Seeking creative freedom? Think twice before freelancing.

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

There’s a common narrative surrounding freelancing that goes something like this:

“I quit my job to be a freelancer in order to achieve more creative freedom.”

Sure, that’s true in some ways. But in some ways, it isn’t true. The fact is, unless you enjoy the upper echelon of commercial and critical success as a fiction writer (and maybe not even then; those guys and gals have editors, too) or you’re independently wealthy and don’t need to consider your financial resources, audience or clients when creating your passion project, you’ll have to answer to someone, somewhere, along the creative path.

When considering a freelance career, I think the real question is, ‘who do you want to answer to, and how?’ The answers will help you determine whether or not the type of creativity you want to nurture is best cultivated within a company setting or the comfort of your own home office.

Everyone’s experience with the transition to freelance writing is different, so I can only offer insight into my own foray.

In my experience, here are the ways in which freelancing helps to foster creativity.

You can diversify your subject matter.

As a freelancer, you can decide what types of things you want to write about and pitch articles according to those interests. While you might be able to write stories on one particular subject you’re interested in when you’re employed full-time by a publication, you’re not likely to pursue a diverse set of interests in that setting. As editor of a homes magazine, I wrote stories mainly about home décor and remodeling. As a freelancer, I can write on homes, but also farm equipment, kids and nutrition, plastic surgery, military lifestyles and personal finance, sometimes all in one week. That’s fun.

You can pitch stories you care about.

For example, if you read this blog regularly, you know I love to geek out on listing software and personal organization techniques. While large publications may not be devoted to these topics, as a freelancer, I can pitch the occasional story to media outlets concerned with that type of stuff and write away, blissfully, on the merits of color-coding, box-checking and getting things done using apps and programs that help readers prioritize.

Once, the designer of a listing software program I use daily and swear by, noticed me blogging my love for their product all over the place, on my own time. So they approached me and asked to try out a new version of the software and then write about it on their dime. Um, yeah, are you kidding? Of course I said I’d do it. I’m a freelancer, so I can say yes to basically whatever I want to write about.

Here’s how freelance writing does not foster creativity:

You’ll still be writing for someone else.

Be it a magazine, a newspaper, a Web site, a blog not run by you or a business looking to reach clients, each media outlet has a specific editorial voice and story angle in mind. The piece you’re hired to write will be informed by that, and you’ll be expected to write according to the outlet’s specifications.

You’ll be edited.

Some of your most creative prose, maybe the stuff you were most excited about adding to your story, may edited out. You may also be asked to add things to your story you may or may not agree with adding. But in the end, you’re being asked to write for a client, so you need to be editable. And that means compromising your own creativity from time to time in order to help achieve the publication’s goal for the article you’re producing.

You’ll be edited.

If you’re writing for multiple publications, no two editing processes will be alike, and neither will your editors, so you’ll have to be flexible. I have editors who edit heavily, editors who edit lightly, in-between editors and those who edit not at all. I have equal admiration and respect for each one, and am willing to work with them on various levels to do what needs to be done. Are you?

You’ll have to run a business.

That means you’ll have to do stuff like sales, marketing, networking and PR when you’re not being creative, in order to keep the creative work going. If you’ve never learned how to do those things, you’re likely to encounter a difficult, but not insurmountable, learning curve. I knew nothing about these parts of running a business when I began freelancing, and I had to spend a lot of time figuring it out. (True confession: I discovered I liked it.)

So, here’s the thing.

I believe there’s no “creative freedom” litmus test for freelance writers. There are no set criteria we can all use to decide if it’s the right way for each of us to explore creative expression. Instead, if you’re considering a freelance career, I suggest analyzing your own creative goals. Do you want to write on various topics, or just one? Are you interested in learning how to run a small business? Are you open to different kinds of editors and editing, and at different levels of intensity? Does all of that sound better when done independently as opposed to with a company?

It helps to gain insight from other freelancers before taking the leap, so I hope this article has helped you, even in some small way, decide if a freelance career is right for you. Sure, freelancing is a creative choice, but it deserves a measured approach.

P.S.: While we’re on this topic, I should probably tell you that some exciting change is afoot for me and my own creative work life. I’ll have more on that next week.

Contemplating the Life of a Recluse

Photo: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul, freeditigalphotos.net

Photo: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul, freeditigalphotos.net

This morning, I ran across this article in Psychology Today about the deliberate reclusive life. In it, the author discusses the merits of such an extreme choice. It’s not satire, but I had to read it twice to make sure. I couldn’t help but notice how many similarities such a life has to the freelance life and what that implies about the life of a writer.

In the piece, the author discusses some of the merits of working for yourself (a hallmark, according to the author, of an authentically reclusive existence). These include waking when you want to, working and breaking when you choose to, not having to answer to pesky bosses or co-workers, etc. These merits are also things that many freelancers put in the positives column when contemplating their chosen profession. I do.

Some of the most famous writers in history were recluses. Emilies Dickinson and Bronte come to mind. I  like this list, which names several writers among other artist / entertainer types like Dave Chappelle (Who knew?!) for their hermit-like tendencies.

