Finding Worth in Work

Today is a milestone, an anniversary I reach with mixed emotions. Fifteen years ago today, I left the corporate world and began my freelancing career.

Still full of hard-hitting journalism...or something

Still full of hard-hitting journalism...or something

At times, I am amazed that I have been able to pay my bills for so long as a self-employed writer. I didn’t really seek out the freelance life, though I have to come love parts of it (just parts). In 1994, I was coming up on over five years of service at Weekly Reader Corporation, publisher of the classroom news magazine for kids. I didn’t seek out writing for kids either, but after leaving grad school sans degree, I needed a job, WRC was hiring, and it was a paying writing gig. Somehow I convinced them I could do the work, and a career was born.

Going-away party, August 1994: Jack Sutcliffe, to my left; the best boss. RIP, Jack.

Going-away party, August 1994: Jack Sutcliffe, to my left; the best boss. RIP, Jack.

But by ’94, my good life writing for the kiddies had taken a bad turn. In a personnel shakeup, I went from working for the best boss I ever had to the one of the worst. Add to that getting dicked around on a performance review, because of the bad boss and a lying executive editor, and I was ready to move on. I didn’t know if I had the discipline to freelance, but it seemed worth a shot. Plus, my wife at the time had a good job with benefits and she was supportive (whatever else was not right about marriage #2, I am always grateful for that).

The first gigs were none too lucrative. 25 bucks here, 30 bucks there, writing news articles for a variety of local periodicals. Including the Catholic Transcript, which in retrospect is pretty funny. Hell, it was funny then. The first assignment, on a Catholic charity that helped Haitian immigrants, was no problem. But when they wanted me to cover an anti-abortion conference…well, I told them they best find another hired pen.

The first job in children’s publishing came soon after, using a contact I had gotten from a former Weekly Reader comrade. The assignment: three books in a series about “monster kids” adapting to life in the human world. Under the oh-so-clever pen name of Gertrude Gruesome, I wrote Boris Bigfoot’s Big Feat, the uplifting tale of the misfit Boris, a sasquatch new to town, who wins friends with his exploits on the soccer field. Profound stuff, I can assure you.

Some 200 books later (but as I always say, they’re small books) and counting, I am still writing for kids. Not many stabs at fiction, a la Boris, but a few. Mostly the history books and bios that have become my niche. The work has been steady; this year was the first time I really worried about getting new assignments.

So, reflections on 15 years as a freelancer: It’s not for everyone. You do have to have discipline to roll out of bed and go to work with no one standing over you. My finely honed sense of Catholic guilt helps (hmm, maybe I should have stayed with the Transcript), since I abhor the thought of letting someone down or breaking my word. And some people would probably wither without the human contact work provides. That was never a problem for me, until Chicago. Go all day without as much as a phone call? Heaven. But in Chicago, with no social circle to speak of, I did crave seeing and talking to people  outside of  Samantha. It was really bad whenever she went away.

The pluses of freelancing are obvious; no one is documenting your every move or blocking websites. You can cut out early to run errands, you can go to matinee movies (much more common for me before Chicago), you can turn down projects that just don’t feel right. I have done the latter more so in the last few years, when taking fewer jobs and making less money was ok, if it meant a better chance of keeping my sanity. (Though whether I’ve kept it is debatable, I know.)

Fifteen years into this unintended career, I have mixed feelings. I do cherish the freedom freelancing has given me, and all the time I never lost to stupid, boring meetings and inane conversations with co-workers. I might only work six hours some day, but it’s all work, and I feel productive. I can take those extra hours to cook, go to appointments, write blogs. And if I have to work some weekends when a crunch comes, that’s OK, because I know I can make up for it when I want to.

Another plus: I continue to learn. I know more about American history than I did after spending four years as a history major, more about science and other topics I never knew interested me. Basically, for large chunks of a given year, I get paid to read, though we in the biz call it doing research. How do you beat that?

