Faces of Work

In my experience, what we might call the architecture of work is not the same for freelancers as it is for full-time employees of organizations. The idea—and the doing—of work hang differently on a sole proprietor’s frame than they do on a company’s. For one thing, when you’re on your own, it’s your job to build the frame itself—as well as to make whatever you’re going to fill in with!

Powersuit Making Workshop at the Wassaic Art Festival 2012

Maybe you’ll make a powersuit!

When you start out to work for yourself, there is no path or plan ahead of you. There is no preexisting ladder to climb or maze to figure out: you have to make your own goals and your own route to reach them. There are no preordained titles to aspire to: you have to decide what you want to be called. There are no rules to chafe against: if the company culture sucks at You LLC, it’s YOU who has to change!

Woman standing in a green garden with a rake

Sarah, YOU should never change! You’re great.

These and many other aspects of work have been on my mind lately. Simultaneously, I’ve recently found myself captivated by others’ musings on work. Rather than try to deduce whether the chicken or the egg came first, I’ll just share two perspectives that have most recently tugged at my brain-strings.

Blonde woman with sewing machine

Another Sarah tugs at another type of strings.

  • “The Spirit of Work” by Marie Corelli. The variously regarded English novelist and mystic touches on lots of potent themes in this fin de siècle essay, such as the attitude of the worker determining the quality of the work; the weirdness of humans trying to elevate and separate themselves from the brilliant workings of nature; the notion that the having of love makes anything easy and the lack of it makes anything hard; the recommendation that everyone should learn a trade as part of their education; the misuse of the word “common” as an insult; and the fact that “‘gentlemen’ are not made by position, but by conduct.”
     
    Man holding cup on roof

    Neil T is a gentleman whether he’s working or working it

    Among many other gems (and some hyperbole I am actually not down with, such as basically suggesting that people never take a day off), Corelli also invokes Goethe, whose “inspiring lines should animate the mind and brace the energies of every worker :—.

    ‘Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute,
    Whatever you can do, or dream you can—begin it;
    Boldness has genius, power, magic in it;
    Only engage,—and then the mind grows heated;
    Begin!—and then the work will be completed.’ ”

    If that doesn’t get you jazzed to do something, perhaps you would feel more at home in the company of the “toadies, time-servers, and hypocrites of the community” whom Corelli depicts as crawling “before a trumpery ‘title’ as abjectly as a beaten cur trails its body along in the dust under the whip of its master.” Dang, girl! Sing it. Nice use of “trumpery,” too.

    Woman opening bottle of wine while camping

    Cynthia has never committed trumpery in her life.

  • Jerry Seinfeld interviewed by David Remnick. A century or so after Corelli, top-tier funny guy Seinfeld dropped such interesting insights about work during this exchange that I listened to it all the way through twice. When Remnick asked him what made him think he could be a comedian, he said:
    .
     ………“The truth is, I really didn’t think that I could. And I didn’t really care whether I could or I couldn’t. I just got to this point where I was so in love with it that I just decided, ‘What’s the difference?’ It seemed much more important to me to do the thing you want to do than success or failure.
    .
    ……….“This is 1975, you know, and we were still [in] a little bit of the vapors of the ’60s, where you did what you believed in. It wasn’t a ‘success’ culture, it was more of a ‘soul’ culture, I think.”
    .
    Soul culture!! Who among my fellow Gen X’ers—we who are coming to terms with our vocational destinies while wading through a waist-deep culture-sea frothy with vocoded singing, native advertising, and a bank storefront in every formerly vacant lot—does not envy this description of someone’s adolescent zeitgeist?!

    Man with headphones and laptop in easy chair

    Drew’s productions might occasionally involve a vocoder, but they remain excellent.

    A bit later, Remnick asked Seinfeld how long it takes him to prepare an hour-long stand-up show. He replied:

     ………“That’s like asking God how much time goes into an oak tree. He says, ‘I don’t know. I do it every day, I do it all day. I don’t know, I plant the tree, it grows, eventually it’s an oak tree, who the hell cares? It’s all I can do. I don’t know.'”

I think all of us—freelancers or employees, plumbers or pundits—do well to meditate on work and our relationship with it from time to time. Whether it’s been hunting our food to eat, breaking rocks in the hot sun to appease the man, or selling insurance to yacht owners, people have always spent lots of our time working. Let’s do what we can to make it time well spent.

