In Case You Were Wondering (Though You Weren’t)

February 28th, 2010 § 5 comments

Sometimes people ask me: what do you do all day long as a freelancer?

Actually, no one ever asks me that, though I wish the cute girl at the far end of the bar would. (The universal, hypothetical cute girl, of course—a figure more rhetorical than gorgeous, made less for romance than the purposes of argument—in the bar I rarely actually go out to.) Most people hear I’m a freelancer and, aside from the standard envious comment about how nice it must be to work from home, are generally content to leave it at that. On the rare occasion when they do press further, I unfailingly find whatever account of I give of how I spend my time comes out sounding inadequate, much as ledgers fudged to hide fraud look in a court of law.

Which is not to say I haven’t clear memories of fiendishly productive days as a freelancer, days best characterized by dispatch and alacrity, in which tasks were no sooner started than successfully wrapped up, but that any honest appraisal sees these days for the exception they are, rather than the rule I wish they were.

Such that the question of how I spend my days is, really, the kind of question I’m always asking myself, from the moment I, an esprit descending an escalier, leave the bar, to those moments between tasks when hands stop their puttering and a space suddenly opens for reflection on action (“What am I doing?”). It is the kind of question a perennially guilty conscience, wishing to dispel the misplaced envy of people convinced freelancing is a breeze, is always putting to me (“No, you see, but it’s really—”). It is the kind of question that hits you when, leaning back in your chair for a stretch and a yawn, you see dusk has crept up on you already, and the impression of not having done a thing truly useful and fulfilling is as certain as the impression of having been busy every minute: for where, where has the day gone?

But this morning I had a very clear illustration of how a gig seemingly over long ago—work done, invoice submitted, check received—continues to claim time, a paid job you’d thought to have closed the book on echoing into the precincts of the unpaid. It is because freelancers live in hope, or on spec, and hope—the hypothetical—takes a lot of hustle, and a lot out of you besides.

So let’s say I translate a piece I like—an act that, in a way, is already its own reward, but in fact it’s accepted for publication, and some nominal fee is promised (cherry on the sundae, right?). In an ideal work-for-pay model, this sum is divided by the time it took me to translate and voilà: I am adequately paid for days that, more importantly, I spend doing something I enjoy.

But to reap this one acceptance I’ve freely sown submissions in a number of slush piles, right? To the cover letters, post office trips, and perhaps now withdrawal notices, must be added correspondence with the editor, possible forms and revisions, proofreading (sometimes of multiple drafts). The issue comes out, and I send out notices to the author, any rights or subrights agents involved, any editors I’ve managed to interest in the author’s work, the general public (blog)—some of these are mass mailings, some individually tailored, some in French.

How much time could all this really take? You’d be surprised. This barring any unforeseen but essentially further unbillable emergencies upping an hour tally already higher than originally anticipated: a growing denominator ever frittering away the fixed numerator of an already agreed-on fee. It’s like watching a heap of sand slowly spread out to cover a surface in a thin sheet. By the end I can’t say I was paid well per hour for a job that consisted mainly of administrative details and not my ostensible trade. It’s not about the pay, you say—but it is this very process, which doesn’t involve the creative work at all, that has the unfortunate effect of shifting focus to those very questions of niggardly negotiation and ample compensation that the joy of creative immersion makes utterly immaterial. Is this all worth it? Am I getting enough? Or maybe it’s an American neurosis about being one of the suckers born every minute. When the things you do for the things you do for love threaten to exhaust your love itself, it’s time to take a step back and a break.

§ 5 Responses to In Case You Were Wondering (Though You Weren’t)"

  • Megan says:

    You know, in those first two sentences, you had me imagining you typing this in a dimly dingy bar somewhere, somehow on a portable typewriter rather than a computer, while thoughtfully swirling a whiskey. A femme fatale in horn-rimmed glasses and a funny little hat off at stage right.

    Then the dirty words: hypothetical! rhetorical! universal!

    In any case, I think that’s how all work goes if you’re doing what you love. You put more of yourself into it than the practical and unattached person would because it actually means everything to you.

  • Edward says:

    Well… I was swirling a whisky. Thoughtfully. (How else?) But why a funny little hat?

  • It’s even harder to answer the question acceptably as a woman. People assume “freelance writer” is a fancy word for “housewife” and ask insulting questions such as “Have you ever had anything published?”

    I know what you mean about the administrative tasks. I have one small, recurring editing job with the federal government. Some months I spend more time on unpaid tasks such as dealing with mistakes the accounting department made than I do on the editing I get paid for.

  • Megan says:

    A funny little hat because I imagine all femme fatales should have adorable little creations of felt and plumage with which to gild the lily.

  • anna says:

    nicely said, e.

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