But on the flipside…15 years is a long time to do basically the same thing, even though the topics might change from month to month. (Might — you end up doing many books on the American Revolution and the states if you stay in this niche long enough.) Writing for kids, especially in certain series, is formulaic and at times stultifying, when reading levels and word counts dictate so much of what you do. And pay — well, in 15 years, very few publishers have acknowledged this strange concept called inflation when they set their fees. We freelancers often get paid slave wages and royalties are a rarity. Work for hire, baby; you turn it in and the publisher owns it. You move on to the next book.

I think about trying other forms of freelancing, something for an adult audience, that would let me stretch out a bit and perhaps pay more. But that would mean, at first, writing on spec, and that frightens me after all these years of steady pay with a core group of clients who know and like my work. I talk about a sabbatical, to focus on playwriting, but something in life always thwarts that — like moving and buying a house. So I remain locked in the routine.

Could I return to cubicle hell?

Could I return to cubicle hell?

Then I think about looking for a writing job with a company, outside the house; a university would be cool. I would finally get some of that social interaction I’ve started to miss. But even the best 9-to-5 job is just that, structured, with daily expectations from bosses and co-workers. Yes, my clients expect things from me too, but it’s less onerous when they’re hundreds or thousands of miles away, and all they care about is that due date six weeks from now, not whether I show up on time for another stupid, boring meeting. And even the best boss might get tired of hearing my pleas to cut out early so I can miss the long lines at Trader Joe’s.

So, all these years later, I feel trapped in a not-so-terrible, yet not totally satisfying place. Too enamored of the positives and too scared of the negatives to do something different to break the underlying angst. In some ways, a distillation of the Crisis. I’ll get up tomorrow and start year 16, thinking about what could be different about my work life, for good and ill. I’ll sit down in front of the computer and start to churn out the words, just like so many days before. Maybe next year something will change. Maybe next year I’ll get out of the routine that pays the bills but feels more like a rut. Maybe…

Happy anniversary.

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~ by mburgan on August 6, 2009.

6 Responses to “Finding Worth in Work”

  1. Funny, I had reason yesterday to look up this quote, from one of my favorite people, Utah Phillips:

    “Toil is what you do for somebody else; work is what you do for yourself,” he explained. “One of the struggles of life is finding your own work, and you’ve got to do a lot of different kinds of toil to do that. But sooner or later, once you’ve understood and found what your work is, you pick up the phone and call in well.”

    Seemed appropriate. I have a cubicle job, and it has a lot of the same issues that your freelance job has, at least in terms of my relationship to it. “too enamored of the positives and too scared of the negatives” is the perfect way to describe it.

    That’s why I find Utah’s words soothing. Thinking about my daily toil as learning the skills for when I figure out what my work is…that’s not quite as bad as calculating the number of work days until retirement…

  2. Nice to hear from you! Good quote and great comment. I’m not quite counting the days till retirement, and I’m thankful I have a skill I can do for a long time, assuming my mind doesn’t go, but the thought of doing this till I’m 70 or so does depress me at times. And the days when I call in well lately seem to be few. I try to remind myself of the good I have gotten out of this before — and try to think I’m doing a greater good by helping to educate kids — but some days it’s tough. Thanks again.

  3. This is great information. I’m starting to get story ideas zooming in my head.

  4. Glad you liked it, and spahceeba for reading.

  5. Actually, I have always felt I should get a cut of your book royalities since I was so supportive of your freelance career, and particularly since we stopped getting a regular paycheck and lived off of mine. So let’s see. I was financially and emotinally supportive. Don’t you think wife #2 should get two positive marks versus one???? (Ha, Ha!).

    How are you??

  6. Hell, I’ll give you three. Wow, that was a shock, seeing a comment from you–a nice shock. How am I…well, a deeper delve into the blog would answer that pretty well. In a nutshell–OK. Would love to catch up some time, if you could bear it.

    As far as the royalties: What royalties? With two exceptions, I am just a hired hack, cranking this stuff out for a flat fee. But I’ll give you a copy of one of my books. I get plenty of those.

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