Woman standing in office Lichtenstein

Yours truly working hard—or hardly working?!—in arts administration circa 2006.

Hey Brooklyn: Divest from filth, get help with your taxes, & eat free pizza*

Brooklyn is home to so many great institutions: BAM, the Wonder WheelChamps Diner.

I recently added a new favorite to my list: the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union!

At the behest of Bushwick Daily, I attended a free workshop at Brooklyn Cooperative last month called Tax Tips for Freelancers. Not only did I soak up some sound tax advice, I also…

  • Met a bunch of cool fellow freelancers—among them a party planner, a bike messenger, and a soap maker (so fun)
  • Spoke at length with two of the credit union’s knowledgeable and righteous employees—one of whom also teaches self-defense and leads tours in Cuba!
  • Was offered some great-looking free pizza, which I only turned down because I had just eaten (but I’ll come prepared next time; oh yes I will)
Pizza and money gif

While I cannot argue with this sentiment, our event went a lot better than this

Just as importantly, I was also turned on to some crucial information about credit unions that I had sort of failed to internalize before, such as the fact that they’re nonprofit organizations. Credit unions are owned by members (not shareholders), so they don’t have a business’s usual mandate to make money—just a mission to offer fair and affordable financial services to their community. They also don’t invest members’ money in the stock market, earning their income instead by making fair rate loans and charging small fees for some types of accounts.

Sounds fresh, right?

A Brooklyn Cooperative employee (the self-defense person, actually) offered this nice call to action: “If you’re interested in divesting from banks that fund pipelines and contribute to the housing crisis, switching your checking and savings accounts to a credit union is a great choice.”

I’m on it, Brooklyn Cooperative! Thanks for the timely inspiration.

Read the whole fun-filled, fact-filled article on Bushwick Daily.

*While Brooklyn usually feels like the center of -slash only place in the universe to me, I understand there are credit unions all over the country. Woo hoo! Can’t say they all offer free pizza at their free workshops, though. If you find out, let me know.

In freelancing, as in hair metal, what goes around comes around (sometimes)

In the thrill-a-minute world of freelance writing (I am only half joking there), clients can come and go as unexpectedly as the Red Bull van that pulls up beside the park and starts handing out free energy drinks. (Or am I the only one who’s witnessed that?)

Red Bull energy drink giveaway

Have you seen me?

This unpredictable ebb and flow can of course be a source of consternation for freelancers, but on balance over the past two-plus years, I’ve found it to be mostly energizing—as well as a good way to practice living in the moment: it’s unwise to become attached to even one’s most cherished clients, as you never know when they might, I don’t know, move to Canada and change their whole business model, or decide that you’ve been so helpful that they now want to hire a full-time person to do what you’ve been doing for them freelance. (Both of those things did indeed happen to me this year.)

While I’ve learned to feel less disappointment when great clients depart, I still feel untempered enthusiasm when they arrive—or, in the cases below, when they re-arrive! (Shoutout to my James Joyce people: both of these clients rearrive[d] from North Armorica. If that means what I think it does, which is debatable.)

Here’s a hearty “hello again!” to:

Sarah Lawrence College

College student in a community garden

SLC student Tenn Joe Lim: “These gardens have taught me about the agency we all have within communal spaces.”

I’ve been working in different capacities with the terrific people at this singular institution since fall 2014 (and boy is my brain getting a workout). Last month, they brought me on as Assistant Editor of their terrific magazine, Sarah Lawrence. I’m super-psyched to keep writing stories for them (like this profile of a student who’s teaching kids in a local community garden), as well as learn more about the inner workings of such a venerable publication.

PLASTARC

Architects

Some of our best and brightest at the Center for Architecture in NYC

It’s plastic (in this case, denoting malleability)! It’s architecture! It’s BOTH!

I met this workplace design consultancy’s ingenious founder Melissa Marsh at the Wood at Work conference last year, and helped her with some one-off writing projects this year. Recently, she’s decided to step up her company’s editorial game and has been showing me the PLASTARC ropes: their monthly newsletter, thoughtful event summaries, and the many guest contributions they make to industry publications. One of my fun gigs this fall was reporting on a public program called, “I Love This Place! Social Research-Driven Design.”

I’m very happy to be embarking on a new year with these two terrific new-ish clients. While I might find the lyrics to some Ratt songs as obscure as lines from Ulysses, I think I know what they mean when they sing:

Round and round
With love we’ll find a way just give it time
Round and round
What comes around goes around
I’ll tell you why
Dig

Yeah?

