Month: March 2011

Busy Bee, and Thoughts On Japan

My son has been in child care full time for about 3 weeks now, and I’ve been more productive in those three weeks than I have in three years. I’ve picked up another freelance journalism client, and when combined with my main client, I will have filed 18 different feature stories for the two of them in the month of March alone. I’ll be filing the last two stories on Monday morning, which means I’ll have completed all 18 March article assignments with a week to spare!

I’ll be dedicating that week to catching up on some other things I’ve been neglecting, like some website development and fiction writing, and some other miscellanous administrative tasks (like preparing and filing my quarterly taxes, a must now that I’m a full-time freelancer). I’ve been working on my current novel for about a year now, and I’m really hoping it will be my “breakout” book that launches me mainstream into a wider audience. Of course, I’ve been hoping for a breakout novel for a while now, but I’ve really been working on this one with that explicit goal in mind. If I can finally finish the draft by early April and get it off to my agent, I’ll feel really good about my fiction-writing career this year. I have another completed manuscript that’s been percolating at my agent’s office for a while now (she’s finally going to pitch it to editors at a conference next week; the main editor my agent thinks will be interested has been on maternity leave, and she wanted to wait until that editor returned to work before shopping the book.) Plus I’ve got another book sitting in front of an editor at a major NYC publishing house that’s been there a while now, and I’m hoping they’ll make a decision soon.

I’ve decided once I’m done with my “breakout” manuscript that will be the end of my fiction writing for the year. I’ll need to focus more on being a journalist for a while, since that’s by far the most stable income-producing line of writing in my life right now. I’ve put playwriting on the back burner entirely (no money, total pain in the ass, though I do still get productions of my published plays).

I also have decided I want to dedicate some time to looking for a “real” journalism staff job, instead of just being a freelancer. I’d like a salary and benefits, and everyone knows the staff writers get the best assignments, anyway. The recent events in Japan have really reminded me of just how important journalism and journalists are, and having traveled to Japan myself (it’s a beautiful country and an ancient culture, and I follow Zen Buddhism, which is part of that culture), I am very saddened by the state of things there. Journalists can and do make a difference in the world, and I’d like to be part of that—-at least more so than I already am.



My 3-year-old son has been in preschool for one week now. It’s been a difficult transition for both of us, especially since he has never spent any time in daycare until now and I’ve been his full-time caregiver (often while also working from home) that whole time. But it’s been good for him—-I am already seeing him grow by leaps and bounds learning-wise in just a few days, and his behavior is much, much better—and good for me.

Good for me in that I’m so much more productive now. My work output has gone up by a factor of about 400%. Plus I’m getting to do things I haven’t been able to do in a long time, like listen to whatever music I want while I’m working (instead of, say, The Wiggles), take long walks at noon, have CNN or NPR on while I’m having lunch, et cetera.

I have always been a high-productivity person, even when I was in high school (in fact, I even managed to stay productive when I was depressed.) And yet I continue to run into people who don’t have even one-tenth of the amount of responsibility as I do—-people who are single, childless, working part-time if working at all, etc.—-who just can’t seem to do even the bare minimum. I don’t understand that at all. Lying around the house doing nothing is not a good way to pay your bills, for one thing. And productivity breeds productivity, for another. I’ve found that the more I keep myself busy, the more I get done overall—even if I’m just keeping busy with housework or childcare. Plus keeping busy is good for your health, mentally and physically.

Somebody told me the other week that I’m the strongest woman she knows. Which was a nice complement to get, but I didn’t really feel like I deserved it. I know plenty of women who are much stronger and more productive than I am (Hillary Clinton, anyone? Michelle Obama? Nora Roberts? Jodi Picoult? Jacqueline Mitchard? Sara Gruen? I could go on.) I view myself as just an ordinary middle-class working stiff who does the best she can, which often still isn’t good enough. But you’ll never see me hibernating in my house doing nothing. (At least, not for more than an hour or two). I’ve got bills to pay, and a child to raise. Slacking is not a verb in my vocabulary.


