Freelancing: The Art of Saying Yes
This is the story of how I came to stand within arm's length of Annie Leibovitz as she led a small group of writers and photographers through her highly-touted, extraordinarily personal new exhibit: Pilgrimage.
But wait. Back up. Hold the phone. This is a writing site. A reading site. Why do you care about me getting to see a really famous photographer? Why am I talking about this?
Well, see...the point is, a year ago a moment like that would have been impossible for me. Doors were closed. Windows were locked. But then I started freelancing—writing arts feature stories and columns—and though I'm not going to get rich doing it, the benefits (i.e. a personal tour given by Leibovitz) have been unexpected. Exciting, even. And it all happened because I said "yes," a few times, when some key questions were lobbed my way.
So let's back up, just a little further. A little over a year ago, the time was nigh for me to quit my day job as a computer software analyst and focus fully on my writing. It sounds so cliche, I know, but bear with me. I had one book out, another on the way, and two others in various stages of writing and editing. It seemed like a really good time to shift the focus of my professional life.
So I quit. My last day was in January, 2013. At first, it was thrilling. I was writer, hear me...squeak?
Because then I panicked. Because holy shit you guys I wasn't making money! And I needed money!
As it turns out, having an eBook out through a small press publisher isn't exactly lucrative. And though my husband was completely on board, and reassured me multiple times a day that I didn't need my own cash flow, it wasn't enough for my hyperventilating brain. I've had my own source of income since I was ten years old (babysitting my way through middle school, high school and college, plus lifeguarding, a bakery job, and then grown up jobs). I wasn't okay with being completely dependent on anyone.
In short, I needed to make some cash. And so I panicked.
"I should quit writing and go back to work," I said, over and over again. The response was always the same: a dirty look, a shake of the head. No. We were committed to my writing career. Even if I wasn't.
Finally, my husband had the idea of the century. "Why not write for the paper," he suggested one night in response to another of my panic attacks. For him, "the paper" meant a cool, edgy, weekly publication for which he'd written in the past. "You write arts stuff and columns on your web site. Why not do it for them?"
A million reasons to say "NO" bubbled up in my head. "I'm not qualified." "I'm neither cool nor edgy." "I don't know those people, they could be scary." "I'm afraid."
But instead I sighed. "Yes," I said, hardly convincing myself. "Good idea."
I reached out to the Editor-in-Chief the next day, using my husband as a reference. She put me in touch with their news and arts editors, who had questions of their own.
The news editor asked, "Are you willing to write a try-out piece?"
The Internal No's bubbled up again. "No way! You're gonna turn me down anyway. I'm not good enough."
Externally I said, "Sure. Of course." And I did, and he liked it. Suddenly I had a job.
Later, the arts editor asked, "Are you willing to do theater reviews ever?"
The Internal No's reminded me I hadn't seen a play since moving to this city ten years ago, and that I had no idea how to write a review.
I said, "Sure! I'd love to! I used to go to the theater all the time."
Suddenly I had a second job.
Since then, I've gone to dozens of plays and gotten to know a ton about our amazing local theater community. I've written dozens of reviews. I've also written opinion pieces. Some have received great feedback, others have been trolled by commenters so vicious they've almost made me cry. But the point is...I'm writing, professionally, and with every piece I learn something new.
Somewhere along the way, my arts editor asked, "Could you write a profile piece on a visual artist?"
Those pesky Internal No's said, "No way! You never even took an art history class!"
I said, "Sure!" and that opened up whole new avenues. Suddenly I was talking to some of the best local artists, writing bigger and broader articles. I was learning, tons, and putting that learning to good use. Later, an actual magazine reached out to me to write some articles, and though I felt in over my head, I said yes again. Suddenly I was on the phone with internationally renowned painters and emailing with some of the best museum curators in the city. I've gone to gallery openings where million dollar paintings have hung on the walls. It's been a bit of a whirlwind.
And I'm getting paid for all this! Like, real money! Not a ton of money, by any means, but real money of my own. It's insane.
Early on in this crazy process, I read a book by John Scalzi: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. It's all about making a living (any kind of living) as a professional writer, and one thing he said was to write anything. Everything. If someone offers you a writing job, take it. You never know where it'll lead, and what you'll learn. That's possibly the best writing advice I've ever received, because it's been so true for me.Every time I've said "yes," I've wound up somewhere new and fun and exciting.
Like next to Annie Leibovitz. On a Wednesday, my arts editor emailed me and said, "Hey, do you want to go to this gallery opening? Annie Leibovitz will be leading the tour. It's only about a two hour drive."
The Internal No's said, "Forget it. You never drive that far on your own. You don't know anything about photography. You should stay home and get work done."
"Sure," I said. "Sounds amazing!"
And it was a brilliant day. Leibovitz was generous with her time and advice, leading us around the exhibit and showing us the photos that really meant something to her. I learned that portraits are, for her, just a job. Always just a job, no matter how amazing they are. But for her, these photos of special places around the country (Elvis's childhood home, Dickinson's brother's house) were her art. Her love. She does her job so she can photograph the things she loves.
Sound familiar? I do my job so I can also do the writing I love. It was great advice.
I'm not going to get rich freelancing, but it's given me at least a modicum of independence, which is something I desperately need in order to feel sane. It's also broadened the scope of my world.
And now that it's nearing the New Year, and I bet you're thinking about making some resolutions, here are my tips for starting your own freelancing career, just to see where it'll take you.
Find a starting point
There are probably small, local publications in your town or city. Start there, or somewhere similarly small. Reach out and see if they need a new freelancer. I bet they're looking. They're almost always looking.
Don't be afraid
No matter what, you're building your resume, one assignment at a time.
Don't worry about the money
At least not at first. Some small publications are notoriously slow when it comes to paying, and you're not in this for the money anyway. You're in it for the experience. But know that the money will come with time.
Try new things. Give it a go. Fake it 'til you make it. You'd be surprised by how far you can get by being a decent writer, and by being willing to talk to people and learn new things. But...
Know your limits
When a magazine asked me to write a 3,000 word article about modern interior design, I finally had to say no. I know nothing about modern interior design, and 3,000 words is an awful lot of words to fake. Sometimes you do need to say no, turn down an assignment, but those moments will probably be few and far between.
So now I say: good luck. I've very much enjoyed my year as a freelancer. It eventually brought me here, to you, so clearly it's been worthwhile. I've made new friends, found new communities within my city and around the world. And nowadays, when people ask me what I do for a living, I answer, loud and clear, "I'm a writer."
Because it's true! I am! And you can be one too!
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