A reluctant blogger finally gets into blogger-hood

If you know much at all about me, you know that I’ve never had a Facebook account or an Instagram account. I signed up for Twitter in 2009 so I could join Medium, but I’ve so far tweeted exactly once (to my local NPR morning show host so I could recommend he do a story about the awesome combination washing machine repair and rock collecting shop in my old neighborhood). I have been on Flickr for the past decade, and have somehow posted over 18,000 photos there in that time, but I have also accrued only 18 followers, which says something about how much I care to advertise it. The list goes on thusly.

Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia

One from the Flickr archives: 27-year-old me about to receive a finger bite from a gas station owner’s pet Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia. That’ll learn me to poke!

All of it to say that as long as blogs have been around (probably 20 years), people close and not so close to me alike have suggested that I start one. Of course I understood the idea (I’m a writer! we have the Internet! therefore, I should write on the internet!), but my reluctances ran several:

1) I’m not particularly techie, and wasn’t particularly interested in learning how to blog from the software standpoint.

2) While I have come to love writing in many genres and spend a lot of my days doing it, my most favorite writing pastimes involve composing personal work for specific audiences (journal entries that only I see, letters and emails for friends…). I didn’t want to feel like this supposedly-fun pursuit was actually work.

3) Conventional wisdom holds that the best blogs are somehow focused—on food, travel, relationships, the world’s largest collection of taxidermied frogs depicted in various everyday life situations*, etc. Since I like to write about all of those things, and many more!, how would I ever imbue my blog with a sense of focus, purpose, and cohesion?

Most of those reasons finally stopped stopping me in January of last year. At that time, I was a half-year in to my new full-time freelance writing life, for which I’d already gone through the learning pains of setting up an entire website (with a lot of help from friends like Claire here!), so the tech thing was no longer so intimidating. I found I was actually enjoying challenging myself to write in different genres, and slowly became more and more curious about how blog writing would compare to the other types I’d recently gotten practice with (including ghostwriting, post-translation polishing, and drafting static pages for websites). Plus I now had a natural focus for my blog: my life as a freelance writer! And since that in itself encompasses a lot of topics, I felt I could justify squishing them all into one blog with “freelancing” as the overarching umbrella.

Blog tags

A screenshot of my blog post tags. Too eclectic? Nah.

Since the start of 2015, I have come to enjoy these weekly diversions from writing blog posts for inspiring nonprofits and newsletters for unique conferences to reflect on the work I’ve recently done and life I’ve recently led.

As a (somehow unexpected) side benefit, I’ve also found myself crossing paths with some awesome fellow bloggers. Here are two I believe are worthy of sharing with you now: they also got roped into the Liebster Award madness recently, and both (to my amazement) took the time to post responses to the 11 funky questions I posed when I nominated them!

Have a look?

  • Nicholas Peart, aka The Slider, a British-born painter, musician, songwriter, poet, filmmaker, photographer, and traveler who wrote some stuff about his time in South Africa that I very much enjoyed.
  • Neil Scheinin, who goes by the handle Yeah, Another Blogger, a fellow self-described dabbler who writes thoughtfully about a range of fun topics, including pizza, beer, and rock music (mmm!).

In response to their responses, I will just say:

  1. Nicholas, one of my favorite popcorn toppings is a solution of garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper. Heat that up in a pan while the kernels are popping, then drizzle it over the bowl, sprinkle a bit of salt, and you’re golden!
  2. Neil, regarding the number of seconds by which you’ve been known to extend the three-second rule (“thousands and thousands”), I can only say: NICE WORK.

Thank you both for your camaraderie, and your good writing, in this big old Internet world. Knowing I’m in the company of such excellent dudes makes me a less reluctant blogger every day.

*Okay, Froggyland is a website, not a blog. But I’ve been dying to mention it, so I just shoehorned it in here. Apologies to the purists. (But aren’t you also speechless??)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Voice on the Radio

Well, “love” might be too strong a word, but I didn’t mind it—and that’s an improvement!

If you’ve never heard me talk, I suppose you wouldn’t know that I have a fairly deep voice. Sometimes people who called our house when I was growing up thought I was my brother; I was the lone mezzo-alto in the school choir (I come by it honestly—my mom’s a tenor!); and I had an easier time singing R.E.M. in my college dorm shower than I did Tori Amos. Etc.

