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.