9 Things I Learned About Freelancing in 2017

It's that time of the year again: A time for looking back, taking stock, and at least pretending our hard-earned wisdom might just benefit someone else. I did this once before and I'm doing it again: Here's a list of things I learned this year that made me a better freelance writer.

But before we get started, here's a pristine Norwegian landscape. Take a deep breath. There...feel better?

But before we get started, here's a pristine Norwegian landscape. Take a deep breath. There...feel better?

1. Pitching is work too
Some of us enjoy pitching, some of us hate it, and some of us use it as a procrastination technique. But pitching is work too, and should be treated as such. If you’ve spent time and effort on crafting a pitch, you have a right to feel like you’ve been productive today. What’s more, pitching isn’t the dead-end writers make it out to be: instead of thinking of it as work with no guarantee of reward, think of it as great practice. Pitching forces you to hone your writing skills, getting at the very heart of what makes an idea interesting, intriguing, and perhaps most importantly, sellable. The more you do it the better you get at it, and that means putting out more pitches, which means, just by sheer numbers, getting more positive responses.

2. It’s better to write something bad than write nothing at all
I used to spend ages sitting in front of a blank page, waiting for inspiration to come. Until I found that perfect opening sentence, I told myself, that page would stay blank because I couldn’t afford to take a wrong turn: someone might read it! The truth is, no one would read it, and that’s because when you’re plunking away at a rough draft, and that draft is saved on your computer’s desktop, the only one who ever needs to see it is you. What liberation! What bliss! Writing something bad means you’ll at least navigate your way through the tunnels of mediocrity and perhaps emerge in the light of brilliance at the end. But the only way forward is through. You can’t write something bad if you write nothing, but you also can’t write something great. Write first, edit later, but don’t sit staring at that blank page.

3. Any idea can become an article; you just have to find the right outlet
I used to get all worked up when I’d come across an article that seemed so obvious, I couldn’t believe an editor had accepted it. Likewise, I’d come across an article so obscure, I couldn’t believe an editor had accepted it, and that sometimes made me even madder. The worst was when I came across an article that was my own idea in written form: something I’d long pondered, perhaps agonized over, but eventually decided not to pitch due to the utter conviction that no one would ever be interested in it. Thing is, someone is always interested in something. That means you’ve always got a shot; you just have to pair your wild and wacky idea with the wild and wacky editor who will see something great in it.

4. If you’re at a loss, simply reading a publication can help
Used to be, I’d think of something I wanted to write, and drive myself to the point of exhaustion trying to find a place that would take it. I still do that quite often, but even more often, I’ll be presented with an outlet looking for a certain topic, and I’ll come up with a story idea that fits that topic. The downside of this? I may end up pitching a story idea and getting a no, then having to retire it because it was so niche. The upside, however, is that I know I’m pitching to a willing audience. Think of it as growing the business side of yourself: You’re looking at a market and coming up with a product that will fit, instead of being your own quirky creative self and (at least sometimes feeling like you’re) screaming into the void. The results have not been extraordinary for me yet, but they have been promising.

5. Read the kind of writing you want to imitate
This one should be easy, but for far too many of us, it isn’t. Read the kinds of writers you want to write like; whether it’s to dissect an article paragraph by paragraph, construct an outline to follow for your next piece, or simply take in the talent, let it slosh around in your squishy brain, and then see what comes out the next time you sit down to write. A while ago I decided I wanted to write the kinds of essays I marvel at most when I read them; the kinds of essays that leave me in awe of the writer’s ability to take what appears to be the most mundane subject and elevate it to the level of high art or great literature. Once I knew this was my goal, I began reading these essays more and more. I also delved into the “Best Food Writing” of 2016 and 2017, and figured out that I want to veer away from irritating listicles and flimsy trend pieces and do what these people do: Food is life, food is culture and memory, and a lot of these essays were about those things even more than they were about food.

6. Publishing something you’re proud of is more important than publishing something in a big-name outlet
Suddenly I realized I had publications I was proud of and articles I was proud of, but very often the two didn’t overlap. I had written for some great magazines and websites, places that make people’s eyes light up when you mention them, but the pieces of writing I read over and over again to remind myself I had talent? They weren’t the pieces that appeared in those places, but rather the pieces for much smaller journals or online magazines; pieces I’d been paid little to nothing to write, that would never catapult me to the upper echelons of New York literary society. But they had one thing going for them: if I was trying to prove to a literary mentor, a prize judge or a fellowship that I had a skill worth nurturing, these pieces would be at the top of the pile.