But out of all the things I was teased about as a kid—wearing thrift store clothes, riding to school on the back of a tandem bike, liking to read!—I was oddly spared any comments about my voice. Which was great! But that didn’t mean I myself was super cool with it.

man playing stand up bass

Did I mention I also played stand-up bass as a kid? (Though probably not as well as this guy.) How appropriate!

Still, I’ve always loved hearing other people’s voices: listening to the radio in particular has long been one of my favorite pastimes. I even aspired for a while to become an on-air DJ, a dream that only went so far as a year of interning at WERS while I was at Emerson College, and (maybe this counts?) a stint of reading books out loud for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (which is apparently now called Learning Ally). But I’ve been a proud public radio member-nerd here in NYC for 10 years, and “become an awesome radio DJ” remains somewhere on my to-do list.

Part of the issue, I think, was that I didn’t super-like the sound of my voice when I heard it on tape. I realize most DJs are probably not required to go back and listen to their own recordings after doing a show, but the idea of too many people hearing my low-low tones was perhaps a bit off-putting. Until now!

Enter Ken Kinard, a creativity coach and chief creative officer at the marketing agency Accent Interactive. Ken and I met last spring, during a team-building program he directed for my client Pilot Projects. A few months ago, he told me he was planning to produce a podcast or two about the freelance lifestyle and asked if he might interview me for material. I thought it sounded like a hoot, and hey, maybe it was a chance to see if I’d outgrown my aural awkwardness?

The result of Ken’s and my interesting afternoon conversation at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan is a two-part ‘cast—also featuring freelancer Meaghan Ritchey of Curator Magazine—that explores the ins and outs of today’s freelance species: what drove us to this marginal existence? how do we manage our time? do we miss having coworkers? Or, the podcast intros themselves put it this way: “As more people are going independent, the way work gets done is changing. We explore how freelancers are living the lives of executives and the impact it has on vacation, family, security, and the community.”

Workwise podcast #10: Nice lance. You free?

Workwise podcast #11: Lancers for the win

Ken’s questions to Meaghan and me are interspersed with reflections from the studio as he and his cohost, Mike Boyes (a leadership development consultant, coach, and president of Credo Consulting), listen to our answers and relate our work experiences to others’. I think (and I’m not biased at all here) that they did a really nice job of asking good questions, representing me (and Meaghan, I would imagine) accurately, and drawing some really interesting insights and further provocations from our conversations.

Plus, I was able to listen to both episodes from stem to stern and not cringe once at the sound of my voice! (Although I notice I did talk pretty fast.) Thanks for whatever magic you wrought there, Ken. Now I’m this much closer to chasing my dream of becoming an awesome radio DJ.

The next time you’re working it in the gym, chopping carrots in the kitchen, or toiling with the toilet brush, perhaps you’ll want to take a listen to these fun shows and let me know what you think? I hope my bass vibrato isn’t too much for your earbuds.

A sci-fi plebe gets initiated

I should have known when I learned that a friend of mine named her blog after a Philip K. Dick novel that she was into science fiction (or should I say speculative fiction? help!), but I really didn’t think about it.

Only several years later (which was already several years after I’d met her) did the topic of sci-fi come up in earnest between us. We were in a rental car on our way to a wedding and she said, apropos of not much, “Have you ever edited a book?”

I said not exactly, but mentioned a few things that kinda-sorta came close. Why was she curious?

men in space

Men in space! (courtesy Flickr user 1950sUnlimited)

“Well, I wrote a sort of sci-fi novel maybe 10 or 15 years ago,” she said, “and it’s basically been sitting in a drawer since then. Recently, I’ve been feeling like I’m ready to do something with it, but I think it could use a second pair of eyes. I’m not sure exactly what an editor would do, besides be a genius and fix all my mistakes… But let me know if you want to talk about it.”

I was SUPER intrigued. For one, my friend wrote a secret book!! For two, it was a sci-fi book—especially weird!! For three, I love me the prospect of a crazy new project.

I’ve found that one of the best things about my first year-and-change of full-time freelancing has been the ability (or heck, sometimes the necessity) to take on a wide variety of editorial gigs. As I heard the author John Vaillant recently say, “I am a professional generalist.” Aside from the thrill of solidarity it gave me to hear a big-name writer identify himself that way—I’ve always been a mega-generalist and sometimes struggled with my lack of speciality, but he’s proof you can have an awesome career as a jack of many interests—his quip also perfectly described one of my favorite job perks: variety.

