Saturday, February 23, 2013

How to Be a Freelancer in New York

I've written about this here and there, but I don't think I've ever just sat down and talked about how it works. For those of you who know the story in its entirety, please forgive the repetition. 

When I first got to New York, I had a real job. It was on 54th Street and Seventh Avenue, and it always smelled like pastrami because the famous Carnegie Deli was downstairs. I took the 6 train to the NQR to get there. It took exactly 30 minutes from my door to my office. My boss always understood that the position was not my ideal--she knew I was a writer, and whenever someone came into her office who she thought I could learn something from, she would allow me to sit and chat with them for a while about their jobs. One particular woman, Joanne, came in one day and talked to me for an hour and changed my life. 

You want to write? she said. Okay, so email every editor of every publication you want to write for, and see if they'll take a meeting with you. Bring your clips. Ask them if you can pitch them. She gave me tons of contacts to reach out to, and began my wheels turning. It seemed so simple! After months of figuring out how one actually ever makes the connections you need to get a job in the media industry, all you really had to do was make them yourself. Nobody's going to just hand you media contacts on a silver platter; you have to ask first. And you're not going to make any connections just sitting in an office with just one other person. So go out and get them! Joanne lit a fire under my butt that has never gone out. Interestingly, my mother had told me to do the same things, but I never believed her--I think maybe just hearing it from someone in the field made it true (sorry for that one, mom). 

So when I was laid off, I began hustling. I contacted editors and asked them to talk to me about their work, I applied for infinite jobs every day, I made big lists of publications I wanted to work for and attacked their mastheads. I was still set on finding a job, being an editorial assistant and working my way up from the bottom like everyone else. Sometimes it was incredibly productive--a meeting with one editor resulted in a freelance gig I still have today. Other times, I would spend an entire day emailing infinite editors and I would hear nothing back. At the end of two months, I still had no job. 

I remember the days when I cried because I wished so badly to just order some damned Chinese food, when buying a bagel and cream cheese at the corner bodega was my big luxury for the day. I needed to make some money, and fast. This was not acceptable any more, to my self-esteem or to my bank account. 

I thought about all of the skills that I had and how I could capitalize on them. Incidentally, the first skill I banked on was social media, for a yoga studio in my neighborhood. I loved the studio, so I emailed them and told them what I could do for them. They brought me in for a meeting, and then they hired me. But I was still looking for full-time jobs. I applied and applied and applied, but I was getting nowhere. So I wondered, if maybe in the meantime, some other people could use some social media work. 

It turns out they did. One woman, an author and the mother of a friend, hired me to do social media for her book. A friend of mine started his own business and need social media associates to work for him. By the end of that summer, I was working 40 hours a week, paying my rent, often working from my own couch. 

I remember I went into my first boss's office to do some extra work for her, and she asked me how I was doing. I told her. "You still should have a real job, though," she said. "You can't make a living as a freelancer."

The nature of freelancing, though, is that it's not consistent and it's not guaranteed. There are no sick days, no vacation days, no healthcare, no 401(K)s. My cycles of clients have gone up and down, sometimes to the point where I was only making $90 per week. Having those freakouts and solving them is part of making a living as a freelancer. The universe works in mysterious ways, but you have to put yourself out there to let it work its magic. 

I never thought I would or could be a freelancer. I thought my life would follow all of the steps that people who working magazines follow--editorial assistant, associate editor, assistant editor, deputy, etc. until I was at the tippy-top of the masthead. Somehow, it all changed, though. And part of me still wants those things, but wants them at *the* job, not *a* job. The universe, society, etc. tell us that our lives are supposed to function a certain way and if they don't then we're not "doing it right." This simply isn't true. Freelancers live outside the norm. We wake up at odd hours and work well into the night, we work at coffee shops and libraries and, god bless it, even Brooklyn Bridge Park when it's warm because there's free Wi-Fi there. We get paid at weird times and meet weird, awesome people who lead us to other weird, awesome work. Every day is different, and everything we do every day is for our work, for our businesses, for ourselves. It's not written anywhere that all humans have to have 9-5 jobs, that they have to clock in, commute to work, sit in a cubicle, go to office parties, etc. Sometimes your life just leads you down a different path. 