7. Ask about people’s experiences pitching/writing and they’ll usually tell you
I used to think the act of writing an article was, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Then I started talking to the people who actually write the pieces I admire. Spoiler alert! They were perfectly happy to talk to me about their pitching technique, their writing process, or what their greatest hurdles were when they were just starting out, because face it: we all love to talk about ourselves. I started listening to podcasts like “Longform” and “Kill Fee” that either interview one immensely talented writer about one piece of writing per episode, or more generally talk about the foibles of the industry. Both in person or on the radio, writers are remarkably self-effacing, laid-back, humorous and honest. What’s more, you can learn from them while you’re on your morning run: what could be better than that?

8. Make time to do the things you love that have nothing to do with writing
Writing guides and self-help books abound with advice like: “you’ll only write if you do the work” or “sit your butt in that chair and write”, but in all truthfulness, the time you spend away from the computer may be just as important as the time you spend in front of it. Sure, it’s better to write something than nothing at all (see item #2 on this list), but if you really just can’t bring yourself to get a single word down on paper, sometimes it’s best to get up from your desk and focus on something else. That doesn’t mean moping around the house wondering aloud why you’re so terrible at this, and that doesn’t mean binge watching Netflix. It means setting yourself to another task, preferably one that has nothing to do with being online, and throwing yourself into it fully. I was stuck on a recent piece that I needed to put together very fast, and my breakthrough came not during my gym class, but in fact on the way back from the gym, when I was sweaty and bundled up against the cold fall air, careening over rainbow-colored leaves on my bike ride home. I get a lot of great ideas in the shower too. And although I can’t think of one great idea I’ve had while cooking, I’m pretty sure that having a warm, tasty meal to eat at the end of a two-hour break is more than its own reward.

9. Ignore the mansplainers
I wrote an article recently that got me the most feedback I’ve ever gotten on anything. Some of it was negative, some of it was positive, but the vast majority wasn’t anything at all. That’s because most of the people who emailed me about this article weren’t interested in praising me or disagreeing with me. They merely wanted to explain my article back to me, in their own words. Unsurprisingly, all of these pointless, time-wasting emailers were men. As a woman in this field you have to deal with a lot, including, at the very worst end of the spectrum, harassment, stalking, and doxxing. Then there are the mildly toxic specimens of masculinity – those who take up your time and who, you can only imagine, are wasting their own time as well. The great thing about these people? You can, in large part, ignore them, and you should. Sometimes their brazen arrogance will get to you, and you’ll slam out a delightfully vicious rebuke, your mouse hovering over the send button. Resist the urge. Take to Twitter and say it in 140 (or now, 280) characters. Forward the email to a friend so you can both laugh at this sad little man. But the greatest gift you can give yourself in these cases is peace of mind, and that will only come with learning to ignore. After all, you’re already worlds ahead of these people; you had an article published on the subject they apparently know far, far better than you.


A Magical Trip to Fäviken

It happened by chance, as so many of the best things often do.

Magnus Nilsson was in Berlin on August 31, 2016, at the SoHo House to talk about his new book, and Ash and I stayed afterwards to chat with him and get a signed copy.  We introduced ourselves and I quipped about how this was probably the closest we’d ever get to eating one of his meals.

That’s when he informed us that reservations for the next six months at Fäviken would open at midnight that very night.

Naturally I rushed home, and with some waiting, refreshing and cursing, managed to secure us a table for two on March 15, 2017.

Sometimes I take living in Europe and being a freelancer for granted, but this was not one of those times. I would not have been able to plan so far ahead, nor to rest assured that a flight to Sweden would cost so little, had I not been a freelancer living in Europe. A lot happened in between, but more than six months later we were on a flight to Stockholm, and days after that on a scenic, snowy train ride in a compartment packed with ski equipment up to Åre, the town closest to Fäviken.

I haven’t spoken a lot about this because I don’t feel the need to brag, but when asked, I can reply honestly that it was the experience of a lifetime. There are many “destination” restaurants you can go to, enjoy, and simply cross off your list. Fäviken was different, because even before the meal had ended we knew we would have to come back. Sure, it’s the genius of the place that it creates an entirely different world for you each season you visit, but it’s the all-encompassing, sensory experience of the visit that makes it like no other.

Everything was charming, everything was perfect, and the momentary snowstorm that greeted us upon arrival was tempered by our delight at finding coats and galoshes available for our use at the door. I thought “winter wonderland” was a Christmas cliché until I came to Fäviken.

We were welcomed upstairs to our rooms, each with a gentle, childlike animal painted on the door, and shown to the sauna and its anteroom, which of course included an ice bucket of wine, beer and prosecco, as well as a jar of pickled turnips and chewy, oily, dried sausages on a cutting board. Practically the first ones there, we relaxed before dinner, enjoying the extreme calm even as chefs dressed only in shirtsleeves rushed across the snow carrying equipment under our window.

