The free* life

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I’ve spent the last seven or eight months wandering through the strange, sometimes exhilarating, often scary world of freelance writing.

Like anything (or most things) that have to do with work, freelancing has its good and its bad. It is work that is, blissfully, “location independent” (a term that I learned from the subjects of a piece I did for Mother Nature Network). While freelancing the last half-year-plus, I’ve tapped away in my office upstairs, at the breakfast room table, at the dining room table, sitting here on the couch on my back deck and inside a couple different Paneras in town. I could — theoretically — do this from a Panera in Punjab (I’ll look that up later).

No office. No office politics. No commute, usually, and if there is, it’s often on my terms. That’s beautiful.

Plus, really: fluorescent lights and a cubicle or a nice corner booth with a cup of tea? Those MNN subjects call it a “laptop lifestyle.”

Of course, I have to find subject matter that interests me, and then I have to talk someone into paying me for it. Lacking either part of that equation, I write things that people want me to write. Which is sometimes OK. Most times it’s OK. Sometimes it’s not. It can be, as they say in the biz, a bit hacky. But, as they say in the biz, too; it pays.

I’ve averaged at least three pieces a week for various outlets over the past seven or eight months. Some weeks carry a lot more work — I cranked out six last week, with four of them pretty major pieces. Some weeks are slower.

The uncertainty is one thing. What’s scarier is that, so far, the pay is … not good. I’m not going to get into the specifics. But for me to make what I was making at the full-time gig that I quit last winter, at the going rates out there right now, I’d have to write — I don’t know — maybe twice as many stories? More? Probably more. Probably way more. And when you’re writing five or six stories in some weeks anyway, that’s pretty darn impossible. Unless you want to get really hacky.

freelance-728x520So, yeah, the pay isn’t good. And, of course, sometimes it’s downright awful, especially on those slow weeks where the only work I’m scaring up are the really, really, hack-em-out pieces. And, of course again, when I take time off, I get zero. Nothing. There are no paid vacations, not in this gig. Not yet, at least.

All that said … freelancing, as a career, can be done. Mary Jo did it for close to 17 years and made very, very good money at it. Good full-time money. I know others who have done it, too, to varying degrees.

But the ground has shifted out there over the past decade. Fewer news outlets employ full-time writers now, and many of those that do put them on contract, often without any benefits. That’s flooded the market with a lot of good, once full-time writers who can knock out 500 or 800 or 1,000 words on just about any subject you want.

Now, to be honest, there are a lot — ohhhhh, a lot — of hacks out there, too. Guys (and women) who think they’re Hemingway and offer up some flowery opus when all the editors want is a damn 500-word piece. (I know: I’ve been that editor.) Hacks who turn in copy all full of spelling errors, with sentences you have to read five times to understand, with run-ons and absolute fistfights of noun-verb disagreements, with stray capital letters and lazy (or non-existent) research and reporting, with strangled analogies and sentences with way too many commas and …

OK. I’ll stop.

There’s competition out there. That’s what I’m saying. Some of the hacks are good, some are bad, but every one, it seems, wants the few hundred bucks that I’m after.

I’m not sure yet how this phase of my career will turn out. I could, somehow, start to find the great-paying gigs, dig up a few outlets that love me and want to pay me regularly and make a real living writing stuff I want to write. When I want to write it. Where I want to do it. It could happen.

I could find a full-time writing job again that interests me. That’d be beautiful. A godsend, really. Or a full-time gig that has some writing in it and interests me. And, you know, pays a million bucks a year.

But, as I said, you can’t bank on that.

Whatever the next phase, this has been good for me, I think. It’s tossed me back into writing, something I did almost none of in the past six years. The past seven or eight months have sharpened my interviewing skills, forced me to juggle a bunch of stories at once and re-taught me how to write on deadline. I’ve talked to some really cool people in the past several months; neurosurgeons, ophthalmologists and doctors of all sorts, college professors, a fireworks expert, inventors, thru-hikers and world travelers, cheese aficionados and oyster experts. Different people. Smart people. Interesting people. People who, unlike professional athletes, actually want to talk to you to share their stories.

In these past few months, I started this blog, too. I even keep it up occasionally.

So it’s been fun, and rewarding, and exciting and all that, other than the pay thing. It’s been worth it, I think, even with the pay thing. And in the end, it’s paid off because I now know that, yes, Punjab is a place. In India. Next to Pakistan.

I wonder if they have a Panera.

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