I told my friend that, although I: a) am not a fiction writer, b) am not even a huge fiction reader, and c) have never, to my recollection, read a sci-fi novel*, I was confident that I could at least do a decent job of copyediting her book, and that if I found I had any developmental suggestions for her in the course of doing so, I’d pass them on. She agreed to hire me, and off I went.

Dune

Dune! Power! Kyle MacLachlan!! (courtesy Flickr user KAZ Vorpal)

I’ve been combing through her formidable 480-page book since the middle of last month, with the goal of finishing by year’s end, and I’m having a blast with it, for many reasons. To name a few:

  • The change of pace is invigorating (see the jollies of the generalist, above). I love what I normally do, which is writing and editing external communications for nonprofits. It’s interesting, it has clear goals, and it’s for a good cause. But fiction! I can crank up the artfulness and shelf for a time the thoughts that the text I’m working on will need to be fact-checked, or instigate a call to action, or fit in a 500-word box. Our only goals here (though they are heady ones) are to tell an engaging story in the most appealing way we can. Hooray for that creative focus and freedom.
  • I’m getting to know my friend better through reading her impressive writing, which is lovely. And I’m probably enjoying reading the story more myself since I know who wrote it. Double win! Oh, and I’m gaining a better understanding of why people like sci-fi. Triple win!
  • As the weather cools, this is the perfect long-form project to curl up on the couch with: blanket over my knees, cup of coffee on the end table, laptop just where it was designed to be. Another nice change of pace: there’s nothing frenetic about this task.

So this post is part shout-out to my talented and industrious friend for believing I might be of some help to her labor of love, part written revelation about the wonderfulness of changing things up at work, and part teaser—’cause this book should be out on Kindle next year and I’ll be engaging in even more shameless self-promotion then!

*   *   *

Hey other freelancers: Do you like the way variety shapes your professional life? (Or maybe you hate it?) Penny for your thoughts in the comments.

*Unless you count a college boyfriend trying to read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune to me in installments. I tried hard to keep up with it, but usually fell asleep before he finished.

Freelancers’ lunch

We shoulda been in pictures!

But we weren’t, because we were too busy talking and making awesome connections. (So I’m pasting some non-in situ photos and links here.)

 Kaiti

 

 

 

 

 

Today, my friends Alison (an honest and passionate real estate agent) and Kaiti (an incisive and graceful designer and developer) convened our first Freelancers’ Lunch, an opportunity for a half-dozen (okay, seven) fun entrepreneurial types to talk about what we do, ask each other questions and seek advice, and see if any biz connections came readily to mind. (Yes, this was also the outgrowth of our semi-hashed summer experiment: Trying to Form a BNI Group in North Brooklyn. Only Alison succeeded with her burgeoning Influentials group. Go Alison!!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I knew I’d have fun with these guys; I know them all (and many of them already knew each other) and was looking forward to having lunch with them no matter what. But I was truly surprised by how much we had to offer each other—especially considering how many of us were already friends!

  • A former intern of Claire’s might be able to do some work for Kaiti.
  • Alison knows someone working on a film that Mike could possibly do sound for.
  • Kaiti wants to introduce recording engineer Lily to a badass female bass player she knows.

The connections probably numbered in the dozens, and everyone took care to make actual notes to follow up (that’s right—I don’t do business with flakes).

Claire Taylor Hansen Lily

 

 

 

 

 

 

And even beyond potential work introductions, people were batting a thousand:

“I’d like to meet a good mortgage broker…”

“Do you know of a good, free CRM?”

“What’s a nice restaurant downtown for client lunches?”

DONE.

We’re planning to convene again after the holidays, and will try to get a few more heads in the mix. Even though I’m a classic hippy-dippy, bleeding-heart people person, I admit I doubted the power of the personal network at the beginning of my freelance life. But I’ve gotten 90% of my rent-making business in the past year through personal connections, and 90% of my clients have been absolute joys to work with (the other 10% weren’t rotten, either).

So I can now personally attest to the professional as well as personal efficacy of keeping your relationships up. Talk to people you like: tell them what you need and listen to what they need. Then write it down and follow up.

Repeat. Enjoy.