By the time mealtime had come around, we were so blissed out they could probably have served us anything. They welcomed us into the main room of what appeared to be a log cabin, offered us a specialty cocktail with pickled forest berries, and proceeded to dance out an array of choreographed fingerfoods and snacks, each more strange and beautiful and delicious than the last. By the surroundings, the food and the roaring fireplace, I was reminded of my favorite book as a child: the richly illustrated, frightening and thrilling Vasilisa the Beautiful. We were led up to the main room, a dim, low attic space with only six tables, and seated us at the table in the very center. As luck would have it, this was the perfect vantage point from which to snap pictures of not only the food as it was carried in by an entire team of people, but also various platings and preparation methods. I couldn’t have been happier.

What followed was a meal that was simply indescribable, so much so that Ash and I would repeatedly taste the dishes that were brought to us, watch each other’s eyes grow wide and stutter, grasping at words that wouldn’t come, only to gasp out, “Whhhhhat? Hhhhooowww?” To use vague, foodie terms like “food porn” and “foodgasm” wouldn’t do it justice. We were in the presence of masters.

By the end of the evening we were being offered the holy trifecta: schnapps, cigars and snus. We retired pleasantly but not overly full, our sadness at the meal’s end tempered slightly by our anticipation of breakfast, which we’d heard from many accounts, would be dinner’s equal.

Upon checkout we were presented with a calligraphied envelope containing a menu of the past evening’s delights, and an exhortation to come back soon…perhaps at hunting season.

As we headed back into town for a day of recovery, we promised each other we would do just that.

Click on any photo to be taken to the gallery

Click on any photo to be taken to the gallery

A Wildflower Walk

As the summer gasps, shivers and begins to breathe its last, it can be a helpful balm to remember the season at its most quintessential. For me, that usually involves a combination of landscapes, food and people, all of which were mixed together at perfect potency one weekend in early August.

I’d just returned from a long-awaited trip to Denmark, and indeed once this high point was past it felt like the summer must already be winding down. My friends had other ideas though: one of them called me and asked if a group could come up to Parstein for the weekend. It didn’t take me long to accept, and of course the offers of food and wine and cooking sessions together only sweetened the deal.

It was on the first evening, actually only hours after we’d arrived, that we all hit on the idea of taking a walk in the fields. It was August, after all, already, and that meant the long summer nights were not long for this world. We chose a path between Stolzenhagen and Lunow, one that J and I had walked before and spotted dozens of wildflowers in all different colors. The early apple trees would be almost at ripeness as well, so we were sure not to return empty-handed. As we got out of the car and ambled along, the girls separated from the boys in minutes, as one of our lot began picking flowers and forming a bouquet.

My friend Anjali had already expressed interest in flower arranging, but I have to admit I underestimated her talents. She’d already put together a bundle from what was growing in our garden, but this was absolutely magnificent. As we walked along the bouquet grew bigger and more elaborate, as did the wide-ranging fields of flower and corn. Suddenly, Lunow was in sight, but the boys were nowhere to be found. “I’ll bet they’ll be at the pub,” I joked, knowing there was only one in town and in fact in the entire region. One phone call later and it turned out I was right. We settled down for a drink in the rapidly fading light before making our way back across the fields at dusk.

The bouquet found a vase, the vase found a tabletop, and even now, six weeks later, the dried wildflowers give off the faintest whiff of hay and chamomile and fresh grassy perfume when you walk in the room.

(Click on any photo to be taken to the gallery)

Cooking from the Garden

Way back in May (I can’t believe how long ago that feels, and how long ago it actually is) before I’d been to Barcelona and the South of France, Corsica and Denmark, before the summer had even properly started, I was invited down to the house of a friend for an impromptu workshop.

Although I had only met Katrin approximately twice before (once for lunch in Berlin, once at that self-same house in Brandenburg, about an hour south), I call her a “friend” because I consider her a kindred spirit, as Anne of Green Gables would say. We both have houses in the country (although hers is considerably more lovely than mine) and we both take a certain pleasure in gardening, cooking, nature and those slow, thoughtful moments sitting around a table, surveying everything you have worked hard to create, not quite sure what to taste first.

She’d seen my work in Portugal, and was inspired to gather together some other bosom friends for a weekend of inspiration: we would show up on a Saturday just before lunch and leave on Sunday just after. In those 24 hours or so, we would pull, dig and pluck things from the garden, and see what deliciousness we could make out of them.

There was mandolin-sliced kolrabi dipped in a kind of dukkah (courtesy of my suitcase stowaway: grain and seed packets from Trader Joes), strawberry crumble and rhubarb cake, wild herb salad and carrots with tahini, farro with snowpeas and, the next morning, fresh eggs with grated zucchini. In between there was a walk in the woods, many, many chats over wine and coffee, and oh so many photographs.

