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Freelance Writing as a Career – Can you make it as a gypsy?

Yesterday I took off my fiction hat and put on the beat-up hat I wear most days – freelance writer.  If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know that yesterday was packed with interviews, meetings and drafting a heck of a lot of copy that wasn’t related to my novel.  On another note, I’ve fallen sadly behind on NaNoWriMo and need to pull some serious word count tonight. 

In my day job, I am a freelance writer – a journalist who specializes in human interest stories for newspapers and magazines, a non-fiction writer and a marketing consultant who writes brochures, press releases or web copy.  Fiction writing is my guilty pleasure, and non-fiction is what rounds out the picture so that I can make my living as a paid writer.

A friend of mine who is a poetry professor in North Carolina refers to himself as a “gypsy professor.” He is a contract instructor who teaches classes at multiple universities throughout the state to strengthen his C.V. and make him more attractive for tenure-track positions.  In these challenging economic times, thousands of academic applicants with impressive resumes are fighting for limited jobs. Many, like my friend, drive miles everyday teaching one class at several universities in order to do what they love.  Sometimes it can feel that way in the world of writing – like you’re parsing your career together with bits and pieces of the written word.  A gypsy writer with no place to hang your hat.

And you’re right, you are a gypsy when you work full time in the freelance world.  One day I’m writing marketing copy for a non-profit organization. The next I’m interviewing long-haul truckers about transporting homeless animals.  No kidding!  Do you think my story about giving birth in the car was crazy?  I interviewed a semi driver who delivered a litter of puppies in the sleeping cabin of his truck. 

There will be days when you might think this gypsy lifestyle isn’t for you. You will feel scattered – your brain forced to focus on multiple writing styles and deadlines all at once. You will feel uninspired – forcing yourself to write another press release about cracker crumbs used in crab cakes.  I understand.  As a kid, I didn’t say, “Wow, I’d really like to write press releases when I grow up.” But in these moments, you need a paradigm shift and a swift quick in the arse.

First, the swift kick:  You are getting paid to write! You wanted to be a writer.  You’re writing.  Although real estate trends in Northern Colorado may not be as inspiring as the John le Carre novel you have brewing inside you, you’re still writing.  AND, you’re getting paid to do it.  You’re building your network, you’re honing your craft and you’re doing it on someone else’s dime – all the newspapers or corporate clients who send you checks for words that you wrote.

Second, the paradigm shift: You’re not just writing.  You are telling other people’s stories. In my world there is nothing more rewarding than that. Let me share a few comments I’ve received over the years.  This isn’t to toot my own horn, but to illustrate the way in which a writer’s words (even if they are about something as mundane as auto parts) can touch someone’s life.

“[Your article] is absolutely perfect and I am truly honored to be part of such a wonderful piece of literature. Thank you again, Sara. You have made this somewhat modest painter feel proud and slightly overwhelmed at the show he has tried to create.”

“Thank you again for all of your work on our website copy. The writing was spot on.  As I was reading it, I was struck by the realization that you might even know us better than we know ourselves.”

My favorite one is from a woman in Ohio.  Ten years ago I spent two hours on the phone with “Jane,” and the resulting article was a 3,000-word piece about her trained therapy cat who visits nursing homes.   The entire assignment from interview to final revisions for the editor took up less than six hours of my time.  Jane was so moved that I had captured the story of her life-changing cat, she bought up 100 copies of the magazine and sent them to her entire holiday correspondence list.  Guess who was a new addition to that list?  That’s right, me.  Jane sends me a card every year with pictures of Pluto and updates on their life together.

On days that the freelance writing life gets to me, I remember my article about Jane.  No, the pay isn’t fabulous – a three-figure check and a Christmas card doesn’t pay the bills.  The work isn’t always steady.  The subjects aren’t always captivating.  But I’m touching people’s lives with my words and getting paid to do it. I’m damn proud to be a gypsy – a gypsy who tells other people’s stories.

What about you?  Are you living the gypsy life of a freelance writer?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. You made me smile. Great column and a timely reminder. Thank you!

    And good luck with your word count tonight!

    November 9, 2011
  2. I plan to in 2012. My mission is get a little more in the bank and then begin my gypsy life. Thanks for the inspirational post.

    November 9, 2011
  3. charlilasav #

    My dream job is to be a writer. I love reading your posts because they inspire me to keep on running after that dream! Good luck to you – word count and the day job!

    November 10, 2011
    • Thanks, charlilasav, for the well wishes. Keep running after that dream. Regardless of who you’re writing for – yourself or for pay – it’s better than not writing at all. Thanks for stopping by my corner of the blogosphere.

      November 10, 2011
  4. When I began to take my hobby of writing seriously, I thought about what was driving me to do it.

    The money? The recognition?

    Lately, I see it as simply conquering a life goal.

    I mean, sure it’d be nice for some extra dough in the bank accounts. Seeing my name as an author seems pretty sweet too.

    But to say that “yes, I wrote a complete novel from scratch. Went through multiple drafts, edits, critics, etc” seems the most pleasing for me. It’s a big deal to commit to stuff like this and the fact that I’m sticking to it…says a lot.

    Just my thoughts! Your post was a great read though! If you enjoy what you’re doing, then all the power to you! That’s what matters the most right?

    November 11, 2011

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