The Freelance Life

[x-posted at The Rumpus]

The latest issue of the Oxford American includes their annual “Best of the South” package, but it’s also got an essay on the struggles of freelancing, a subject that knows no geographical bounds.

For almost 20 years, Thomas Swick edited his newspaper’s travel section, freelancing a couple of books along the way. After getting laid off, Swick decided to write full time, and he packs the essay with reflections on this transition. For example: “Writing is one of the few trades in which the older you get, the harder the actual business of it becomes (especially in a culture that glorifies youth).”

Despite this anxiety, Swick’s best moments come on technology—and they’re not of the “these damn kids and their computers won’t get off my lawn” variety. Here’s my favorite passage:

I’d been warned of a new etiquette, or lack thereof, by which editors feel no obligation to respond to e-mails—presumably because they receive so many. The ease of communication has so crowded the field that it has ended communication. This makes life difficult for any writer, but especially for one who was recently an editor. And even more so for one who was a writer/editor. For nearly two decades, I assigned myself stories, turned them in to my unwavering approval, and then got back to myself immediately regarding publication dates. Being your own man pales in comparison to being your own editor (which, among other things, allows for the former).

Even if younger writers have never known a better way, it’s still frustrating when editors—present company excluded—leave one’s proposals to ripen, wither, and die. But Swick doesn’t just complain about this trend, he diagnoses its effects: “While writing, I am forever conscious of the potential arrival of a verdict on my writing”; or: “You can log off e-mail, of course, but you can’t turn your mind off the idea of e-mail.”

The essay’s not all doom and gloom, and Swick’s style will cheer you up, even if his conclusions don’t. Interestingly, he never mentions what newspaper axed him. Well, I looked it up—it was the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and things there seem to be getting worse.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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