By the time I left I felt I had made a couple of new friends, while strengthening my camaraderie with old ones. And once again, this life I have built here for myself, this experience stretching over eight years now, came into focus. I thought, as I often do, of all those little moments, those coincidences, that got me where I am right now. How lucky was I to be one of five people of different ages, backgrounds and experiences, and yet to be able to come together over a shared goal, for just one weekend in late spring? Looking back on these photos, it seems very lucky indeed….

Click on the images below to display full galleries.

Preserving Lemons - in Jars, on Film

About a month ago, I finally put some of the skills I learned at the Alentejo Workshop to good use - in my first solo photo shoot for an article on preserved lemons, published in Paste Magazine.

I had hoped rather than expected to jump into this quickly, and in the end, I imagined what would be a three-day venture (a day for making lists and testing out angles, a day for buying props, a day for shooting) turned into one long day of inspiration.

Once I'd set up a "test" shot I simply couldn't stop. Suddenly I was covering windows and moving furniture, standing up backgrounds and throwing tablecloths over my kitchen counters. I dashed out to KaDeWe, Berlin's best department store that also just happens to be steps from where we live, and proceeded to buy a couple of "props" (read: items I really wanted anyway but can now offer up an excuse for purchasing as they are "work").

The little white mortar and pestle, ramekin and silver citrus juicer were all new, for example. The linen tablecloth was a wedding gift, the Provençal pattern a simple swathe of cloth my mom had never used, which she once gave to me and which I'd saved in hopes I'd make pillow covers out of it (no longer). The big blue-and-white bowl, as well as it fits in this faintly French-inspired scene, is an old GDR model. The beautifully patterned jar on the left? A souvenir from a ceramic market in Córdoba several years ago.

Click on the embedded preview above for a link to the article, the thumbnail page below for a link to a gallery of "outtakes" - photos that weren't chosen, but nonetheless make me very proud to have ventured down this particular path.

The Alentejo Workshop

"All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. [...] Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. [...] And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. [...] It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions." - Ira Glass

A few years ago, I went to Morocco to learn how to cook. Well, not exactly. I already knew how to cook when it came to finding recipes, choosing ingredients, and following directions. What I didn’t know was how to improvise, and so I felt I wasn’t really a cook. This trip I went on – a workshop of sorts but really just a lot of food and fun with crazy, spontaneous people – was a way for me to challenge myself and learn something new. I looked at the roster beforehand, and found that I would be there with folks who knew what they were doing – award-winning food bloggers, restaurant owners, food and wine PR people, company owners. I knew I was out of my league, and the combination of excitement and nerves was strangely familiar, like I was once again on the way to my first day of school.

I look back at that workshop – which was marked not by uncertainty about cooking so much as wet shoes, a terrible cold and cancelled trips to the beach, as it turned out we were in Morocco during a storm so severe it practically washed out the streets of Essaouira, our home for four days, and neatly matched the TV images we were seeing of a washed out US East Coast during Hurricane Sandy. But I look back, and I think about that feeling of uncertainty, of only knowing enough to know how little I knew, and then I compare it to how confident I feel in the kitchen now. I routinely plan meals based on what I see at the market – something that would have been unconscionable to me then. I tweak recipes to come up with my own, better versions; I rarely simply do what’s written on the page. This was a skill that had to be learned through practice, and I think of this now, upon my return from another workshop that has challenged me, bashed me up a bit where ego is concerned, introduced me to new ways of looking at the world and new creative yearnings, and once again, taught me just enough to know how very little I know.

This time it was in Portugal on the Alentejo coast, and this time I found myself surrounded not by food industry professionals, but by 12 photographers who knew a lot more than I did. The learning curve was steep, the frustration keenly felt, and of course, by day two, I found myself in the midst of a kind of personal crisis. How to keep your spirit up when you find yourself at the beginning of something that all others around you have seemingly mastered – and effortlessly at that? How to keep trying to get the right shots in the right light after a technical discussion that makes you realize how severely limited you are not just by your skill, but by your camera? Indeed, to paraphrase a famous book, play and film, how do you succeed in photography without really trying?

I found out that photography, more than most other forms of creativity, is where visual art meets performance. Photography is actually a lot more like dancing than it is like painting. It is only when you produce a photograph that looks highly natural, spontaneous, graceful and exciting that your viewers begin to think your process really was all of those things. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly made it look easy – what’s more, they made it look joyful – and these women I was with seemed to me to do much the same, tapping out a cacophony of shutter openings and closings (most of them, of course, artificial these days, on digital SLR cameras), waltzing and twirling around the room, appearing to know without looking, feel without seeing, where the best light was, where the best angles were, and exactly how far they needed to crouch down or climb up to capture them. Sometimes the entire thing was so complicated and enticing, I had to stop for a moment and watch. Perhaps because I’d given up on getting my own perfect angle, confronted by the sharp elbows and tilted heads and furiously working fingers of so many woman who were better at this than me, I could step back and observe it like a theater scene. Once I did, I could marvel at how each and every person in this room seemed to know the movements of being a photographer. It really was something like a dance.

