Sunday, April 12, 2015

Freelancers and Unicorns.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my Nanni and her two sisters, my great-aunts Judy and Phylomena. My dad would drop me off at their house when he went to swim laps or we'd visit for dinner or Dad would go over to fix a drip or a leak or a broken something. They lived in a small, extremely tidy brick house situated on a mostly yard-less corner lot in the heavily Italian-populated Glen Elk neighborhood of Clarksburg, West Virginia. 

Benedica! they would say. You're so pretty. Marry a man with money. 

My great aunts and grandmother all lived long enough to see me go off to college and get married. Except I only did one of those things. I didn't marry that man with money. Or any man. I remained mostly single throughout my twenties, dating rarely and dysfunctionally. In all those years, the Calabrian threesome at the house on the corner lot met exactly one boy I called mine for a time. Or they may not have met him at all. Memory is tricky.

During my last year of college—which wasn't a typical last year because I'd gone back to finish my degree at age 22 when most people are ready to graduate—Aunt Judy died. Then after college, Aunt Phyl. When I was thirty-seven, last year in this very month of April, Nanni slipped away at the age of 98. Along my formative 20s, the threesome had watched me navigate the eccentric path of my life: Moving from house to house, city to city; starting college, then stopping, then starting again; celebrating my eventual graduation with high hopes for my eventual settling; re-settling into being onlookers of my Adventures in Job Hopping.     

None of them ever had much to say about my life—to me, that is. I imagine my gypsy ways were a topic of conversation over plates of spaghetti with meatballs accompanied by either a tomato or lettuce salad. At the corner-lot house in Glen Elk, salad was always the green or red leaf variety, never romaine or iceberg, and always dressed with olive oil and not much else. My tastebuds have vivid recollection of that romaine salad whose blandness was uncharacteristic or perhaps simply unexpected according to the high standards bestowed upon old-school old Italian ladies in Clarksburg. My great-aunts, over pasta and tasteless greens, would've barked harsh assessments of their sister's wayward granddaughter, whose high GPA and good looks should've propelled her onto a more traditional path in life. The three were highly neurotic, a trademark of Italians from Clarksburg, I think. Nanni, despite her habit of peeking into my car windows to later chastise me about tempting thieves with things like tennis shoes, was always tender when it came to my nontraditional traditions of being me. The details of my life—like lack of stability in work or love or location—never seemed to sway her opinion of me. Nanni always believed in me. Any time I had an accomplishment—and I had many despite the Basquiat-looking work of art that was my life—she always told me she was proud of me. In the late years of Nanni's life, I returned to West Virginia unmarried and pregnant with her first great-grandchild. I was worried about her reaction, but in typical style, she had none. And when my little darling arrived, she was nothing but overjoyed, adoring him in her scratchy, squeaky, nonagenarian voice. Maybe Nanni didn't understand the vision of my life the way I did, but somehow, in her own way, she got it. 

I think that's all most of us expect, for others to somehow get it. In real life, it turns out more like Spit in one hand, wish in the other, kiddo. What I've learned is that it's unrealistic to expect every person in my life to be on board with my vision. That has been a dry piece of toast to choke down; luckily, I've also realized that sharing my vision comes quite easily for some people. And while it has been a painful shedding of layers to learn this lesson—those layers often being humans I liked very much or even loved —it's worth the reward of knowing that there are a precious few who will hang on for the duration.

When I graduated from West Virginia University in the winter of 2002, holding a degree in English with a creative-writing concentration and a cum laude designation, I wasn't well on my way to whatever it is that parents hope for their children. (Although I'm a parent myself now, I'm still not sure what I hope for my son, other than for him to be honest, perspicacious, independent, and to have a heart more refined than the one I'm still cultivating—one that has compassion and patience and wisdom.) At 26 years old, new college grad, I didn't have a clear target in mind but instead an inkling of what I wanted to be: A woman of words. So that's what I set out to be. Adventurous, it has been. 

Shortly after landing in Memphis, I landed my first job in advertising, as a junior copywriter at a small agency in a hip, rehabbed warehouse downtown. I had zero experience but endless confidence and ambition, and I guess somehow the latter came through to get me the job. I was handed a Mac laptop, which I'd never used before, and given a corner of a wall-length L-shaped desk. I quickly learned how to download iTunes playlists from coworkers, which gave way to Headphones All Day, Every Day; not so conducive to making workplace friends. There was big money involved in the jobs we handled—big corporations like FedEx and multinational medical-device makers—and while my supervisor was cool and patient and helpful, I was largely on my own, learning the strange language of copywriting, which was unlike any writing I'd ever known. I nearly cried the day I was assigned to write a hip replacement surgery manual. The phrase "It's not rocket science" didn't lend much perspective, because it was a surgeon's manual, after all. Kinda serious stuff. I got the hang of it and wrote a piece that I assume hasn't killed anyone. My first job in advertising was an invaluable teaching tool and foundation for my eventual career, but at the time I hated every minute of it. I lingered for about seven months and then returned to being a filament on the breeze. The official term for it is freelancer. 