I’m especially interested in this connection right now because I’ve been living the life of a shut-in for the last five days. It seems as if a nasty virus has made me into an experimental recluse, relying on my dogs, the amusement of way too many BBC / PBS miniseries, and the steady gurgle of my Vicks Vapo Steam for company. I actually lost my voice last Saturday, which means I’ve not only put off leaving the house (I left once a couple of days ago — I think it was Tuesday? — to buy dog food) but I’ve also been unable to talk to anyone; a fact that has made me avoid eye contact so as to not invite conversations of any kind.

As another famous recluse, Art Garfunkel, once said, “I am a rock. I am an island.” At least for right now.

The experience hasn’t been so bad for me, or my work. Here are a few of the more subtle reasons why:

I’ve traded my speaking voice for my writing voice.

Because I haven’t been able to utter words, I haven’t been able to just say whatever came to mind right away. Also, I haven’t felt up to much, so communicating has taken effort. Therefore, I’m saving my energy for words and thoughts that seem most important and writing and editing those, and those only. Like this post I’m writing for you. Hope you like it.

I’ve been thinking and listing more.

Listing is one of the ways I make sense of my life, and because I’ve been more prone to introspection this week, I’ve been doing more list-writing, too. I’ve been addressing life-quaking decisions that have characterized this past year (husband’s new job, our move West, my impending jump to academia, the decision to start looking for a house and more) and those that will continue to change the course of my writing life in the next few years. I’ve collected books I want to read on the topic of career and life change but haven’t cracked any of them yet. So I’ve listed all of that stuff in an attempt to make it real and hold myself to making the changes and reading the books. It’s a writerly response to upheaval, I suppose. We’ll see how it all goes.

I’ve refined my own identity as a writer, just a little bit.

There are merits to this lifestyle, sure, but at the end of the day, I’m a social animal. Having to cancel an important work trip this week as well as social and volunteer engagements have made me realize how much I miss being around people, and how much energy and inspiration I draw on for writing by interacting with others. Sure, the freelance life often looks a lot like the reclusive life. But for me, the best thing about freelancing choice. I can go underground when I want to, taking a full day to write without interruption and planning conference calls, meetings and interviews only when it’s most convenient for me. Yet, I can also resurface for networking events and social opportunities when I feel it’s time to get back into the business of being in the world. I can straddle the line.

I’ve done squat to my hair.

Because nobody cares about your hair when you’re a recluse. (See: Art Garfunkel.)

“One day, I will find the right words …

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” – Jack Kerouac

When Getting Down to Business Seems Absurd

It’s tough to resolve to go on with business as usual today. It seems strange to pursue innovation when others are struggling to pick up the pieces of broken lives and hearts. At times like these, creativity feels like a luxury, not a necessity — one that those most hard-hit by current events cannot afford.

When happenings throw me for a loop, I find it helpful to focus on something simple. I try to find motivation and inspiration in things that are available to me.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to take in some nice sights as spring has taken root on the East Coast and in the Midwest. I’ve also spent some time in the past few days choosing my favorite images from the past year for a photo project I’m doing at home. I thought I’d share some of them here. I hope that, whatever you’re doing to process yesterday’s tragedy,  you’re buoyed by simple, clear thoughts like these.

The pure abundance of an Indiana summer harvest

The pure abundance of an Indiana summer harvest

Business as usual for a butterfly in August

Business as usual for a butterfly in August

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One of the first signs of spring: Forsythia on the National Mall

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A reminder that there’s beauty in even the moodiest of days

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The first Cherry Blossoms of 2013 to burst from their buds

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Hugs

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A good angle

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Everyday household items beautifully arranged

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Subtle light playing on old glass bottles

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A normal object becomes more interesting when viewed differently.

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Bright canoes ready to charge against the wind

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A gentle friend

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A delicious meal

All my best to my readers today and of course, heartfelt wishes for eventual peace and recovery to those reeling from yesterday’s heartache.

Sometimes, writing is about permission.

Photo courtesy of: Jomphong, freedigitalphotos.net

I was reminded of that today.

I read an awesome post by Robert Peters on Copyblogger this morning that gave excellent and detailed strategies for successful regular writing.

The strategies didn’t involve lightning bolts of genius, shining moments of inspiration or anything like that. If we’re lucky, we get one of those in our lifetime. Rather, it reminded me that good writing is a discipline that, for most people requires some (if not lots) of structure.

The piece suggested creating time and space to write, scheduling it in, taking copious notes and keeping a notepad on you so you don’t forget things, and so on. Sounds like pretty practical and mundane stuff. Interestingly, though, it was inspired by the author’s tour of an exhibit devoted to one of the zaniest and out-of-the-box writers of the 20th Century, Roald Dahl (who also kept a notebook with him and took notes constantly).

Roald Dahl’s work might seem like it was born of lightning bolts — that it poured out of him with perfect fluidity. This piece shows that, while his work might have been initially amazing, it still needed editing and re-working.

Often, we writers think our work isn’t great unless it’s suddenly and beautifully inspired. We think that inspiration should come often and the result should be perfect work. I love this post because it reminds me that even the best writers can’t rely on lightning bolts alone.

Imposing structure on your work doesn’t make you less talented or creative. It makes you a smarter and better writer. Reading that even the best of the best took advantage of such techniques gives other aspiring writers permission to make writing a regular, disciplined endeavor.

Friday Inspiration

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. – Charles Mingus

Photo courtesy of: winnond, freedigitalphotos.com