Here, then, is a tribute to those dancers, myself included. I can think of no better way to give my thanks for the moves they taught me then to present my own collection of photos, which came out better than I ever could have hoped. I feel my own steps getting better now, a few weeks later; I’m more sure-footed when I take them. I can also perceive subtle changes in my attitude, an objectivity that makes me more likely to say, “I did my best, and there are some great shots here” than “I’m sure somebody else would have done better.” I look forward to many more opportunities to improve my camera skills. I know I have a long way to go before I become Fred Astaire.

Click on the images below to display full galleries.

Eulogy to the Peach Tree

We laid the peach tree to rest yesterday. Well, if by “lay to rest” you mean grab hold of the trunk, walking around it in circles to loosen it from the ground, bobbing up and down on it to further loosen it, and then finally yanking it out by the roots, with a small hand-held saw to help us. It was the only tree in the garden this spring not to have sprouted a single leaf or blossom, while the others were already bedecked with petals. The peach tree wasn’t a late bloomer; it was just time for it to go.

It’s funny how, when you’re a gardener, plants can become like pets. Each is a protagonist or minor character in your horticultural play, and there is an absence keenly felt when one exits, stage left. Everyone knows what it’s like to lose a pet, but there’s a certain kind of absurd grief that comes with losing a tree.

The peach tree was, it was pointed out, the most beautiful, the most delicate, and the most susceptible to disease. Funny how those things seem to come together, as beauty in the garden must often equate with fragility. Our rhubarb plants are quite hideous, oversized Jurassic things, although their stalks certainly taste delicious in cakes. The leaves on our squat, shrubby strawberry plants always turn a most obscene shade of reddish yellowish brown and shrivel over winters, but they dutifully grow white flowers with the yellow pads at the center you can already envision as strawberries. The peach tree’s blossoms were always a deep, ruddy pink, its fruits always small but perfect.

Those first few years with it were like a childhood dream come true – that first time you grow something in your very own garden that you have seen for sale all your life, it’s always like a small miracle. We picked the fuzzy, pink-salmon-yellow fruits and made jams and pies, we marveled at the fact that a tree like this was even possible in northern Germany.

But then it turns out it really wasn’t. Two years ago, disease hit. The normally delicate, long wispy green leaves turned gnarled, bulbous, red and bubbly with boils. The illness caught the leaves even as they emerged from their branches. And I thought, “how unfeeling, not even to allow the tree a moment to breathe, stretch, and glory in its loveliness.”

The tree fought on valiantly, like a hospital patient who knows he’s headed for hospice care, still squeezing out leaves, still – unbelievably – producing smaller and smaller fruits, which glowed even as everything else shriveled up around them. We asked more experienced neighbors for help, we cursed, we denied, and finally, this year, we mourned.

I’ve found there’s a certain predictability to telling people about Parstein. They ask how big it is, they ask if we have a garden and how big that is. When I start to list the fruit trees – apple, pear, plum – they nod silently, expectantly. It’s only when I get to “peach” that the nodding stops and you can see their eyes get wider – but just a bit, as if they’re trying to hide their wonder. There’s something particularly magical about having a peach tree – especially when you aren’t in Georgia or South Carolina. There’s a special kind of innocent decadence to the peach tree, a culmination of various picture book stories.

As I watched the tree come down sideways and the roots emerge, I realized that gardening is nothing like in the picture books; it’s muddy and messy and sometimes, not at all fun. You have to battle predators, large and small, winged or slimy, and sometimes, you have to battle the fact that you live in a country where it’s much too cold for peaches.

Let this, then, be a eulogy to the peaches that gave us so much joy, filled our stomachs and fueled our imaginations. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite films, “For a few years they were mine; that is enough.”


Will 2016 be the year we start talking about failure?

“As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good.” –Megan McArdle, Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators

A lot of writers I know and read have been talking about failure lately, and it’s not even a coincidence. The beginning of 2016 seems to have hit us particularly hard for some reason.

On February 1st, after a particularly unproductive month, I decided to revisit the conditions of what seemed to be 2015’s winning streak. Last January I took a class called 30 Days, 30 Queries, meant to fight the terror of the pitch by forcing each and every one of us to become an idea-generating, pitch-scribbling machine. If you punched them out quickly and cared less about each one, the theory went, you’d inure yourself to the soul-crushing cycle of hope and rejection that’s sent many a freelancer running back to an office job, and instead set yourself on a surefire path to productivity.

