People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!
Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!
One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.
So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.
We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.
Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!
I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.
In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.
This time, it’s The Pool, a popular and terrific five-year-old UK website aimed at women, now “in administration” (i.e. bankrupt) and screwing lots of furious freelancers out of the payment we earned and are owed and rely on.
You don’t think to check the records at Companies House in case an outwardly successful, much-loved, well-read website is in fact £760,000 in debt, has an outstanding personal loan of £40,000, borrowed £250,000 against the company’s assets and lost £1.8 million in the previous financial year. As a freelancer, you can’t possibly be aware of office politics, or worrying signs such as the fact that the entire board bar one resigned in August 2018. None of the staff tell you. Why would they? Maybe they don’t know.
Besides, they need your copy. They keep commissioning you, right through the Christmas period and into early January, only stopping — or so it seems — once they are outed first on Facebook and then on Twitter by a mounting number of freelancers who haven’t been paid.
I’m out about $300 — a hit we can afford to take (reluctantly!) because we have savings and a fairly low overhead. But many others relied on The Pool for our due payments — to pay for rent, food and other necessities.
Creditors don’t care why we’re suddenly and unexpectedly short.
They just expect to be paid on time.
I learned young to be wary of others’ glossy appearance or promises of payment.
I’ve been selling my photos and writing as a freelancer since I was 19, when, one summer, I sold my photos on the street in Toronto. I was so flattered when a smooth, well-dressed, charming woman ordered a large color print of my work — and sent me a rubber check. She assumed I was ill-equipped to fight back.
I sent her a lawyer’s letter and got paid in full, quickly.
I see too many people now desperate for emotional or professional validation — “I’m a writer! I got published!” — when some of those commissioning this material are shysters or going broke and no one tells us this — until, suddenly, we’re all screwed.
As soon as I started to fear (and hear rumors of this disaster at The Pool) I might not get paid, I Googled the company and found everything I needed to know; senior editors quitting months ago en masse, financial chaos, huge debts.
No one selling their skills to strangers — basically what we do when we work without a steady, secure salary and benefits –– can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the ethics and financial health of their clients. It’s why finding and using reliable networks of writing peers is crucial — intel!
Everyone who wants to freelance needs savings!
In other recent freelance writing news…
— Was excited to write about a cool new Montreal company last year — it, too, just went bankrupt. I successfully re-pitched as “What happened to this great idea that sucked up $17 million in investments?”
— Was coaching a young writer for about six weeks but that work (and income) abruptly ended when the student ran out of money.
— Picked up a new anchor client (i.e. steady income!), and now scrambling to meet weekly deadlines for them.
— Made the error of politely disagreeing on Twitter with a highly opinionated science writer who went batshit on me until I blocked her. Later, privately, a writer who knows her (and her shitty temper) reached out to comfort me. Both were strangers.
— Interviewed a fellow journalist/author via Skype about his new book, gobsmacked by the opulence of the room he was sitting in. Was this a luxury hotel? Was that his living room? Good Lord, what am I doing so wrong?!
— Last fall I’d hoped to pitch a great little story perfect for The New York Times’ Metropolitan section, one of the few sections left there I haven’t written, for but my radiation treatment/exhaustion scotched that. I finally traveled to Brooklyn to interview middle school students for it, with Jose as my chauffeur. It’s so comforting to have him help me!
— Finally emailed an editor with whom I feared we’d had a rough ending last fall. He wrote back immediately to say, No, not at all. Whew!
— Have a new book idea. Will have to see if it’s even worth writing a proposal.
— Sent an unsold book idea to a colleague and now await news if her agent is willing to read it or even rep it.
And we’re both at an age when no one is likely to offer us a well-paid, full-time job in our industry and we do apply.
Survival is wholly on us.
I love living on the Hudson River
Money is a proxy for power, influence, access, status.
It’s how many people — especially in the United States — measure success. If you aren’t flaunting your wealth, you must not have any. Loser!
It also buys food and gas and housing and medical care and clothes and shoes and school tuition and books and music and beer and trips to visit people we love.
We live (in a one bedroom apartment) in a very wealthy area, wealth-adjacent as it were — one man in our small church wrote a personal check for $250,000 to buy the new organ. The women here who stay at home full-time focusing all their Ivy educated energy on their children chirp at me: “Are you still writing?” as if my life’s work, albeit in a poorly-paid creative field, were a hobby, like macrame or raising chickens.
