Back in 2000, as a freelance writer I was retained by Newsday for a year-long series that was to run in the paper every day. They were calling it “Names of New York.” It involved research and history — a perfect love match for my interests. Newsday provided me with a long list of New York-based streets, landmarks, bridges, highways, and my job was to research and write about their name origins. The articles, which you can find under “Pages” here, looked like this:
It was a sweet gig and you know what made it even better?
One day, while the “Names of New York” series was running, I received a call, out of the blue — an offer to write a book. On Queens, where I grew up. The publisher? Yale University Press. Seriously. That turned into an amazing, interesting and grueling four-year project but the result was my first book and two nods by The New York Times — once when it was released in hardcover and later when it came out in paperback.
Fast forward to 2013 and many great assignments in between — I’m now on another fascinating research/writing project, this time for Parade Magazine’s website, Parade.com. Expanding on my much earlier “Names of New York” work for Newsday, I’m now writing a weekly “Names of America” column. Research…history…love!
And so kids, the point of this story is clear– yes, freelancing is often a biatch, but once in a while, one plum assignment lays the foundation for future work. You won’t know it at the time, but it happens.
In case you were wondering how my essay reading tour is going (and I know you were!), here you go:
Much like David Rakoff’s starry fantasy of befriending Bette Midler on a film set, returning to “her rambling apartment. It will be the maid’s night off and we’ll eat leftovers from the icebox: cold chicken and pie. Milk from a glass bottle….” (“The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” Half Empty), I harbored a similar fancy last summer.
I had applied for and in April been accepted into the Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference, a week wherein aspiring authors and essayists are immersed in workshops and lectures given by esteemed literary faculty — Susan Cheever, Jules Feiffer, Mary Karr, Roger Rosenblatt, Meg Wolitzer … David Rakoff’s name popped out at me. He was teaching a personal essay workshop for a week in July and while the cost was in the thousands, seven days with Rakoff would be heaven, I thought.
Workshops were touted as smallish and intimate, so naturally, all of May and June my daydreams revolved around elaborate scenarios wherein on the first day of class, David took immediate note of my pithy comments and wry observations. Following his first class assignment — to write an essay about our earliest memory — David would scour the room, then point in my direction and ask me to read my piece out loud. Pleasantly surprised by my skill, he’d laugh heartily at my witty phrasings but would also nod in approval at the depth behind my cleverly chosen verbiage.
Then he’d pull me over after class and whisper, “What are you even doing here? This workshop is for amateurs!”
“I really just wanted to meet you,” I’d confess sheepishly.
Then we’d go to lunch on campus every day, but sit huddled together, just the two of us, sharing tunafish sandwiches while we exchanged gossip about David Sedaris and Ira Glass. Really he had all the gossip; I’d listen raptly, enthralled by his hilarious stories; stuff he’d never shared with his friends but knew instinctively that he could trust with me — only me.
After that week, because he was notoriously generous and kind, David Rakoff would offer to be my mentor and introduce me to his agent and editors, as his protegé. We’d have weekly lunches at the Stork Club and I’d be the envy of every single nonfiction writer in New York City. And beyond.
But none of this was to take place. And not only because it was a ludicrous flight of my imagination. In early July of last summer, I received an email from Stony Brook stating that due to advanced illness, David Rakoff had to pull back from my workshop. They found a substitute teacher. I asked for a refund and scolded myself for entertaining pointless notions about us.
Still, I thought, as I unpacked my suitcase with a heavy heart, I had been this close to being in his presence…and that would have to suffice.
Someone just posted on Facebook that it’s National Freelance Writers Appreciation Week. This is a thing? Being a freelance writer, I wish someone had sent me the memo. So I could prepare to be appreciated… Now I’m caught completely off guard, with not enough time to get my hair did!
In honor of said celebration for my chosen profession, a colleague has compiled a list of where the world would be without us. It includes —
“If it wasn’t for freelancers, magazines like Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, New York, Texas Monthly, Outside, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Readers Digest, Mother Jones, Ms., and countless others would never have been as great as they were or are.
If it wasn’t for freelance writing assignments, authors like Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Lewis, Seymour Hirsch, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Nora Ephron, Annie Proulx, Annie Lamott and Barbara Kingsolver would never have launched stellar fiction and nonfiction careers.
If it wasn’t for freelance writers, half the country’s trade magazines would have nothing to run between advertisements – I may be exaggerating, but not by much.”
Go read the rest and then find yourself a freelancer to hug. (Not me, though. I’m busy
doing laundry working on an important deadline.)