RHINOS & TIGERS & WRITERS, OH MY! Thoughts on the Freelance Life

There was a time, and not that long ago, when I championed the freelance life. I spoke to high school and college students about it, encouraging them to follow their dreams, and using my own life as an example.  It was possible, I extolled, to live by your wits. To be your own boss. If you had good ideas, if you were curious, if you were willing to put in the legwork and the research, you could find the right outlets that would actually pay you enough to cover your expenses, and even allow you to save.  “Don’t fear the unknown,” I’d say. “Welcome it.”

I would tell them how I sent out a hundred queries every month suggesting possible stories to magazine editors and how I’d maybe hear back from ten and, of those, only two or three wanted to discuss the idea further. But that was okay, because once you got something in print, then you had something to show, and little by little you could build a portfolio. It wasn’t that long ago when magazines paid their writers as much as $2 or $3 a word, so when Rolling Stone wanted 3,000 words, that would be a nice pay day. Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Playboy paid even more for articles, but you couldn’t expect to interest an editor of a high-paying periodical until you had proven yourself.  It was possible, but not easy.  You needed to believe in yourself, you needed perseverance, and you probably needed your parents or a rich relative willing to stake you while you wrote your way to the top.

But something happened along the way, something called the Internet, and things changed. Print magazines began folding into online ‘zines.’ Writers were offered a few pennies a word, if they were offered anything at all. One professional writer recently wrote about eking out a living by writing 500—800 word pieces for different online sites, earning between eight and seventeen cents a word.  I recently wrote a piece for a well-known newspaper, and it was published the next day. When I asked for the contract, the editor told me they no longer paid for such pieces, that writers were happy to see their names in print. I wasn’t happy. I had written for them before and had been paid, and I didn’t understand how writers were now willing to write for “the exposure.” I remember what James A. Michener once told me:  What distinguishes a professional writer from the ranks of all the amateurs is that a professional writer gets paid.

Writing was once a noble, even romantic, profession. I was still a teenager when I decided that if I could join the ranks of the writers I admired, I would live a happy, satisfying life. It was never about making a lot of money, just enough to allow me to write. I worked at it, I scrambled, hustled, and cried at the many rejections, but felt determined to prove I could do it. Eventually, it paid off.  I wrote articles for magazines that paid decently, and authored books for publishers that gave me advances. I was able to put a down payment on a house and to put my children through grad schools. I was a proud member of the middle class.

And then it all began to crumble. Magazines began using fewer freelancers. Publishers weren’t as willing to take a chance on offbeat ideas. My agent told me he couldn’t sell the novels or poetry or nonfiction I wanted to write, but he could get me nice deals if I wrote more celebrity books. I think if I were starting out today, I’d probably start a podcast. I was recently a guest on Marc Maron’s podcast and he said to me, “You must hate me. I talk to people like you’ve done, only I don’t do the kind of research you did for your Playboy interviews, and I’ve got a huge following.”  I didn’t hate him. I applauded his being able to figure out how to earn a living by his wits.

I called my book of interviews with writers Endangered Species, a title based on something Norman Mailer had said to me, that writers like himself were becoming an endangered species. Saul Bellow said something similar when I interviewed him. He gave the serious novel another fifteen years.

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Now when I talk to students, I tell them what my father used to say to me when I was starting out: “Get a job, and write on the side.”  I didn’t listen.  And I hope some of them don’t listen to me. Because you have to want it, really want it, to make a living freelancing today. It’s not impossible, because nothing is impossible. It’s just very, very hard.


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