I grew up in a family that had a lot of money, at times. My father and his second wife worked in film and TV, the household income dictated by the whims of whoever they were trying to sell their talents to. We had, as I’ve blogged here before, cotton years and cashmere years.
My maternal grandmother, whose father was a Chicago real estate developer and investor, inherited a massive sum in the 1960s — and spent it as if it were something radioactive to be gotten rid of as fast as possible. Hence, I witnessed, with a mixture of awe and envy, an extraordinary solo life of gold-topped canes, lush furs, raw silk custom-made muumuus with matching turbans, enormous jewels and limousines everywhere. When she died, in 1975, my mother had to sell everything to pay off death duties to the Ontario government and decades of unpaid income tax to the Canadian and U.S. government.
I own only two objects that were Granny’s — a 60’s-era gold ring and an antique pocket watch. Interestingly, Jose’s only family object is also a pocket watch, and a small black native American piece of pottery.
Jose grew up the son of a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, NM, in church housing, and attended four years of state university on a church-supplied scholarship.
I was lucky enough to have a monthly income at 18, thanks to that grandmother, just enough to live alone and pay my own way through four years of university, (plus a lot of freelance work.) I’ve had decades thinking/worrying about money every day and how best to manage it.
I’ve had staff jobs, two of them well-paid, but knew they would never last. They just don’t, in our industry, especially if you don’t schmooze or flatter those in power.
A cafe table in Montreal, one of our many pleasures…
For me, money is a tool: when there’s enough left over, you travel and renovate and buy a decent used car for cash and buy the best clothes and shoes and household goods possible because it can, and will, disappear overnight, and often without warning.
So you also save and save and save and save and save!
I lost income in 2018 producing two (unsold) non-fiction book proposals, then six months’ dealing with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
We do have decent savings, some of which — again — we’re going to have to access to survive 2019.
Our single greatest cost?
No surprise here for any American reader: $1,700 a month for our health insurance plus another $2,000 in co-pays (out of pocket payments) for specific medical visits.
It is more than our monthly mortgage payment —- and is non-negotiable. Even if we lived in a hut in the woods, we’d still need it.
Both my parents grew up rich, and each promised to eventually leave me some of their money but one lied for decades and spent every dime on herself.
How does money — or the lack of it — play out in your life?
This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.
Some of what I’ve been up to:
— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.
— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.
—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.
— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)
— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.
— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.
— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.
— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)
— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.
— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York TimesMagazine (twice); no answer.
— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.
— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.
— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.
— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.
— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.
— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.
— Blogged, as usual.
— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)
— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!
— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.
— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.
Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.
And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.
It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.
You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!
It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.
A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.
People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)
Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.
American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.
The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.
Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.
I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.
I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.
Thanks to Twitter, I also met up in Berlin with Jens Notroff, an archeologist who works on Gobekli Tepe, a 12,000 year-old Neolithic site in Turkey and Dorothée Lefering, a travel blogger whose post about Rovinj, Croatia impelled me to stay there for a glorious week last July. I’d never even heard of it before!
We all met for lunch at Pauly Saal (a trendy restaurant) in Berlin last July, thanks to “meeting” them regularly through several weekly Twitterchats focused on travel — and Jens and I bonded for certain after trading the lyrics to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Now, thanks to Insta, I’m reviving my photography skills; I began my journalism career as a teenager selling three cover photos to a Toronto magazine, then sold to Time, The New York Times, Washington Post and more.
I love how my Smartphone has made me hyper-aware of my surroundings once more. The glossy perfection and waayyyyyyy too many selfies of Instagram don’t appeal to me, but I’m loving the global reach it offers.
I also spend a lot of time on Facebook participating in online-only women’s writing groups, where we find friendship, freelance work, staff jobs, mentoring and moral support. At worst, it can get ugly and weird, but at best it’s my daily water cooler, as someone who works alone at home in the boring suburbs of New York.
(It costs me $25+ in train and subway fare into New York City to meet people face to face, so social media offers us all an easy and affordable option.)
But I also plan play dates — this week an Oscar-viewing night with a neighbor, lunch here with an editor, a Canadian consulate event at the Tenement Museum in New York City, and meeting friends for dinner in Harlem at Red Rooster.
My weekends are also filled with in-person social activities from now through mid-April, so I don’t feel isolated and lonely, which social media can create online interaction is all you do.
