Tag Archives: Freelancing

The freelancing life

My friend and former colleague Brian Moritz invited me to appear on his podcast, The Other 51, to talk about freelance journalism. Here’s the link.

We talked about the challenges, frustrations, and satisfaction of doing the kind of work I do without the stability of a steady paycheck. And we did it while sipping a delicious microbrew on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, undercutting some of my woe-is-me chatter. Enjoy.

A birthday present

Today marks the first birthday my father would have had since I left the world of salaries and offices for freelancing. With apologies for taking the blog on a personal detour, here’s a story about the significance of that.

We Obbies aren’t known for our longevity. My dad died almost eight years ago, at age 66, of a rare cancer. He would have turned 74 today. His father died at 74 of a heart attack, the same thing that almost killed him in his 40s. They were farmers, but my father left the farm for factory work in his early 20s to provide better for his growing family. He missed farming and thought a lot about making the most of his limited time on this earth. So he retired early, in his mid-50s, to return to farming. It was a retirement in name only. He worked constantly, but now it was for the love of it. He barely turned a profit. And he couldn’t have cared less. Given how young he was when he died, his unconventional career move showed great foresight.

Early in his “retirement,” my father sat me down for a talk. He was worried about me. By then I was in my mid-30s (he was 20 years old when I was born). I had advanced rapidly in my company and had been running one division or another starting in my late 20s. We lived far apart, so he only saw me when my parents visited us or when we took our vacations to visit them. Either way, I was working too much to enjoy my time with them, to say nothing of my own wife and kids. Even on my infrequent vacations, I would hole up in a room with my computer and phone. I wasn’t good at letting the stresses roll off me. My dad noticed. Promise me, he said, you’ll quit all that and do something you really love before it’s too late. Do it at age 50, he urged. I promised him I would, even though I considered it financially and practically implausible.

We never talked of that again, not even when I quit my job in New York to live close by in his last year of life. I took a full-time teaching job with a long commute. That winter was a snowy one, and I was commuting every day (later on I worked out a schedule that let me cut back a bit on the driving). I didn’t see him nearly enough, though I did manage to help on the farm as he grew sicker. After his death, I helped my mom keep the farm running for a couple more seasons while I stayed overly busy with teaching and writing projects.

I remained in that job for the next several years, enough to get both kids through college. Then, as my tenure clock ticked down to the up or out moment, I realized I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I’d hoped. The commute had grown so tiresome I was at a crossroads: move or quit. I knew what work is truly my first occupational love. Even though reporting and writing long-form narrative journalism is work that’s turned far less lucrative for most journalists in recent years, I decided as I approached my mid-50s — already past the deadline I’d set with my father — to walk away from the safety of a salaried job and start over as a freelancer.

Now I work on long-range reporting and writing projects that have almost no proven ability to put food on our table or pay the mortgage, at least so far. I can’t say I’ve learned to relax or work fewer hours. But now I’m doing the work I had set out to do before career advancement and income overshadowed happiness. My financial advisor’s anxieties notwithstanding, I consider this a fun experiment, to see if I can make a mark in this field before I run out of energy.

I’m doing one other thing, too: getting away from the computer and phone now and then. I lack my father’s farming and mechanical skills. But we own some land, which I walk twice a day with my wife and two dogs. On this March 8, as we walked the usual circuit through our snowy woods, I thought about that long-ago promise and decided I had, more or less, managed to keep it. Happy birthday, Dad.

Seven weeks, and still No. 7

Here’s a quick update for readers, seven weeks since the publication of God’s Nobodies. The book remains a best-selling Kindle Single, at this writing No. 7 in nonfiction and No. 22 overall, despite many new Kindle Singles’ debuts in the intervening weeks. For only a few hours here and there has the book slipped from the top 10 in nonfiction in those seven weeks. At its peak so far, God’s Nobodies was No. 3 in nonfiction and No. 8 overall (the rankings get updated hourly, so I may have missed some higher blips).

What all those numbers mean is that more and more people will learn what happened in this case and, I hope, take lessons from it about relationships, tolerance, understanding crime and criminals, and loving our children no matter what their sexual orientation turns out to be. I am grateful to readers who have helped spread the word by sharing posts from Facebook, Twitter, and this blog, among many other kindnesses.

Of course, it’s not all been positive attention. As I’ve mentioned on the blog a few times, there’s a raging debate in comments on this blog (mostly on the book’s main page), in Amazon reviews, and elsewhere. I have resisted the impulse to engage in line-by-line combat with certain critics who have made allegations that are, to put it kindly, loose with the facts. As I wrote in an earlier post about a published Q&A in the Post-Standard newspaper, if you want to understand what the book says and why I wrote it, please read it and my statements on this blog (archived here) about why I wrote it, rather than taking someone else’s word for what it says and why it says it. To that I will only add that the book, in its final chapter, documents an overreaction to perceived criticism of a church and a minister. Now we’re seeing overreaction to the story of an overreaction.

At the same time, often in private, I have heard from readers — some familiar with the people in this story, and many who are not — who are glad the story has been told and who agree with me that it’s a story that needed to be told.

Extreme outlining

It’s been nearly eight weeks since I found a home for the story I’ve tentatively titled God’s Nobodies (I announced my deal with Amazon’s Kindle Singles on this blog on June 18, after a two-week lag, as I wanted to get some preliminaries out of the way before going public with it). So how’s the writing going, you ask?

It’s not. But I never intended to simply restart the project by drafting the story. First, I had to comb through reporting notes accumulated over the past four years. What’s worth using? Where does it belong in story? I had hoped to accomplish that task in two or three weeks. It took the better part of eight weeks because (a) I needed a reliable way to remember and organize what information I had, and (b) I’m a bit of a procedural kook, and so once I decided this was what I needed, I saw no alternative but to keep plugging away. Dozens upon dozens of interview transcripts, many of them dozens of pages each; piles of paper, countless research memos and documents and summaries of documents I’d compiled along the way; I needed to review it all and plug it into the outline. The outline itself changed as I worked, both to make better sense of the narrative and to work toward compressing the story — down from the originally envisioned book length to a more concise Kindle Singles length. Finally, on Monday, I’ll finish this drudgery and start drafting, which I expect will move along briskly with all the relevant facts and quotes and ideas stacked in neat little chapter-piles.

Is this total overkill? Obsessive writer nuttiness? Unpaid work on top of years of unpaid work? Yes to all of that. But if there’s a more failsafe way to produce an accurate, complete nonfiction narrative, I don’t know what it is.

With the time remaining before my self-imposed* August 31 deadline, that works out to about 1,000 words, drafted and revised and revised many more times, every day until I deliver the manuscript to my editor. I have my doubts about such a pace. But I’m going to work like hell to finish what I started.

* I imposed the deadline to light a fire under myself (and it’s working!). I suppose I can push it back if necessary, but I want my editor to trust me when I make a promise. And I need to get on with other paying work.