Thursday, April 26, 2007

Freelancer Envy

The time-line of a freelancer is different from the rest of the world's. I know that messes with the laws of physics, but I'm sure there's an episode of Star Trek that supports my theory. Freelancing is the ultimate "yeah, but what have you done lately?" gig. As cool and pride-provoking as some of my earlier work has been, I'm only as good as what I've done in the last year -- because I'm only as busy as my current roster of editors will allow.

Let's face it: my last two-plus years were extremely rough. I was suffering through a personal crisis and had no energy to devote to properly pitching, writing, and nurturing professional relationships. I was given several opportunities that I simply couldn't follow through on, and I blew several good assignments. Blow an assignment when you're on-staff and you get an intervention from HR. Blow an assignment as a freelancer and you're deleted from the address book. There's just too many good writers out here for anyone to be patient with me. Thanks to three or four really loyal, amazing friend-itors, who leaned on me to get things in and threw softball assignments my way, I was able to stay afloat professionally.

Try as I might to re-form those relationships, it's slow going and horribly hard. I know I'm great at this, I know I can do the work, but as good as my clips and resume are, it's still a very long and uphill climb. I'm making progress, but slowly.

Contrast this to my fellow freelancers. Apparently, they're all, effortlessly, getting generous assignments from the glossiest of magazines. In my online freelancer forums, I see their victories -- hard-won as they are! -- and just feel defeated. It's such an awful attitude, and I feel ashamed of it. But this is a blog, and what's a blog without a little embarrassing self-revelation once in a while?

My fellow freelancers fall into two categories:
• People I hate, and therefore begrudge their success.
• People I love, and still feel envious of, even as I applaud their success.
It's driving me up a frickin' wall, around the frickin' bend, and [preposition] the frickin' [noun]. Book projects! Plum assignments about my favorite TV shows! Successful networking! I tell ya, it's enough to make a gal's superior attitude feel downright hollow.

I also hear the same freelancers complaining about projects they screwed up, opportunities they didn't go for, ambitions they are afraid to have, and overloaded situations they are sure they can't handle. I know we all feel this way sometimes. I just feel like I'm the only one who really deserves to.

Except for those people I hate. They deserve to and never do -- of that, I'm sure. Which only makes me want to be like them even more. Oh, the self-loathing, so much more interesting than the deadline I must meet today!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Personal Essay, She Kicks My Butt

Hoo boy. The Holy Grail of magazine writing is the personal essay, sometimes referred to as a first-person-reported piece. The idea is this: you get to expound upon your life, Joan Didion-style, and use that as a jumping-off point for a helpy service piece, quoting experts that support your experience and actions and, Godwilling, coming to some sort of uplifting conclusion. Sometimes you don't have experts -- it's just about a moment in your life that's bound to touch others, like on the last page of the New York Times Magazine. But those are even rarer creatures, like baby squirrels or flattering Uggs.

My favorite recent personal essay is by the marvelous Wendy Shanker. It's beautifully written, details her struggle with a health issue, and despite a lack of a neat-and-tidy ending, manages to leave the reader feeling like there's hope. One of the annoying things about magazines is a trend, in recent years, to take the attitude, "Everything's GREAT! Here's how to make it GREATER!" That chirpy, unrealistic approach seems limiting to me. I get that magazines go with what sells on the newsstand, but I've never been convinced that a complete denial of negative experience is really what gets magazines in hands. So when I read this, I subscribed to Self so they'd understand that I supported this fresh view.

Of course they'll get right on that because I'm their A#1 priority. But ya do what ya can, right?

Anyway, I finally got assigned to write not one, but three personal essays for I write for them a lot (cast your eyes to the left if you don't believe me), and I have the world's most nurturing relationship with my editor there, so I was totally pleased -- and totally terrified. Writing about yourself seems fun till you realize that it's only interesting if there's something at stake. And when there's something at stake, well, you have to be vulnerable. You have to let the reader in. You can't just put up your sassy-brassy shields, and lob kicky bits of advice over your Wall of Comfort-Level. You have to level that wall, within reason, and admit to actual foibles, embarrassing ones, and confront not just how they make you feel, but how you can get past them and improve.

It's like taping a therapy session, having it transcribed, and handing it out to your nearest and dearest for their perusal. Look, I'm as shameless at the next GenX-er, totally willing to profit from my own embarrassment, but as I get older, and the embarrassing situations become less kicky and charming and more heart-wrenching and permanently damaging, the process of writing about them becomes more difficult.

I guess that's what makes them good and readable. But damn, it takes a lot more time, energy, and self-discovery than the usual three-point FOB service piece. Ha-doy.