Personal Pieces postsWednesday December 31, 2008
From the Vault: Freelance Writing 101
The following is a piece I wrote four years ago that was never published. Some of it is still relevant.
On a Tuesday morning in 2004 I received a phone call at my apartment and a male voice asked, “Do you have time to speak with Karl Rove?” A second later, the senior advisor to the President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
The next morning a female voice informed me that Walter Mondale was waiting to speak with me. A second later, the former Vice President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
Who am I that such powerful people contact me at home? I’m the most powerless person in the world. I’m a freelance writer.
In his novel “Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow got the job description right. “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures,” he wrote, “it is such a tenuous living after all…” Indeed, the same week I talked to Karl Rove and Walter Mondale I drove down to the unemployment office for a seminar on how to search for a job. Maybe I should’ve just asked Karl Rove for one.
This is the most bizarre aspect of being a freelance writer: You’re poor and powerless and yet – if the gig is right – you’re constantly rubbing elbows with the most powerful people on the planet. One of my regular jobs is writing for a law magazine, “Law & Politics,” which was founded in Minnesota in 1990. Seven years later, they created a Washington state version, which is where they met me. Then they created lucrative “Super Lawyer” magazines all over the country, which is where they sent me.
Last year they flew me to Dallas and Houston and L.A. and Chicago. I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, boxer George Foreman, “Godfather” producer Robert Evans and former Microsoft general counsel Bill Neukom. While calling an acquaintance of a Houston lawyer to set up a quick interview for a quote, I Googled him and discovered he was a Forbes 500 billionaire. Yikes. His secretary answered, put me on hold, then, 30 seconds later, put me through. “Yes?” he asked. I fumbled for my notes. If I’d known I was going to talk to a billionaire that morning I might have showered. Or at least worn pants.
The entrée in that case was the Houston lawyer’s name, but generally my entrée is the pub I’m writing for that particular day, which is often no entrée at all. “Who do you write for? And that’s what kind of publication?” Yet somehow it all works, and in this manner the powerless hook up with the powerful.
Unfortunately the powerless are only getting moreso. Fees are dwindling. writing contracts expanding. One place sent me a 10-page contract for a thousand-word article – three times as many words in the contract as in the piece. Another place – OK, the same place – hired a third party to create online invoices, but the process is so cumbersome and non-intuitive that your per-hour wage (which one part of your brain tries to keep track of) bleeds away as you attempt to master it. If I got paid for the hours spent trying to get paid I might actually make money.
The language in these contracts is enough to scare away the best writer in the world: “The publication [and its sublicensees] acquires exclusive worldwide rights in all languages to unrestricted use of your work in all media, existing or to be invented in the future, including in all editions of the publication.” To be invented in the future? Obviously they’re worried another Internet will take us all by storm but can a contract really lay claim to the future? Why not the past, too? Why not other dimensions? The publication [and its sublicensees] retain exclusive worldwide rights on the Bizarro planet and in The Land That Time Forgot, unless otherwise agreed.
Did I mention the dwindling pay? Two years ago, one newspaper paid me $50 less for the same work I’d done the year before. Last year they tried to cut it another $25. I balked. It’s often the puniness of the amount they’re trying to extract that’s insulting. A check arrived last week five dollars short. I searched for an explanation and found it in the invoice: “Deduction: $5.” As long as they had a good reason.
Yet it’s often editors who cause the most heartache. Let’s face it: Most freelancers aren’t in this for money or fame but for the joy of stringing a few words together, and editors often stomp on this joy. If I’ve been lucky lately with my editors, it wasn’t always so. My early editors were often uncommunicative and tin-earred. In my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Timequake,” I sketched a scene in which Kilgore Trout tries to wake people in a stupor with this call-to-arms: “You were sick, but now you are well, and there’s work to do!” I wrote: “The metaphor for our time is obvious,” but my editor changed it to, “The metaphor for our time becomes obvious.” Becomes obvious? What does that even mean? Who wrote this crap? “By Erik Lundegaard.”