Facebook was also useful recently in a highly unusual way — with a local woman reporting to our town in real time that a woman had been shot in an apartment complex nearby, that the shooter was on the loose (!) and that’s why we heard police helicopters overheard for hours.
(She died and he was captured in New York City at the bus station.)
The hashtag for our town’s zip code, whose Facebook page has thousands of members, was the single best place to find out what was happening.
So much for the Labor Day weekend; a client expected a full revision of a 3,000-word story due first thing Monday. Holiday? What holiday? Good thing I had no plans.
One of my sales this summer was my first story for House Beautiful
Chased a story all week that I think could be a terrific one, but will also require an editor to pay some travel expenses, which many hate to do. It’s not, like most stories I work on now, something I can report by phone or email, and will be in a different U.S. city. The process of getting to a story is rarely linear; this one involves someone I know who made an introduction to the publicist for the event who will decide if I can have access to it. If she says yes, then I still have to write up a persuasive pitch and sell it to an editor who can pay me enough money to make the story even worth doing financially. It’s a fun story, but I have to make money at this.
Journalism is my business, not a hobby!
I was invited to address a room full of graduate journalism students at CUNY, in midtown Manhattan. I joined a sports reporter/editor and a radio news reporter whose voice I’ve heard on-air for many years. That was cool! The host of the event is a man who lives in D.C. who I “met” via Twitter and had only spoken to once by phone. So much of our industry is finding like-minded souls with solid credentials. He and I met for breakfast and had a great time getting to know one another.
I found it amusing and telling that — when he asked all three of us to offer three pieces of advice to new journalists — we all agreed that get some sleep was key.
My suburban New York train station, Tarrytown
I do a lot of this sort of thing — for no payment. My trainfare just to get into New York City was $31, plus cab fare plus lunch. The day was pretty much shot for getting any work done, but I really enjoy meeting new people and seeing my friends so it’s all a good investment of time and energy. I like working alone at home but it gets really lonely!
Met a fellow journalist friend, (now job-hunting), for lunch, a late lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, Keen’s Chophouse, in business since 1885. I love its black and white tiled bar-room floor, the rows of 50,000 clay pipes wired to the ceiling, its frosted glass windows making the noisy, bustling city outside disappear. We each had a busy summer — she went to Israel and I went to Europe.
Last year, a young friend of mine worked in Asia as a photographer and, in Thailand, met a young woman who read (!?) my blog. Unlikely, but true. This week, we spoke via Skype as we discussed a project she hopes to work on independently, now that she’s back in the U.S. and working at a newspaper in a western U.S. state. I love coaching other writers, so if you need help, check out my webinars and classes here.
Called the French farmer I’m going to interview, to confirm our meeting. I love being able to work in French but haven’t done it since I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. I normally don’t use a tape recorder but will take one this time for back-up.
Spuyten Duyvil train station, as the commuter train heads north along the eastern shore of the Hudson River
Took Amtrak from a station near our home to Montreal, a city I lived in in my late 20s and for a year when I was 12. It’s a fun city to visit, with great food and lots of charm. I went north to report a story, working in French, for an editor in Alabama. Met a new young friend for brunch at Beautys a classic Montreal diner, in business since 1942 — she’s someone I heard speaking at a conference in New York last spring and stayed in touch with. (FYI, Beauty’s should have an apostrophe — but Quebec language laws insist that all signage and names be in French.)
Found my little gray coin purse where I keep my Canadian money and my Canadian bank card; I grew up in Toronto and Montreal and we go back at least once or twice a year. I miss my home country, especially now when every day in the United States offers yet another political and/or environmental disaster.
Got an update regarding the late Kim Wall, a 30-year-old fellow freelance journalist, whose death I blogged about here:
The Kim Wall Memorial Fund was established by her family and friends to honor Kim’s spirit and legacy. The grant will fund a young female reporter to cover subculture, broadly defined, and what Kim liked to call “the undercurrents of rebellion.”
The funds collected will be directed to the International Women’s Media Foundation, a steadfast ally to women journalists, who have agreed to support and administer this grant
If you’ve never tried working freelance — i.e. no job, no salary, no paid sick or vacation days — it can look cool.
I’ve been doing it since 2006 (and for periods before then as well), and enjoy it.
It’s rarely dull.
