Freelancing Tales: Back in the Low LifeBy Mason Lerner May 22nd, 2014
As I write this, I’m wearing a white undershirt, basketball shorts—even though I haven’t hooped since the 90s—and flip flops. I’m at my own desk, pecking away at my laptop, both of my dogs on the bed just a few feet behind me. I can hear them farting and playfully nipping at each other. And with each canine fart comes the sweet stank of independence.
Why? Because for the first time since 2008, I am working as a freelance writer—back from the dark side. As something of a rebellious thinker, I’m excited to try to control my own destiny instead of make ends meet as a corporate robot.
Actually, let me qualify that. I now control my own destiny in the sense that I can go after work that interests me, but the life of a freelancer doesn’t come with any guarantees. I could do everything right and still not score work. And chasing payment can always be a problem. I’m not saying it’s all dog farts and rainbows. Believe me. But there is a sense of freedom that comes from killing your meal every day.
But there is a sense of freedom that comes from killing your meal every day.
After spending the last year sitting on my tush doing very little as a copywriter at a tech firm, I relish the occupational freedom. Life is what happens when you’re trying to pay the bills, and for the last 12 months, that has been very little for me. My brain was atrophying in a corporate “hurry up and do nothing” atmosphere.
I suppose I should rewind and explain how I got here. From 2000 to 2008, I supported myself as a freelance writer. Although I worked briefly as a general assignment reporter for the Galveston County Daily News, the majority of my professional life depended on my ability to develop relationships with different publications such as the Houston Chronicle and ESPN The Magazine.
Unfortunately, the market really dried up in 2008, about 15 minutes after John McCain, then soapboxing for the White House, assured us the fundamentals of our economy were strong. It turns out they weren’t, and overnight, just about every paying client I had stopped buying stories. The Houston Chronicle largely stopped using freelancers altogether.
I went through a brief period working at a deli in a grocery store before taking a job as a glorified maintenance guy at the Jewish Community Association of Austin. I did not have any of my work for sale at the Austin Jewish Book Fair, but I did set up the tables and chairs at many of the events. I was still freelancing where I could, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was so hard to sell a story at that time, and I got complacent with a regular check.
I was in line at Target buying dog food when I got a call from Lee James, recruitment coordinator for the Killeen Daily Herald, inviting me in for an interview to be their city reporter. Even though Killeen was an hour-and-fifteen-minute commute, and I found the idea of being a city reporter about as exciting as watching a Jacksonville Jaguars preseason game, I accepted the job. Being a grunt worker at the Jewish Community Center had been a solid life experience, but I felt a staff job at a newspaper could get my journalism career pulsing again.
After a year of commuting to Killeen, I landed a position closer to home last May as a copywriter in the Austin office of an Illinois-based tech firm that manufactures components for Apple products. To say it was boring would give boredom a bad rap. It was beyond boring; it was insulting. There were weeks when I actually did nothing. The little work I did do mostly involved writing a sentence or two about a product.
The job’s only appealing perk was an office pool table, which the company purchased eight months after I started. I’m also pretty sure the pool table got me canned. Several employees essentially became semi-pro pool players in the sense that we were being paid by the company to shoot pool when the work was light.
One day, I joked that as long as we played all the time, the bosses couldn’t fire everyone. Unfortunately, one corporate lackey was playing with us, and he raised his eyebrows when I made the comment. Apparently, he was able to take time out of his busy schedule to shoot a little stick and gather intelligence on his colleagues. Days later, the office manager met with the other two players and asked them to focus on work.
When I was called in, the office manager told me I was being let go because the company wanted to hire an advertising copywriter instead of whatever the hell it is I was hired to do. I didn’t expect to get fired, but I was very happy to never have to come back. I had been hanging onto a job I hated just for the check. I do miss the pool quite a bit. There are other tables out there, but it’s not the same. If I could do one thing differently, I would have dropped to my knees and given that table a huge hug before I left for good.
But a great pool table is clearly not enough to justify professional misery. In the month since my position was “eliminated,” I’ve had time to reflect and reorganize my professional goals. I’ve come to the conclusion being my own boss is the only path that’s right for me, even if it leads financial uncertainty.
Freelance writing is the opposite of lucrative—I don’t have a wife; I don’t have any kids; and after my last job, I realize there is no reason for me to work a job I hate. As long as I can take care of my dogs and keep a roof over our heads, there isn’t much else I need to worry about.
I know intellectual satisfaction won’t pay the electric bill, but it does have value. I’ve interviewed dynamic entrepreneurs, a UFC heavyweight champion, and a professional wrestling champion for the Houston Chronicle. I’ve also interviewed a world boxing champion for ESPN The Magazine and the Associated Press. And, I hope by doing what I love, and doing it well, eventually the money will follow. Not having to punch in at a nine each morning gives me the time I need to focus on my own dreams. I am currently working on the comic book and film scripts I could never dive into when I was on the clock for 40 hours per week.
Now, I feel like I’m on the clock constantly, but a different clock that won’t crush my soul. My mind is always working on a plot, a character, a story to pitch. In fact, after I submit this essay, I’ll be taking my dogs on a long walk and putting some thought into a comic book story arc about Zusya, a Hasidic gunfighter in the Old West who runs afoul of a lost tribe of feral Yetis. My creative juices are flowing in a way that seemed impossible to me not very long ago.
All I have to do now is turn that creative energy into revenue. Then, I’ll buy my own pool table.
Image via Chud