Media Circus: Kick me, I'm a freelancer

But first, please do fill me in on all your wonderful story ideas.

Published October 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Not that I want anyone to stop paying for lunch, but even though I'm a freelance writer, these days I can say with a straight face that I do earn a living. In fact, since I entered major prima donna mode about six months ago -- turning down stupid, low-paying assignments instead of grabbing them like I used to -- I've been earning what some people might even consider (I never thought I'd be able to use this phrase without blushing, but here goes) a fairly good living.

I was holding forth about this last week at lunch with Hollywood man-about-town Ben Stein, who's also a freelance writer -- as well as an actor, lawyer, economist and host of the new Comedy Central game show "Win Ben Stein's Money." I used to try out for shows like this in the futile hope of making some easy, extra cash. No longer!

"There must be a word for this phenomenon," I mused grandly, "where you actually make more money by turning down work."

"There is," Ben said. "The word is 'temporary.'"

OK, OK, I get the point. But still, I don't see why people have to knee-jerk into poor-pitiful-you mode as soon as the subject of my occupation comes up.

The mildest version takes the form of worried concern. I should preface this by explaining that last spring I lost my staff job at a local magazine. Thus, the concern. However, since I had set my own hours and worked entirely out of my house while I was employed there -- and never stopped writing for other publications -- in the big picture this job was basically just a four-year blip in the middle of a dozen-odd years of freelancing.

Admittedly, in the old days, what helped pay the bills was my extra income from a tenant -- the modern, slightly less downmarket version of Mother Took in Boarders. But as far as freelance writing goes, I did it before, and I can do it again, as the old World War II song goes. Nevertheless ...

"So how are you?" one of the kindlier moms at my daughter's school asked the other day, brow furrowed. Since I had just finished a crushing schedule of three deadlines that week, which included writing something like 11 hours straight on Saturday, the short answer was: overworked to the point of exhaustion. But this sort of information just does not compute.

"So," she responded sympathetically, "keeping busy?" Keeping busy? Are there any two words more clueless or patronizing? What I should say, of course, the next time someone wonders if I'm "keeping busy" is: "Well, every morning I begin knitting a very long sock. And then, around noon, I start unraveling it. After all, you've got to keep busy! At least, that's what my court-appointed psychiatrist says!"

But apparently I've done too good a job at camouflaging my real personality (rampant egomania combined with snarling, easily provoked impatience) behind a polite smile and sincere, tell-me-more expression. Casual acquaintances have even been known to describe me as "friendly" and "approachable." I can hear my friends laughing in disbelief at this, but it's true. The result is that when people, especially men, learn I am a freelance writer, I seem to be wearing a T-shirt that on the back reads, "Kick Me" and on the front, "Let Me Be the Handmaiden to Your Genius."

Sometimes this takes the form of the dreaded Story Suggestion, because those without ideas naturally assume that everyone else is similarly bereft -- and therefore would be only too grateful to get a rare, brilliant notion ... for free! Sample suggestions: "Why Don't You Do a Story On ... Racism? ... How You Need to Know People in Hollywood to Get Ahead? ... My Neighbor Who's a Character Actor? ... Couples Who Prefer Dogs to Children? ... Why People Think They're Invisible When They Pick Their Nose in the Car?"

Actually, I've always found that last idea -- which, thank you, is my own -- pretty compelling, although so far editors haven't agreed. I just threw it in so you could see what a difference the professional touch makes. Anyway, it's odd how people who never even seem to read magazines, let alone my particular articles, happen to be such experts on what I ought to be writing about.

"My back is killing me," complained the beer-bellied, semi-retired book publishing executive I ran into at a snack shop, after I asked how he was. "Say!" he added, a light bulb practically switching on over his head. "There's an idea for you! Why don't you do an story on ... back pain!" Never mind that a) I'm not a health writer; b) at this point probably a million stories have been written about back pain; and c) they all boil down to four words: "Lose the gut, Buster."

Recently I was leaving the dog park when a bearded banker I'd met at some neighborhood function asked what I was working on these days. He reminded me that he was a writer, too -- he contributed pieces to business journals and the op-ed page -- and boy, was it a tough business! Why, oh, why did editors and "number-crunchers" keep trying to interfere with "the creative process"?

"You know," he added, "I like you; I think you're sweet. But, to be honest, I don't read what you write.

"I'm just not interested in gossip or fluff," he explained, lest I start blubbing in disappointment. "What I do is serious stuff: Business. Politics. City issues. And even (he paused dramatically and cocked an eyebrow) a bit of ... investigative reporting." Here he assumed a debonair, Bob Woodward-as-interpreted-by-Robert-Redford stance, which is quite a feat when you've got two bored kids in tow and a cocker spaniel tugging at the leash.

Perhaps misinterpreting just what was inspiring my fascinated gaze, he continued his spiel. "It's hard to make money at this, though," he confided. "The last piece I wrote, it took them months to pay me. Hey!" he added. "You don't seem like a shrinking violet. Have you ever considered going over ... to the other side?"

I wasn't sure what he meant. Satanism? "You mean, like, becoming an editor?" I ventured hesitantly.

"No, becoming an agent! Because someone like me could really use someone like you to get me work and collect payment. And you've got contacts, so ..." I forget what I said at this point. Possibly the prospect of skimming 15 percent off every $100 piece this banker sold made me so giddy that the rest of the afternoon is just a blurred memory of we're-in-the-money excitement. Luckily, at that point my own dog had to defecate, so the conversation came to a merciful end.

My friend Sandra Tsing Loh refers to this phenomenon as the "Girlie" factor, in which men, especially when they're older and thus feel entitled to a certain silverback gorilla status, assume a "sure, Girlie" attitude toward any woman who claims to be a writer. Sandra published a first novel ("If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now") this spring and a couple of years ago her book of essays, "Depth Takes a Holiday," was a local bestseller.

But that didn't stop the bore who strode up purposefully at a party -- people scattering in his wake -- from grilling her on how she really made a living, between long speeches about how his children were writers too. Why, one of them even wrote a chapter in an engineering textbook!

"And what does your husband do?" the bore asked.

"He's a studio musician."

"Oh," came the twinkly response, "so now we know how the bills get paid!" Finally, he added: "Here's my card -- will you send me your book? I'll buy you a drink if you do!"

"So," Sandra said, telling me this story later, "I said, 'Sure!' And he bought me a drink. And then I threw his card away."

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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