Here’s some of what this week has been like:
I pitched a story to The New York Times, realizing, two weeks after returning from an overheated, often non air conditioned Europe, that it’s an uncomfortable, even dangerous, situation for travelers and hotel owners.
And one only likely to worsen with climate change.
I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, and had previously written for that specific editor, so he quickly replied to my emailed pitch — but I had barely four days in which to find all my sources, interview them and write the story.
Thanks to my active life on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, I soon found what I needed.
I’m working on a big (3,000 words) story for a local university about their school. Have been doing interviews for weeks, some by phone, some in person. It’s a challenging assignment and one I’m enjoying, but it has a lot of moving parts. Did seven interviews, in person, in one day on campus — pooped! Slept 10 hours and took the next day off entirely to recover.
During one of the interviews, heard a deeply distressing story of murder in someone’s life. I didn’t react much, which — to those who don’t know any journalists personally — can make us look cold and unfeeling. Not so! One of the keys to success as a journalist is being able to manage and control the most powerful of emotions, even in the moment, and stay focused on your goal — reporting the story. It can, and does, lead to some trauma later as you process it eventually, or don’t.
I speak fluent French, so I was asked to interpret between an editor in Alabama and a French-speaking farmer in Quebec to determine if there was enough to produce a story. There is, so I’ll be heading north to Quebec soon to report and write it.
A former client in Chicago sent me an assignment they needed done right away —- and had to turn it down because they needed it fast and, for once, I’m too busy at the moment.
I emailed editors in New York City and London to follow up on personal meetings to see if there’s work I can produce for them — no answer, so far. It’s normal for even people who know me and my work to take a while to respond. You can’t freak out or take it personally.
Pitched another idea to a new client who loved it — have to constantly be pitching ideas or the income stream dries up fast! Bills never stop arriving, funny thing.
Jose and I took a day off to explore the North Shore of Long Island, about a 2.5 hour drive from our home. In our years together, we’ve been to Paris together a few times — but never there.
Found this astonishing Spanish chest — 17th century? — in a local antique shop.
She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!
One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.
So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.
It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.
We’re still figuring it out.
When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.
How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?
How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?
Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?
That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.
I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.
I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.
Rejection is normal.
If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.
Figure out what didn’t work and move on.
Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.
We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!
Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.
Peace of mind.
I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.
I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.
Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.
Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.
That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.
In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.
One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.
The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.
Some of Broadside’s almost 16,000 followers are also writers.
Some wish they were.
(I used to offer here an irregular column, The Writer’s Week, but haven’t done it in a while.)
I’ve been working as a journalist for a few decades — sadly that now feels like being a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe, with fewer and fewer slabs of ice to hop onto.
Since 2008, 40 percent of us have lost our staff jobs and many will not find another, certainly those of us who are older than 40, let alone 50.
Some writers boast about their “six figure freelancing” — i.e. earning $100,000 a year. But virtually none of them are making that money from writing for journalism clients but from a mix of corporate, teaching, custom content and other much more lucrative but less glamorous or visible revenue streams.
I call it the Income Iceberg, the invisible work many of us never discuss publicly but which also buys our groceries and kids’ clothes and fills our gas tank and sustains us.
The dirty secret? The Big Name Outlets writers love to boast about writing for can take months to edit (and pay for) our work, sit on it until it becomes unusable and/or kill it outright, costing us thousands in anticipated and budgeted-for income.
And the Freelancer’s Union recently posted a lousy statistic — that the average freelance is stiffed out of $6,000 in payments a year, 13 percent of their income.
This is what my writing life looks like now…
In England, I spend a day reporting on a non-profit group in a small town about an hour outside London. The teens are welcoming and friendly, and I spend an hour in an unheated warehouse interviewing one of them. To maximize efficiency and lower food/hotel costs, I do all my interviews, about six of them, in one marathon day.
I stay overnight in a gorgeous small inn, 200 years old, and enjoy an excellent meal. Perk!
Back in London, I interview their major funder, sitting in the lobby of the Goring, the hotel where the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) slept the night before her wedding.
This toggling between totally different worlds — the men around us whispering, wearing gold signet rings and bespoke suits — is typical of my work, and one reason I enjoy it, talking to the poorest and the wealthiest, speaking to both (or their rep’s) to tell my stories.
Journalism’s appeal for me, and for many others, is the entree it gives us into many lives we would never encounter any other way.
I learn something new almost every day.