I had quite a bit of luck with this course, taught by a smart, kick-ass journalist who’d had more than her fair share of ups and downs and wasn’t afraid to talk about them. I netted some of my best clips, and was even taught the power of perseverance when an essay of mine was finally accepted by Talking Points Memo, after being rejected on spec by the Washington Post and every other outlet I contacted.

I felt as though I’d challenged myself, forced myself to do the work, as the Megan McArdle article in the Atlantic had said, and come out with a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, opening up to further challenges and more self improvement as a writer. I was so pleased with myself, I even wrote down 10 lessons I’d learned about being a freelance writer, posting them online on consecutive days as if I had a captive audience, or really anyone who checked my blog regularly besides mom and dad. I was sure this was just the beginning of my long path towards success as a freelancer, so when I mentored younger versions of myself later in life, I could point to this class as the turning point.

Well, it turns out it’s not that easy. I've spent my first two weeks recreating 30 Days, 30 Queries in February 2016 sending out pitch after pitch, only to be met with rejection (1) or silence (14), forcing me to dwell on my failures, question the legitimacy of my small successes and wonder whether I’m at all cut out for the freelance writing lifestyle.

And in case there was any doubt, it is very much a lifestyle. I’m not talking about the ability to wake up late, take midday naps and prepare luxurious meals every night, all because you’re not spending your waking hours rushing to and from an office. I’m not talking about the ability to take a vacation or a day off at any time (something few freelancers are financially equipped to do, but which nevertheless earns us a reputation for being lazy and entitled). I’m talking about the uncertainty, not just financial and professional but psychological, that very few people my age seem to be able to handle. From that same Atlantic article:

Young people are uncomfortable with the unstructured world of work. No wonder so many elite students go into industries with clear boundaries, like finance and consulting.

It took me a while to realize that many of the smartest kids at my high school and college ended up going into finance or becoming lawyers. I could think of a few who’d gone in to more creative feels, but only after they’d added that self-satisfying and somehow worth-affirming MFA to their CVs. Very few had lit out for a career entirely of their own making, because when you build your ideal career from the ground up, there are no bosses, colleagues or mentors to help you along the way.

And that’s the fundamental thing about freelancing. There is no other freelancer out there with your background, your talent (or lack thereof), and your set of goals. If you’re successful, you can look at where you’ve been and feel like everything happened for a reason, everything clicked into place as it should have, and now you’re here and you feel great about it. If you’re unsuccessful, though, it’s very hard to look at the million mixed up pieces you’re juggling and pull out the ones that fit together to make that perfect puzzle image you want to be your life.

If you’re a lawyer and you make partner at a law firm, you have your excellent college grades and LSAT scores to thank for getting into one of the top law schools, once there, the stellar grades, connections and recommendations to thank for getting you into a top law firm and finally, a combination of hard work and luck to thank for getting to partner level. If you’re a doctor or in academia, it is much the same: a lot of where you end up has to do with a professional path that’s been laid out for you.

When you’re a freelancer, there is no map because there is no path.

 A couple of years ago, a successful writer told me, “years from now, you’ll look back on everything you did and you’ll see that it all made sense; it all got you to where you are now.” I thought to myself, “you’re only saying that because you’re successful.”

Indeed, I still can’t shake the feeling that for every successful writer out there claiming to look back on it all with clarity and confidence, there must be a hundred or even a thousand writers for whom it all ends up never making much sense. Much like we never hear about “the folks who believed in the mythical ‘N-rays,’ declared that human beings had forty-eight chromosomes, or saw imaginary canals on Mars,” as Ms. McArdle describes, we also never hear about those people who tried for years to sell a manuscript, applied to that fellowship or grant unsuccessfully, or in my case, sent out a pitch a day for 30 days and never got a yes on even one of them.

The narrative when you’re a freelancer is that everything has to happen for a reason, precisely because you’ve got no one around you to tell you what that reason is. This is why so many of us end up in badly paid content mills, begrudgingly sell an article for a pittance because we just need to publish it somewhere, or still accept “exposure” in lieu of payment. 

“Exposure” is the direct result of that little voice inside of you telling you this might be your big break, admonishing you to say yes at all costs, because you just might look back on your yes five years from now, as the royalty checks pour in and the New York Times and the New Yorker fight over your latest think-piece, and see that it all came down to that little article you wrote for no pay for that little website that could.

