that I'd go for hours without using my voice!

    Peace - Rene

  3. I've missed you, Grandpa, and I'm sure you will find more work soon.

  4. Sounds a bit like taxi driving...

    We missed you, but hoped it was the puppy....Aloha!

  5. It takes a lot of bravery to go freelance. Hang in there.

  6. Just catching up on blog postings after Good Friday, sorry to hear this news...

    Good luck, Grandpa

  7. Well, there's a lot of cliches for situations like this. Things like "When a door closes, a window opens." But, that doesn't feel very helpful. So, instead I'll send you warm wishes for peace in your heart and mind as you work through all of this. Maybe spring is a good time to do this- kind of like cleaning the closets- which I so totally should have done with my kids gone for a week, but I decided to drink martinis instead.

    I would suggest the martinis!