Monday, October 5, 2009

On The Job



Most people have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. I know this because every time someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m a writer, they say, “Oh, you’re a writer? That must be so interesting!” Or “fun.” Or “exciting.”

Being a writer and working from home is, in fact, almost always none of those things. It’s mostly work, like any other job, except you don’t have to pick up heavy things, deal with the public, or wear a tie—or pants.

And if you think working at home is cool, just remember that also means you live at work.

I originally got into the writing business because I wanted to get into motorcycle races without paying for a ticket. I wrote a letter to Cycle Guide, offering to take photos at the San Jose Mile and Laguna Seca if the magazine would get me a press pass. To my astonishment, the sport editor took me up on that offer. Eventually he asked me to write stories to go with my photos, and I more or less backed into my current career.

For the past 21 years I’ve been a full-time freelancer, which means I hire myself out to various publications on a per-story basis. I come up with an idea and pitch it to an editor, or an editor comes up with an idea and asks me if I’d like to write a story about it. Either way, my livelihood depends on a constant supply of fresh ideas, mine or someone else’s.

Sometimes the ideas don’t come. That means checks don’t come, either. That’s when I do one of two things. Plan A is stare a hole in the wall until an idea crawls out of it. Some people can make things happen this way, by sheer force of will. I’m not one of them. Plan B is to go do something else and let the ideas come in their own time, a method that paradoxically combines work with the avoidance of work. In other words, I can ride to a coffee shop, spend the afternoon there reading the paper, and still be technically on the job. I love Plan B.

Some of the work I do is behind the scenes. I edit and copyedit for one of the magazines I write for, and now and then for a book publisher. Writing a magazine or a book is, or should be, a collaborative process. The more eyes that see a story or manuscript before it goes to press, the better the chances are of ferreting out errors of fact, style, grammar, and usage. (The more attentive among you will no doubt find some of these scattered around this very blog. To which I can only reply, where were you when I needed you?)

My own eyes have seen some pretty terrible things in the course of editing, like a recommendation of the Honda Gold Wing as the perfect bike on which to circumvent the globe; the fact that an injured racer took a year off to coalesce at home; the assertion that earthquakes are caused by Teutonic plate movement; an exhaustive review of a book about Buells that the reviewer read all the way through without noticing that Buell’s first name is spelled Erik, not Eric; and the words publically, desparate, and preformance (which of course should be publicly, desperate, and performance), a clear indication that some writers who pride themselves on an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of automotive and motorcycle technology have not yet figured out how to work their computer’s spell checker, or a dictionary (hint: the words are in alphabetical order).

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Either way, it’s my job to fix it. This process has been referred to as “making someone else’s resumé look good,” because when the writer whose story you’re working on wants to impress another editor, he’ll seldom offer the story as it was submitted—known as raw copy—as proof of his skills, but rather the version someone like me labored over for a couple of hours to turn into something approximating English.

Hey, it’s a living.

Actually, it’s less of a living now than it used to be, thanks to the internet, which has been siphoning advertising away from print magazines for years, and the current economy, which has only made the internet effect worse by making advertisers afraid to come out from under the bed until the scary monsters go away. Fewer ads mean fewer pages per issue of your favorite magazine, and that means fewer stories an editor needs each month, and that means some really good ideas—some of them mine—die quiet deaths before their time.

I realize that by this point I’ve painted a grim picture of writing for a living, and you might well be asking yourself why I don’t get out of the business. It’s a question I’ve asked myself often as I sat at my desk, losing a staring contest with a blank screen on my laptop, and there’s only one answer that makes any sense.

You’ve heard of people who say they love their job so much they’d do it for free? I’m one of them, and you’re reading the proof. There’s something about starting with a bunch of unconnected thoughts, and then lining them up in the right order so they make sense, that appeals to me in a way that goes beyond mere enjoyment. When everything is going right, my conscious brain almost steps out of the way, as if something is writing through me, using me as a conduit. You’d think that as a writer I’d be able to convey that feeling more clearly, but I can’t. It’s indescribable, and it makes me feel very alive.

Still, I have to consider the practical side of all this. It takes money to keep the lights on around here, and to keep Daisy supplied with tennis balls. There might come a time when I give up writing as a full-time occupation and get a job someplace where I have to wear pants to work.

But I get the feeling that if I ever do, I’ll miss the interesting, fun, and exciting life of a freelance writer.


1 comment:

Dancer's mom said...

And those congenital visits that some prison inmates are allowed to have with their spouses. (omg - I just figured out why that word made some kind of sense to the writer: con = with...)