That was a mere pinprick. Years ago I was working in a bookstore warehouse to make ends meet, and one Sunday morning, lugging books down to the basement in a gray metal tub, one of my co-workers, Chris, mentioned in passing, “Hey, saw your article in the paper the other day.”
I looked up, puzzled. “I didn’t have an article in the paper the other day.”
“Didn’t you? I thought it was you. Yeah, that was you.”
“What was it about?”
My jaw tightened. A week earlier I’d sent the local paper a humorous piece on postage stamps but hadn’t heard back. When I finally saw what they’d printed, my piece had been mangled beyond recognition. I felt like Brando in “The Godfather” pulling the sheet back from Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse: “Look what they done to my boy.” Mobsters at least have the decency to send along fish.
The next day I phoned the editor. “I sent you a piece last week.”
“It was in the paper on Friday.”
“Nobody told me.”
“Oh?” A chuckle. Then nothing. In his silence was a challenge: What are you going to do about it? I brokered a deal for money when I should’ve just blasted him. Kids: Curse today, for tomorrow the prick may retire, as this one did.
I’ll say it: Freelancing is truly an awful way to live. You start out with big aspirations – a novel, a play – but one day you write a little essay and lo and behold they publish it. Sure, they chop it up, but there’s your name, and suddenly you’re addicted. Even as they change the rules on you you’re addicted. The playing field gets smaller and smaller (1000 words...no, 800 words...no, 600 words), and the rejection notices pile up. You study the pubs, because that’s what people tell you to do, but they’re either celebrity-laden and corporate, or radical and ironic, and you don’t see where you fit in. You write specific pieces for specific pubs – bending your personality to suit theirs – which makes the form rejection notices sting even more. Maybe you’re doing bad work? You’re often doing bad work (“The metaphor for our time is obvious” is a pretty bad line), but what they print is usually worse. You tell yourself your skin is thickening but you doubt it. You feel weaker, not stronger; smaller, not bigger. The silence surrounding your rare successes is deafening. And then you’re at a dinner party and the executive next to you finds out you’re a freelance writer and says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” and it’s all you can do not to slug him.
My friends and family gave me metaphoric backslaps when I got an editing job this winter. It was seen as a step up and it is. Now I’ll send out the contracts with the threatening legalese, and now I’ll have final say on which words go where. But it’s not writing. The writing I’ll still do in the mornings before work. The editing? I’ve spent 15 years learning what kind of editor not to be. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.
My Election Day
One day I'll live blog one of these things (World Series, unprecedented presidential elections), but here's the retroactive version:
5:30: Woke up, showered, coffee, etc. Read Andrew Sullivan. Wrote a bit.
6:30: Left our place and walked in the rain to the T.T. Minor Elementary School to vote. My first time voting there. Usually my polling location is within five or six blocks of my home but this was over a mile away. Seems a bit screwy but Seattle often seems a bit screwy. Got wet despite the umbrella. Rain forecast for the entire day, with thunderstorms in the afternoon.
7:05: Arrived at the school to find a line of about 100 people. Again: new. Usually it's just me and the old ladies in the basement of the church. The school is a sweet elementary school (Andy's daughter goes there) and has kids' names on all of the lockers. The woman in front of me commented on what great names the kids had — not the dull Marys and Davids of our childhood — and I pointed out one name and said, “Yeah, when I was growing up, 'Isis' was just a heroine on a Saturday morning TV show.” She then surprised me by repeating the whole “zephyr winds” line and we got to talking about “Shazam” and “H.R. Puffenstuff” and how the creators of the latter must've been high while making it (a magic talking flute?), and how the star of the show, Jack Wild, had played the Artful Dodger in the 1968 musical Oliver! and may have been the best thing in the movie. I was pretty sure he'd been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He also sang the film's most memorable song: “Consider Yourself.” This woman then began to sing the song to herself. Consider yourself...one of the family.