Feast or Famine

I’ve been plugging away as the whole freelance-journalist thing for the better part of 15 years now. I got my first freelance assignment as a copyeditor for the International Engineering Consortium back in 1997. From there I began pitching and selling stories to the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader. I ended up getting some gigs at both papers right away. They didn’t pay much, but it sure was cool landing full-length lifestyle features jobs at major newspapers as a freelancer with basically no experience (or even formal journalism training, natch—my degrees were in English Literature, and I never took a single journalism course in college or grad school, though I did write for my college paper occasionally) from the get-go. These pieces paid approximately the price of a Chinese dinner, but they were serious street cred as a writer. Not a living by any means, but I had various staff position day jobs to pay the bills (editor at a financial brokerage, book purchasing manager for a library, proposal writer/copywriter at various ad agencies, plus some work as an executive assistant and even a waitress between the inevitable corporate layoffs). I eventually wrote pieces for several magazines and smaller regional papers and publications too, and built up quite an impressive clip portfolio over the years. Those clips eventually translated into staff writer positions that had real salaries and benefits.
Eventually I got into work as a medical writer/policy analyst in organized medicine (organizations like the American Medical Association and its sister orgs), where I got to do a lot of medical writing, hobnob with top physicians and researchers, and also come into contact with top health policy bureaucrats and legislators in Washington, DC. It was a grueling job with long hours and lots of travel (and the pay didn’t match, since I was working for a nonprofit) but as far as getting the necessary experience to be a top healthcare journalist, it was gold. I left that job after my son was born, then sort of wandered around aimlessly for a while, writing my fiction and not making much money at all. Then about a year ago I landed a steady freelance gig that had me writing medical journalism about 10 hours a week for a pittance. That gig began to grow slowly, with some interesting circumstances (like a two-month drought with no work at all, which was subsequently followed by a huge increase in work, along with a huge raise in pay).

From there, I ended up picking up some more work from some more clients who liked the work I was doing for the first client. And now, I’m getting unsolicited requests to write more healthcare and technology journalism for more clients, to the point I’m now doing this full-time, 8-5, five days a week (plus some evenings), making enough money to put my son in expensive daycare/preschool and still have plenty of money left over. It’s a great feeling, really.

I’m finding myself so busy, in fact, I’ve been worried about whether I can really deliver all the articles I’ve been hired to write this month. Which I suppose is a good problem to have, especially in this economy. Another cool thing that’s happened is the fact that some of the media relations/PR staffers at the various government and nonprofit agencies I’ve been contacting seeking interview sources have straight-out asked me how I manage to make my living as a freelance journalist. Today I got asked that question by a PR staffer at a Washington DC-based lobbying group who also happened to have a graduate degree in journalism from a VERY prestigious journalism school. I could almost detect the jealousy in his voice when I described how I make my living and how I get my gigs. He even mentioned how he was unsure why he’d even pursued journalism school in the first place, given how expensive it was and how poor the job prospects can be these days. (I’ll be interviewing a couple of deans at top journalism schools this month on that very topic for one of my article assignments, in fact).

It’s very ironic that a graduate of a top journalism school would even ask me that question, since I have no formal journalistic training and basically learned on the job. My original career goal was to become a professor of literature and/or drama at a university, and that’s the education I pursued. It didn’t work out, of course, for a whole bunch or reasons I’d rather not go into. But as the person I spoke with said to me on the phone today, I could very easily walk into a job teaching journalism and creative writing at a university today based solely on my own professional accomplishments. (I’ve been offered those jobs already, in fact—though so far they don’t offer enough pay to be worth pursuing). Which sort of brings things full circle, doesn’t it?

Gotta go. Have dinner to cook, then more interview calls to make and work to do this evening. Feast or famine, so it seems.