Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Freelance Life

"I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them... thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment." -- Maurice De Bracy, Ivanhoe
I just started a new job. Again.

This is not a rare occurrence. In fact, the last time I held the same job two years in a row, Bill Clinton had not yet met Monica Lewinsky. My eldest -- who is now heading off to college -- was one year old.  The longest job I've had since then lasted 11 months. My friends and extended family have given up trying to navigate my cascading resume.

This is not what I envisioned adulthood to be. I thought you'd get a job and climb a ladder, or at least make steady progress based on talent, accomplishment, merit and fairness.

(Note: I also didn't think you had to exercise to stay in shape.)

My only real example, my dad, got out of law school in 1958 and went to work for his father's practice. He took it over when his father died in 1971, and kept it going until he himself died in 2009.  50 years, one job. 

When I got out of college, all I knew is that I didn't want to spend three more years in school, become a lawyer or work for my father. To my parents' chagrin, I turned down the only job offered to me -- reporter at the Raleigh Times, paying $15,000 a year -- and took a stand: I published my first national magazine article about how you could go home again to find yourself.  (Way ahead of the curve of the boomerang generation.)

Very cocky, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I temped and worked as an editorial assistant and got a few freelance assignments. By the time I finally landed a real job it took almost long as law school would have taken.

I recently had a Proustian revisit of that first job. In one of those freak YouTube occurrences, someone posted a video tour of the Rolling Stone offices in 1988 on the occasion of the final day of my coworker Brant Mewborn. It was clearly a time before people were accustomed to video cameras.

If you're curious, my embarrassing segment begins at 4:15 mark. The Atex terminals we used to put out the magazine is only one step ahead of the people who calligraphed bibles for Gutenberg.

For me the real revelation was how I'd decorated my office walls, which I'd totally forgotten. I lived in that office for more than four years. Then I had an office at Vogue for another four years. Since then I have occupied many offices, desks, carrells, but the most I do is bring in photos of my kids and partner. I know not to get too settled.

When Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing in 2003, I was the only writer of 11 who immediately cleared out my office. I didn't want to have to go back to fetch things later if I was let go. As it turned out, eight of us weren't asked back.

The experience -- and, I'm sure, my then-recent divorce -- taught me it's better to assume a job isn't going to last, and be pleasantly surprised when it does, than presuming the opposite and being caught without a parachute.

As I look around me, more people of my generation seem to be in the same boat. Whether it's editors who pinball from one job to another, college professors who are forever "adjunct" instead of tenured, newspeople who jump from network to network, it feels like there's little security. I just happen to be one of the more extreme versions.

From the outside, my career looks dynamic and exciting. I have worked for Jann Wenner, Anna Wintour, Aaron Sorkin, Jane Pauley, Aaron Brown and Eliot Spitzer. I interviewed the Beastie Boys, Madonna, Puff Daddy, Motley Crue. I have jetted back and forth between the coasts.

Just this past week in the hallways at my summer job writing for Good Afternoon America -- which couldn't be more oppositeland, content-wise, from my previous gig writing for Sorkin's Newsroom -- I passed Michelle Pfeiffer, Barbara Walters, Blake Lively, Rielle Hunter, LMFAO,  and the surviving Jacksons. All those folks have name brands. Even Rielle Hunter. Me, I'm still "freelance." 

This kind of career is nothing new, really. As the opening quote from Ivanhoe attests, it's been around for centuries, and will endure as long as there are "bustling times." (Perhaps "May you live in bustling times" should be the freelancer's creed.)

How has it affected my personality?

Some days I marvel at my own resilience. I honestly enjoy every new experience and the amount of smart, talent, diverse people I get to interact with. I think it has made me much less of a snob and appreciative of a wide range of styles.

But other times, I feel a kinship with jittery Alvy Singer in Annie Hall,  living in a house under the Cyclone roller coaster.  It's a colorful life, but it's tricky to keep the cereal in your spoon.


pamallyn said...

You make the world a better place because you spread your genius around! Keep those ideas pouring forth...

ShowtuneJason said...

Look at you, you sweet young thing with your big old computer! :-)

Jan Devereux said...

a rolling stone gathers no moss and makes a good case for a national health care system (redacted!)

stmmendoza said...

Interesting blog! I enjoyed reading about your freelance life. I am at the other end of the spectrum--a tenured professor who has spent my whole academic career (20+ years) at one university. Luckily it is a career with a lot of stability and flexibility, but some days it does feel like a life sentence.

Condiment Queen said...

You are again ahead of your time. I remember reading somewhere about how the careers of the future, no matter the profession, will resemble the freelancer's. One's primary loyalty will be to oneself rather, than to a corporation, as it was for our dads' generation. Having worked for myself for 14 years now I can say there's no going back. I can't imagine ever again working in the confines of someone else's office. But decent and affordable health insurance not tied to an employer sure would be helpful.

Unknown said...

The Alvy Singer analogy...perfect! I know just how you feel. I remember several years ago, I called my father to say that I had just gotten a movie. Working freelance as a Casting Director makes me feel like a gypsy sometimes. I don't keep a regular office and move from studio to studio so that I can be near production (and don't have overhead this way). Feeling the glee and relief of just having closed the deal on my new job (which typically lasts 10-12 weeks), I said, "Hey Dad - I just got a movie!". He said, and I remember this so clearly, "Great! Now you've gotta get the NEXT one!". I was crushed. Jeez, can you give me two minutes to do the happy dance over THIS job?!! But, I know what he meant.

don said...

I always compared freelancing to swimming in the ocean. The freedom is complete -- you can go in any direction, including down, and every so often you're going to want to get to dry land (a job) to rest your arms.

Ben Model said...

Great piece, and insightful. Just because it's not long-term doesn't mean a gig isn't your 'real job' (a term I face in conversations with people all the time, since I'm a silent film accompanist). Makes me think of a great line from an Odd Couple episode when Felix and Oscar meet with an occultist who had left behind his work as an orthodontist. Oscar asks him if he really likes all this mumbo-jumbo stuff and the occultist, played by Victor Buono, shrugs and says "Beats cleaning bubble-gum out of braces!"

Anonymous said...

Another great read! (If someone had done a show about the Rolling Stone offices back in the day, you would have made a great young romantic lead--a character wistfully pining away over a cute, befuddled receptionist) -- Bonnie

David Handelman said...

Jan -- yes, Health Care is an issue. But another biggie -- that I forgot to write about and may update with -- is vacation.

When you're freelancing, you get what you pay for. If you take a week off, you don't get paid. So it's doubly expensive to take a vacation. And if your job just ended and you don't know what's next, you're cautious to take on unnecessary costs. So you can get pretty worn out.

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