Upon leaving my full-time job, I began working toward becoming a freelance writer and editor, which I'd already done a bit in years before moving to Memphis. But I was very green and so took on whatever jobs I could find in the meantime. I worked in the office for a large Memphis festival operation; I became a production assistant in TV and film production. Little by little, I wriggled my way into my chosen field again, finding freelance work with a big agency, a gig that introduced me to a woman looking for a copy editor for her magazine. Eventually, I became the managing editor of that  magazine, a long-running health and fitness publication distributed throughout Memphis and surrounding areas. The operation was small, with no central offices and a staff of five. Pay was enough to get me by, and sometimes not quite enough, so I continued working in TV and film.

A few years passed and I was ready to move on. One day I discovered a magazine online, a super-cool, funky rock-n-roll rag published in Mississippi. So I sent the editor a line and he called me for an interview, which took place in a small, raggedy looking yellow-sided house on the side of the road just across the border in Mississippi. Turns out my interviewer was the boyfriend of the daughter of a famous 50s rocker and maybe he fancied himself the coolest cat in town. A week or so later, he hired me and I quit my then-current post. Turns out cool cat was also a crazy cat, and when I inquired about my start date, he didn't recall hiring me. Needless to say, he was busier cultivating his cowpunk look than his professional demeanor, so I was left jobless. The magically disappearing job was certainly frustrating but an occupational hazard to which I'd become fairly accustomed. Onward, little filament. 

As Fate tended to do in my life, she handed me a new opportunity in the nick of time. "Must be nice having that comfy job." That's what a friend said of my new gig with a big ad agency in downtown Memphis. It was a part-time freelance position that paid very well—every freelancer's dream. It was indeed comfy strutting into Dollar General knowing I could pick out whatever brand of toilet paper I wanted—without even checking the unit prices!—I was movin' on up for sure. But there was something snide in my friend's comment, as if I'd been handed the job without having to work for it. 

As I've come to realize, the general population understands very little about freelancing. They seem to think it's a hobby, a side job, or a silly dreamer's occupation. They believe that because a freelancer might not work for periods of time or works odd hours, this person is not a worker by definition. Or, when we do make it, they think we're lucky jerks who didn't sacrifice to get what we got. Sadly, many business owners who use freelancers understand very little about it too, showing their ignorance in such detestable acts as asking us to work for free. In one such case, an editor told me that they need writers to provide a first article for free because that person's work might turn out to be sub par. Oh, I see. Free labor is like an insurance policy. Except there's actually a better solution, one I believe is practiced in the business world at large: When you hire someone, you pay them for the duration they work for you, and then if they don't perform well, you fire them. It's interesting that this doesn't occur to business people who use freelancers. No, I'm kidding. It does occur to them; they just use a loophole about paying people that has somehow come to exist in certain areas of business. I'd like to close up that hole. With cement. And anyone who trespasses against it will be shocked with high voltage. 

Unlike herding unicorns or guarding pots of gold beneath rainbows, freelancing is a real job. Those of us who choose it would love it to be recognized as such. Here are ways you can do that: Don't ask us to work for free, ever (unless it's for charity). Give us the respect that's typically naturally given to those who work in offices. (Translation: Please return our calls and emails. Please follow up rather than leaving us hanging after we've spent hours of our valuable time creating proposals for you.)

I read an article recently that discussed a new trend in parenting in which passion—for a given area of expertise—is being pushed upon children and is touted as the only way to success in life. The article went on to espouse the notion that passion isn't always present, can't be forced, and isn't altogether necessary for success. At first I was miffed, given that passion has been my modus operandi for most of my adult life, but objectivity kicked in before my heart could break. It's true: Passion isn't for everyone. Some people need not love what they do. They go to work for a paycheck and they're cool with that. Others are like intuitive, sensitive little forest creatures who are easily scared off by That Which They Cannot Feel, and when forced into non-nurturing spaces, they turn into raging, caged beasts. The world has room and need for all of us. This is not to ensure balance in the universe, because really such a thing doesn't exist. Rather, it ensures  continual motion. In and out, up and down, like the tides.

There was a time when my freelancer's dream became real. I lament its short life, quite often, but luckily, despite being shaken up my vision is still intact. Job possibilities come in and then back out of my life as surely as the water that flows through my body. The goal remains: To get "it" back. It's coming. And when it gets here, I admit I'll think I told you so with a few people in mind. But even better: I'll be able to afford things like childcare and car insurance and the occasional facial. I'll know that I'll have set the example I wanted for my son. I'll give my parents a sigh of relief. And Nanni, up in the heavens, will still be proud. 

To all you freelancers out there: High fives. And may you always get paid.