7:45: Voted. (Psst. Barack.)
7:55: Walked to Broadway on Capitol Hill. The rains had stopped. Passed a garage on John Street between 12th and 13th where the owner had painted the famous “Barack Hope” poster on the door. Painted it well, I should add.
8:05: Arrived at Starbucks ahead of the precinct captain, Stuart. Phoned him. He said he was still at campaign headquarters on Pine — that there were tons of people there — but he had our packet and would meet me in about 10 minutes.
8:05-8:15: Sat in the back of Starbucks on a couch. Starbucks was giving away free coffee to anyone who voted and the woman at the table in front of me, overhearing the barrista talking about it, said to her friend, who was sitting on the couch next to me, “Oh, is it election day?” I thought: “And that's why we have a GOTV effort. Some people just don't know.” Then the woman asked the man who was gonna win:
He: Well, Obama's ahead nationally but the electoral college is close. It might come down to Hawaii.
Me (butting in): If it comes down to Hawaii, Barack wins. Hawaii always goes Democrat and he's from there. No way he's losing Hawaii.
He: No, I'm just saying it might be close.
Me: Uh huh.
She: I've heard he might have trouble anyway. Because he's against the second amendment and all.
Me: He's not against the second amendment.
She: (Exchanges meaningful glance with the man as if to say, “Lookee here who's been brainwashed.”)
She (to He): So how long have you been hypnotizing people?
He: Oh, about 45 years.
They then went on to have a serious talk about hypnosis.
8:15: Stuart arrives. Hallelujah.
8:15-9:15: Stuart and I walk the precinct that he's walked four times in the last month, usually alone, getting out the vote. We only had about 20 names left on his list, and a couple were his neighbors with whom he'd just spoken. They'd voted. Off the list. Getting down to the bare nub. The goal.
Stuart was from Chicago, had lived in Seattle for...8 years or so? I'd met him the night before and given him shit about his Chicago Cubs cap. “You know, Barack's a White Sox fan,” I said. He smiled and said, “Well, I think we have room in the party for both Cubs and White Sox fans.”`Some part of me was actually worried about that Cubs cap: That it might transmit its losing ways into the campaign. I wondered who the Steve Bartman of the Barack campaign might be.
9:15: Stuart and I finished the packet, we said our goodbyes, and I walked the packet over to Obama's Capitol Hill headquarters on Pine. It was getting chillier but the rain wasn't coming back. In fact, the sky was beginning to clear. Nice.
Campaign headquarters was packed. I'd arrived planning to phone-bank into the early afternoon but looked at the second floor, where phone-banking was supposed to take place, and thought it made more sense to split. They had more volunteers than they knew what to do with. Again: Nice. On the walk home, ran into our neighbor, Laura, who was on her way to vote.
10:00-4:00: Got our place ready for what I continually called a “gathering.” Didn't want to jinx us with the word “party.”
4:00: First results. McCain leads in the electoral college 8-3: Kentucky vs. Vermont. Damn!
4:15: Andy and his girls arrive. Mathilda, the youngest, wears wings. I ask her if that was her Halloween costume but she says, No, she went as Dora.
4:30 and on: More people arrive. Jeff and Sullivan, with two kids. Chasing games ensue throughout the condo. Charges of “schnookering” are made. Balloons are blown up. Balloons are played with. All evening.
Around 25-30 people show up. At some point we order Indian food. I drink: beer and saki and red wine and champagne. By which time the gathering has become a party. I began to use the word: party.
You know the rest. I was worried about Virginia, initially, but when Pennsylvania broke early and clean for Obama, I thought: Good sign. By the tme Ohio broke, giving Obama 207 electoral votes, Jim and I did the math. The three western states, California, Oregon and Washington, would give him 280. It was all over but the shouting. Then came the shouting.
Today: A new day. Welcome.