So failure to find the right kind of work for your bank account or reputation becomes failure to find the right kind of work to add a rung to your ladder to success. Call it freelancer FOMO, but it is the fear of missing out on that contact with an editor who (surprise!) moves on to a bigger and better publication, that set of eyes from an agent at a publishing house who thinks your piece would be just perfect as a memoir. We crank out more and more work as our quest for quality becomes a struggle for quantity, as we try to cover all our bases, to make sure our work appears everywhere – or at least everywhere our rivals' work has appeared.

I wish I could offer up some inspirational quote or wickedly clever aphorism to end this piece, but not knowing where it ends is, too, the nature of failure. We press on with our pitching and our hustling and our invoice writing and bank account checking in hopes that somehow we’ll have a breakthrough, either mental or professional, and it’ll suddenly all make sense. That someday we won’t have to congratulate people younger than we are or people we once offered advice to, then cry tears of rage and clench our fists with jealousy and fear—no, certainty—that it will never be our turn.

These are all the different kinds of failure no one wants to mention, but if 2016 is the year we finally start talking about them, then I’m ready.

I’ve certainly got enough material to fill a book.

We Are Here Now

The best moments […] are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
                                                ―  Alan Bennett, The History Boys

So, here we are a week later, and I still find myself with unexpectedly wet cheeks, unconscionably lumpen throat and ringing ears. I’ve heard every version of Major Tom, watched the International Space Station cover, watched Labyrinth and the Making Of, rejoiced in every snaggle-toothed smile, even as I welcomed the heartache. I questioned whether to write this at all.

I’m not much for celebrity worship. I never was. And yet here I am, here we are, and the pain is unbearable. A friend of mine said it best when he said, “as I sit here stunned by this morning's news, I realise I had genuinely believed that David Bowie was immortal.” And that’s really it. From the moment I first saw Labyrinth, followed closely by my dad presenting me with a CD with the same face on its cover, titled “Let’s Dance” and my realization that, “wait a minute, Jareth the Goblin King is a rock star!” David Bowie has felt less like a celebrity than a member of my family.

I remember presenting my new babysitter with my favorite new film to watch for the evening, and being shocked that she knew the person on the cover was a man, not a woman, even though he had long, sleek blond hair that, I thought, rightfully belonged to a woman. I can’t have been more than six (I always had imaginary friends and scenarios as a child) when I paced back and forth in my bedroom, voicing both sides of a conversation between a Labyrinth film tech guy and David Bowie, who in my mind was only Jareth, and unhappy about the direction the film was taking. He was in my head that early, and as I began to discover more and more of his music, he never let go.

What is it to feel the ache of the loss of something that has never truly been yours? Does mourning along with the rest of the world make it feel better or worse? I have this sense – as I feel sure every single one of his fans does – that I am somehow special because I listened to and appreciated his music. And in a way, isn’t that what we’re really doing when we listen to music? Perhaps that isn’t the whole story – after all, their must be something in the bassline and the beat and the melody and the story that grabs us – but when we’re all alone in a room, or walking alone in a city with the music, we are communing with this person that we will never know and yet know so closely. We feel we have been singled out for his message.

So many people attest to this sense of being an outsider, a misfit uncomfortable in our own skin when we were young. I had my own “David Bowie moment” so to speak, when I was around 16 or 17, and discovered the downtown music scene just beginning to burble over the surface in New York. Places like the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and the East Village, which I had barely ever set foot in although they were each a name and a history and an image for me, were suddenly illuminated, through and through. Backrooms of bars, music venues with stages inches off the floor, lofts and apartments, these become the tiny pinpricks of light that spread out to clarify my mind map. I became a creature of the night, even as I did my homework by day, and kept up my grades and looked towards college.

We were all the same odd people who congregated at the foot of these stages, all intent on sacrificing hours of our evenings just to make sure were in the front row, at arm’s length for the best pictures. There I met a fellow photographer, except he wasn’t a fellow at all because he was a professional. In one of our many meetings he let it be known that he had passes to photograph for the Today Show at Rockefeller Center. Did I know who was performing tomorrow at the Today Show?

I didn’t. The Today Show was the vulgar mainstream. I was a high school rebel rebel.

“David Bowie.”

And even better:

“If you’re willing to get yourself up very early in the morning and come down to Midtown to meet me by 6:45, I can get you in. You can even bring a friend.”

