Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Speaking of loving my work...

LinkedIn recently posted a survey asking what is the biggest employee incentive. The tally after 20 votes was: Money, 35 percent; time off, 30 percent; travel to cool places on the company’s dime, 20 percent; other, 15 percent.

I don’t know what the final verdict will be, but I’m not surprised to see time off score so highly so far. As much as I love my job, that was one of my main reasons for going freelance. It reminded me of a funny incident when I was employed.

When I worked at the East Valley Tribune, one of the ways the company sought to reduce expenses – in addition to cutting our pay outright – was to offer voluntary furloughs. I raised my hand fast and high, hoping I could squeeze in a week off to spend time with my parents. They lived in Michigan, and we didn’t see each other often after I moved to Arizona.

My editor approved, and my parents planned the trip and bought plane tickets. But after all that, the “big boss” said no way. There was no particular reason for his decision that I know of. The corporate honchos had mandated this, and he was countering their directive. I could have taken it up the chain of command and caused a ruckus, but instead, my benevolent editor – bless her heart – told me to work ahead, file lots of stories, and put in occasional appearances at the office, and she would tell the boss I was out on assignment if he asked.

I got to spend quality time with my parents, and would see them just a handful of times after that. Dad passed away in 2007; mom followed him in 2009.

I’m generally honest to a fault, but I’m glad we lied. I’m forever grateful to my editor for pulling a fast one. I truly enjoyed my job at the Tribune, but I’m adamant that companies need to give people more time off to spend with their loved ones or for things they love doing, besides work.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What I do is who I am

I was out with friends the other night, and one of us said she dislikes it when she meets a guy and one of the first things he asks is, “What do you do?”

“My job doesn’t define who I am,” she said, adding that she’d rather talk about what she likes to do and is passionate about.

We all nodded in agreement, but I wondered if any of the others thought what I was thinking: I sympathized, but in fact, my job does define who I am.

I’m a writer.

I’ve been writing since I was a young girl. My two sisters had moved out of the house by the time I was a third grader, so I had a mostly solo upbringing. I sat in my room and wrote stories, poems, songs and puzzles. In fifth grade, having memorized by now all of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales from an old book that had been my mom’s as a child, I began writing spoofs of the stories. I even adapted one into a play that was performed in front of the entire school and hundreds of parents.

In my corner of the world, though, everyone knew you couldn’t make a living as a writer. My parents urged me to pursue a practical career. I briefly considered being a pharmacist, until I failed chemistry. One day, a high school friend mentioned he wanted to be a journalist. Light bulb! I could write AND get paid for it!

Somewhat coincidentally, as I recall, two other creative friends and I decided to start an “underground newspaper” called The Scum in high school to rant about the general unfairness of high school life and being penned in by an authoritarian bureaucracy. (High school was not the pinnacle of my existence, as it was for some.) My friends Mike and Jason and I collaborated on articles. Sometimes I’d slip in a record or concert review. It was smart, sassy and rebellious.

Mike had a primitive PC, so he’d type it up, add some clip art and illustrations that he and Jason created, and print it out. My dad made 300 copies on the Xerox machine at work, and I’d staple them together and pass them out in the halls at school.

Soon, we were blindsided by the interest from professional media. Journalists from nearly every newspaper and TV station for miles asked to interview us. Most of them got facts wrong; one reporter from one of the big-city Detroit papers who should have known better admitted he had a strong bias against me going into the interview because of how I dressed. He added that he was surprised how smart and well-spoken I was. I was aghast, and decided I would go into journalism and not be “that guy.” I had found my calling.

I started writing for our small community paper, covering events happening at my high school. I was earning bylines, back when that meant something, at age 16. By age 18, I was working – 20 hours a week during the school year, 40 hours a week in the summer – at a legal newspaper, mostly re-writing press releases and typing up lists of court cases files that week, but occasionally interviewing a judge or covering small stories pertinent to the legal community. In college, I interned at Detroit Monthly magazine and was managing editor of the student newspaper for a few semesters. I was going places.

My bubble burst when Gannett bought the Detroit News just before I graduated and decided to break the union. A long strike ensued, and numerous veteran journalists were out of work. I could have crossed picket lines, like some of my contemporaries, and gotten a job right out of school at a big-city daily paper. I did not. Instead, I tried to compete for jobs at community weeklies against award-winning writers with 20, 30 years of experience. Ask me how that worked out.

Fast forward to today. Now I have 20 years of experience in the writing and editing industry, but jobs are even more rare. I hunt, peck and beg for piecemeal freelance work. Some places still pay a reasonable amount, but the market is more competitive than ever, and fees are getting dismal. One web site recently offered me four cents a word and insisted it was the “going rate.”

If that’s the case, all of my expertise and hard work is worthless in today’s marketplace. The Internet is a beautiful thing in many ways, but in others, it’s cheapened my craft considerably. Plagiarism is widespread. Language errors are the norm, not the exception. Opinions are passed off as fact. Facts are irrelevant in the face of sensationalism.

Few things infuriate me more when I hear people say, “I don’t read the paper anymore. I get all my news online.” As if an Almighty Powerful Computer Program spontaneously generates news stories for everyone’s consumption. When I point out that actual reporters must actually report those stories that magically appear on the screen, the person gets a confused look and has to think hard before understanding how it works. Many times, I don’t think it ever sinks in.

Even business web sites are riddled with poor writing obviously done by the owner’s fifth grader, or maybe a monkey with a keyboard, or perhaps that Almighty Powerful Computer Program that spontaneously generates words. Few care about quality writing, and even fewer care to pay for it. “Professional writer” has become an oxymoron.

So what of those of us who have staked not only our careers, but our entire lives on the business of writing? Some have told me, “Write a book.” Oh yes, as if I can just plunk out a masterpiece and become rich and famous. I know many writers who have entire series of books on the shelves and still work day jobs or pump out constant freelance stories. Book publishers are no more generous than any other kind these days.

I’m a writer; it’s what I do and who I am. I’ll continue to write for my own pleasure, just as I did when I was in elementary school and no one had assigned it and no one was paying me. If you ask me what I do, I’ll proudly continue to say, “I’m a writer.”

Just don’t ask me to write for you for four cents a word.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A new approach

If you've visited my blog before, you know that it's been devoted to matters of interest to freelance writers: workshops, job leads, tips for the self-employed. I've had little feedback or contributions over the years, with one major exception (you know who you are, Joan). It's time for a new approach.

I'm still a 60 Percenter, so I'm going to keep the name, but I'm going to use this forum for creative pursuits. I'm not sure how the rest of you out there are doing, but I've found the freelance market has tightened up considerably and pay has plummeted. I still write for some local papers and magazines, thankfully, but I have more free time these days, and I want to keep my brain engaged.

Sometimes, I will write first-person stories. On occasion, I might delve into fiction, as the mood strikes me. Eventually, I might start another blog for posting formal, researched articles that you might see in a professional publication. I've pitched several ideas to various outlets that no one has picked up, even though I know the topics are strong. I'm sure some of my editors aren't aware of the full range of my abilities, so this will be a way to showcase them.

No matter what I write online, it will come from a place of honesty and candidness. I appreciate that when I write for clients, my words reflect on their publication or business, but here, I'd like to "let it all hang out," so to speak. I'll get started this week. Please check back for my first posts.