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7 Things I'm Learning to Accept About Being a Freelance Writer

by Amanda Machado Jul 28, 2016

1. If I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough.

In writing, failure and rejection isn’t what happens when you’re doing it wrong. It’s what happens when you dare to do it at all. It’s a natural byproduct of daring choices.

As sociologist and researcher Dr. Brene Brown described, “Daring is not saying “I’m willing to risk failure.” Daring is saying “I know I will eventually fail and I’m still all in.”

I keep this in mind every time I get my writing rejected. These rejections only prove that I’m trying as hard as I possibly can to get my work noticed.  Some writers suggest even making it your goal to get 100 rejections a year.

No matter how good I get as writer, I have to accept that I am going to fail occasionally. The only thing that makes failure stop is making safe, comfortable choices. If I want to build a life and career of courageous choices, failure has to tag-along too.

2. My editors may never give me the validation or guidance I need.

This clever article describes practically every kind of editor you’ll work with as a freelancer. Almost all of them are frustrating. This year, sometimes I only got the the words “nice” as a response to an essay I poured my blood, sweat and tears into. Sometimes an editor wrote “this needs work” but didn’t offer any suggestions on how I could make it better. Sometimes I’ve had to edit my own work because an editor accepted my piece without bothering to correct all the typos.

Having now worked as an editor for the last year, I can now better understand these responses, instead of just resenting them. Editors are super busy, their inboxes get crowded, and they don’t get paid nearly enough. They have quotas and deadlines and all kinds of external factors that unfortunately make them prioritize fast and easy production over the delicate artistry writers want to explore in their work.

As a writer, we have to just accept that it’s rare to get the kind of feedback we so eagerly need. Instead, we often have to create a sense of validation for ourselves. Which connects to the next point:

3. My parents or friends may never truly understand what I do for a living. And that’s okay.

Sandra Cisneros wrote about the isolation between writers and their loved ones, particularly for writers of color: “When I had dinner with two other Latina writers, I asked them if their families had spoken to them yet about their new books and we paused and looked around and blinked. None of us could admit our books had brought us closer to our families…..Once when I tried tried to invite a relative to a a reading I was giving in Chicago, she looked at me, exasperated and said “Sandra, I’m your family. I’m not your fan.”

Since writing already takes so much emotional energy and courage, it can make me desperate for validation from others. In my most insecure moments, I feel like I need the approval of those closest me to convince me that I’m on the right track. But in those moments, it’s important to remind myself that it’s okay if the people closest to me don’t understand or appreciate our work. In the end, it’s more productive to just consider those experiences inevitable

So I try to take it less personally when loved ones don’t read my published writing, or understand what I “do.” I try to not hold my loved ones to the expectation of being in love with my work, or hold myself to the expectation of using my work as a means of connecting more with them. Like anyone else in a traditional career, my work is just my work, and doesn’t have to necessarily be always loved by others.

If that doesn’t make you feel better, read what writer Dennis Lehane (who wrote the book Mystic River and also writes for the television show The Wire) said about how his parents treat his work:

“My old man slept through all of my three movie adaptations. He slept through Mystic River, got up at the end and said, ‘Oh, your mother said that one was dark.’ He slept through Gone Baby Gone and said, ‘Oh, your mother said you used the f-word too much in that one.’ And then with Shutter Island he said, ‘Your mother didn’t know what the hell to make of that one.’ He never read any of my books and everybody said that was so sad. What my father would have said to that is:  ‘Your brother works in a prison but you don’t see me going there.’”

4. My “big break” won’t always mean instant success (or consistent income).

The first piece I ever had published as a writer was in The Atlantic. It got 20k+ shares within days. It received attention from NPR and other notable sites and organizations online. Needless to say, this was an extreme case of beginner’s luck. But did I instantly afterwards become a full-time, well-paid writer by a prestigious publication complete with a retirement and health care package and the flexibility and time to perfect my craft?

Nope. Getting “your big break” doesn’t always immediately mean instant success. It’s just the first step in a longer process.

5. My job is sometimes…just a job.

In more conventional careers, oftentimes hierarchy is really important. But for writers, sometimes what’s most important is creating time for the writing you care most about, not simply climbing up the ladder of your job. Over the last few years, when work wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be, I tried to focus less on my “job” (which is just my position title) and more on my “work” (which is the overarching contribution I want to make to the world). I reminded myself that sometimes a job is just a temporary means of leading me towards my greater “work.”

6. My “finished” work will never be even close to perfect.

When I first started pursuing writing as a personal and professional goal, I decided to re-read some of my favorite novels to gain some inspiration. My biggest shock? They weren’t nearly as impeccable as I had thought upon first reading them. I found the introduction to the Great Gatsby to be kind of messy, the transitions from each section of MiddleSex to be a bit shaky, a few vignettes in The House on Mango Street to be disjointed and bland.

Masterpieces are always flawed. But we often forgive these flaws because the best parts of these books are worth it. So as a writer, it’s important to remember that a flawed piece can still be a finished piece, so long as there’s writing in there that’s worth sharing.

You’re never going to write the piece you want to write. You’re going to write the second-rate version of the piece you want to write. That’s more than enough.

7. Even if I never “make it” as a writer, that’s okay.

The horrifying thought that hits any freelance writer on their worst days is this: What if this is all for nothing? What if I go through all this trouble and I never “make it?”

The Ask Polly advice column in The Cut had a pretty solid answer for a writer who asked the same, anxious question:

“Dreaming about breaking through is like joining a fundamentalist religion fixated on the afterworld. There is no glistening golden castle in the sky waiting for any of us. We will never have everything we ever wanted. The world will not turn shiny and spotless and perfect one day. We aren’t rushing to some imaginary finish line. We are inching along slowly, smelling the flowers, playing with our dogs and cats, giving generously to those who need our help when we can. Stop pressing your face to the glass of someone else’s party. Enjoy the party unfolding around you.”

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