The giddiness of that morning is well documented in a blogpost from the time, back when I was New York Doll and thought that name was just adorable:

When I accepted an invitation from a photographer friend of mine covering the Today Show in Rockefeller Center, I also had to accept an enormous amount of skepticism along with it. He actually gave me his cell phone number, just so I could call him when I woke up at 6:00 in the morning and decided that sleep was a lot more important than Bowie. He acted surprised and pleased when I showed up on time that Thursday morning, friend in tow, but his shock certainly could not match the amount of surprise and delight that would be mine when, after leading us around the back of the stage and past a velvet rope, he placed us in the VIP area and told us to wait. “Wait here?” We thought to ourselves, wondering where else there was to go besides this small barricaded area directly in front of the fans who had undoubtedly been camped out in their spots since the night before. “Does he mean we’re not staying here?” By the time he came back with photo passes for both of us, and led us to the ten feet of space in front of the stage that served as the photo pit, our eyes had glazed over with sheer disbelief. So what if he only played four songs? We were five feet away from Ziggy Stardust and a million miles from earth.

I don’t remember what songs he played, or even if he performed them well. I remember the few moments afterwards when he came down toward us, and began to greet that line of dedicated, all-nighter fans and sign autographs. I came up behind him, put my hand on his shoulder to try to get him to turn around. Felt my hand connect with warm denim over muscle, before I was gently but firmly pushed back by one of several bodyguards who surrounded him.

“Ma’am, you do not touch Bowie. You do not approach Bowie from behind.”

I could hardly have been shocked or even insulted; for a moment my pumping heart had drowned out the cheers from the crowd. “This,” I thought to myself, “might just be one one-hundredth of what it feels like to be a rock star.”

In the ensuing years I would pull out those photographs from that morning to admire them, just as I pulled out that memory and marveled at the fact that all these strange details had come together to get me there. I never saw that photographer again, can’t even remember his name.

Over the years David Bowie and I lost each other, but he popped up now and again, perhaps most surprisingly, when I moved to Berlin and found that Berlin and Bowie had had a special relationship – one that anyone who chose this city above other more glamorous locales will recognize and appreciate. I must have passed Hauptstrasse 155 a hundred times without actively registering it; now I live 15 minutes away by foot, and the garden of flowers, notes and candles spilling out around the door made me feel all whirly inside, but also grateful. That same garden of flowers, notes and candles has been sprouting up all over this past week. It’s the same one that comes around after any death, any tragedy or terrorist act. Yet none of it registered with me the way this did. I briefly considered whether this might indicate a severe lack of empathy or skewed values on my part. If that’s the case, there is a problem with all of us.

In considering what Bowie meant to us, and what he didn’t, there is a tendency to resort to hyperbole. I was not a gay man in 1960s London, yearning for someone to show me it was okay to be different. I have never been an aspiring musician looking for a muse or inspiration. I can’t even really claim to have been the most dedicated David Bowie fan in the world.  But I can say that whenever I contemplated his presence on earth, it made me feel a little more joy and a little less sadness. When I listened to his music, it was as if a hand had come out and taken mine.

“You do not touch Bowie.”

And no one ever will.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #10

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’ve been sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #10.

The success of others doesn’t mean your failure; it can mean your success as well.

At this point, you may have noticed a theme here. I think as professional writers, all of us, even those who go around with those moony-eyed looks and dreamy, contented smiles, have experienced jealousy so fiery and bright it almost blinds us. When someone gets a book deal, our first reaction is to seethe before we write a begrudging “congratulations” and “happy for you” in an email or on a Facebook wall. If someone gets an article in the New York Times, it must have been for reasons other than talent/she isn’t that good anyway/that newspaper is going downhill and they’ll take anyone these days. I’m guilty of it; guilty of it all. And I’m sure you are too.

At a certain point, however, I realized that, not only was this line of thinking doing me absolutely no good, it was also keeping me from taking advantage of new and valuable sources of information, usually people fresh from the high of getting said book deal or writing for said influential newspaper who were more than happy to share the story of how they did it. When you were little, perhaps your parents assured you that they loved you and your siblings equally; that their love was not a pie with different sized slices cut out of it; you and your brother or sister each had a whole pie of your very own. Well, success is like that pie: just because someone else got an article published in the New Yorker or the Atlantic doesn’t mean you are any less likely to. The pie doesn’t grow smaller because a fellow writer you know took a piece out of it and you can only take what’s left. You have to bake your own pie (am I taking this metaphor too far?) with ingredients you already have in your own kitchen.

Again, the writers’ groups I belong to have been crucial here. When a writer happily posts an article she has written for The New York Times travel section, I don’t have to give her a half-hearted congratulations while trying to keep that simmer of frustration inside me from boiling over. Instead I can say, “congratulations; tell me how you did it” and she’ll be more than happy to oblige; no one will think the worse of me, or anyone else, for having asked that question, because we are all here to help each other.

We are all here to help each other. Sometimes I think if we were just to remember that phrase and follow it, freelance writers would face higher payment for their articles and more responsive and helpful editors when we pitch and write. If someone else is successful, that means you can be too. Be happy for them and seek to emulate them; it means you’re on your way.