I arrive home in New York, ready to start revising a major national women’s magazine profile, 3,500 words, of a local woman whose work I’ve long admired. I spent eight hours with her alone, taking notes, and spoke to a dozen others to learn more about her.
She spoke really quickly and, because I don’t use a tape recorder, I needed physical therapy for my right wrist from note-taking for hours on end at top speed; I use voice dictation of my notes for the first time.
Then I read a story in The New York Times that her organization is now embroiled in a scandal. My story is killed. (Luckily, I’m paid in full, a sum that will represent almost 25 percent of the year’s income.)
I turn in the British story to Reader’s Digest, excited to have my first story published with them. But my emails and calls to the group in England for fact-checking, (a standard part of the publishing process for major magazines), mysteriously go unreturned.
They’ve shut down — barely two months after we met.
Magazines pay what are called “kill fees”, a negotiated amount they offer when a story can’t be used. I lose $900 of anticipated income.
I’m teaching at a private college in Brooklyn, a writing class for freshmen and a blogging class of mixed-year students. Both classes are small, but they’re night and day in terms of the students’ enthusiasm and level of commitment to the work.
Like many adjuncts, I have no office or faculty connections, and no institutional support at all. When I encounter difficulty with several students, I have no one to turn to for advice or help; the dean has made clear we’re not to bother him.
And my commute means I leave home in the freezing dark at 7:00 am, drive 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic, then wait another 90 minutes for class to start. If I leave any later, traffic is so bad I’d be late for my own class.
Two of my fall students come to the cafeteria to hang out with me before their classes, I’m glad that at least a few of them enjoyed my teaching. I also visit before my first class with a new friend, a woman who teaches painting there.
I really enjoy one-on-one teaching and the variety of my adult students.
I teach a one-night class at the New York School of Interior Design to six designers, all women, a totally different experience teaching adults than undergrads. As a former NYSID student, it’s an honor to be invited back to teach there.
Jose and I take our longest vacation in a decade, three weeks in Ireland. I do a bit of research for possible stories, but mostly relax and recharge.
Thanks to some work I did for her at another publication, writing about watches, of all things, an editor contacts me with a huge project, 15 1,000-word profiles of non-profit leaders for the Case Foundation. The work will carry my byline, a long commitment to a project I find compelling.
Thanks to a friend’s generosity, we spend 10 days at his home in Maine and I conduct some of these interviews there from the dining table; as long as I have access to wifi and a telephone, I can work anywhere.
A story finally runs in The New York Times I’d written months earlier. Writers for the paper are only paid after the story is used, so any piece that sits unused equals (long) deferred income.
It’s a problem for many freelancers; like everyone else, our bills arrive monthly but our payments are routinely late, sometimes for months — a real, ongoing source of stress.
Sometimes the best story ideas show up in somewhere as banal as my Facebook feed.
One woman described a terrible day when her husband took their dog for a walk in broiling summer heat and the dog almost died of heatstroke — even though the car was air-conditioned and her husband stopped several times to give the dog water.
Now working on a book proposal, a process every non-fiction writer must go through. It’s an intellectual blueprint, a layout of what the book would be, why it matters, why now and to whom. It’s a shit-ton of unpaid spec work, in addition to my paid work.
I become co-chair of a volunteer board of 13 fellow writers. I have no training or experience running a board, although I’ve served on two of them for years.
The ongoing freelance challenge each of us faces, finding interesting, well-paid work you might even enjoy and can also do well and quickly enough to pull in significant income every single month.
People who want to write for a living fantasize that they’ll…write for a living. In reality, much of my time is spent marketing my skills and ideas to past and future clients. Some of those ideas never sell.
I write two brief stories for a personal finance website.
A friend I met a decade ago when she was a foreign correspondent for the Times invites me to lunch. She has a fantastic staff job doing investigative work. It’s comforting to talk to someone who really understands what producing high-quality journalism demands, with its joys and frustrations.
We both crave tough editors to keep up sharp and readers who respond to the finished work, some of which consumes months, even years.
I email my agent to ask how the proposal is going. He wants to strengthen it and says we need to hold off submitting it for a month or so. No book proposal gets read without an agent’s cover letter. He knows the current publishing market. I defer to his judgment.
I head north to Toronto by train — a 12-hour journey — to spend the holidays with family and friends.
If you celebrate holidays during this season, I hope you enjoy them!
Thanks for making the time to visit, read and comment here on Broadside.