This is not to throw shade at people who have office jobs, by any means! More power to you, honestly. I am jealous of your office parties and holiday bonuses and team-building trips to Martha's Vineyard. I have never had a vast amount of co-workers or happy hours or a salary. But I have other things, and because I have them, I don't think I would trade with you. I believe we both have the freedom to be happy as we are. 

I like the way my life works right now. I work my 40 hours per week, if not more, on infinite projects and articles and photoshoots. I am never, ever bored because there's always something to do, and it's different every day. Granted, I am still learning myself (we all are), but here are some things that have worked for me. So cheers to you if you seek to begin freelancing! I have the most respect for you and I wish you only the best. Chase the dream because, really, it's closer than you think. 

1. At first, you will feel like you want to crawl in a hole and die. Know that this feeling will pass. 


Yep, that's about right. It starts this way because, well, you don't have a whole lot going on right now. Your mind wanders, and it wanders to all of the things that are bad. But you need to not think about those things. That's definitely easier said than done, TRUST ME I KNOW, but the best way to counteract those thoughts is to…

2. Be Productive.

Wallowing in a pit of your own sorrow is not going to do anything for you. "Be Productive" is the best advice my father ever gave me. I will never forget the story he told me about literally diving in dumpsters to get names of people to call to build his business. You need to give yourself tasks to do that will further your career (you know what they are) whether or not they make money. Do the work and the money will come.

3. The Worst Thing Anyone Can Ever Tell You Is No

This is the best advice I ever got from my mother, and it applies to all facets of my life. For work in particular, it forces me to just send that email or just call up that magazine or just damn do it already. Nothing scarier than "no" will happen, so why be afraid? 

Another good piece of advice I got from a writer at The New York Times is "Let them say no first." Which doesn't mean allowing someone to reject you, of course, it means not rejecting yourself before someone else even has the opportunity! Don't psych yourself out of applying, or pitching, or reaching out to anyone. 

4. Meet People

This one's a no-brainer. It's networking, it's hustling, it's building your portfolio of contacts. And for crying out loud, we're in New York! The opportunities to meet people here are unlike those anywhere else. They're practically there waiting for you!

Again, just email people and seeing if they'll talk about their work with you. You never know, they may need someone to help them out, or they may have another connection to help you out. People who are at the top of their game know how hard it is to get there, and oftentimes they admire the spunk and moxie it takes for people starting out to even ask them. They'll be glad to help you out. Or they won't respond. Follow up, or brush it off and keep moving. 

And if you meet such awesome people by chance, don't forget to open your mouth and say what you do. Everything happens for a reason. I've gotten writing gigs just because I said what I did at the right time. 

5. Get Out of the House

It's so easy to work from home, to roll out of bed and sit in front of the computer all day. But you can't do it. Get up, shower, brush your teeth, get dressed (in real clothes), and do work for a few hours. Then, take a break. Even people working regular jobs don't sit and work for 8 hours a day. That's nonsense. Go out, take a walk around the block for a half an hour. Grab some coffee. Or work part of the day at home and part of the day somewhere else. When you take a break, you're more productive. It lets your mind and your body breathe. 

That being said, also don't work in your bedroom or on your bed. It's good to keep your work and your sleep space separate. 

6. Work a Normal Work Day

When I first started freelancing, I found myself working 12 hour days 14 days in a row. This is incorrect and counterproductive because you can't work when you're sick (which keeping a schedule like that will make you). So now, I work 8 hours a day (sometimes more, sometimes less), depending on *what I need to get done that day to make myself feel like I've completed a good work day.* Keeping yourself to a schedule heightens productivity. I could sit and write all night on some subjects…but then I can't wake up the next morning. What's nice is that sometimes my 8 hours starts a little later than others' (I got up at 11am the other day…granted, this is not the norm and I like to get up before then, but sometimes it happens), but I always put in that time. 

7. Be a Normal Human, Too

You know, one who goes grocery shopping, exercises, goes to the bank, to the post office, picks up your damn shoes from the shoe repair place even though they've been ready for almost a week now. Part of managing your own business is making sure you have time to do these things, too. There's no reason you should be scraping peanut butter out of the jar for breakfast except pure laziness. Make time in your day to go to the damn store, and maybe work a little later that night (I am still working on this one, myself). 

8. Nothing Worth Having Ever Came Easy

Welcome to the most difficult thing you will ever, ever do. Nobody is there to enforce your schedule, give you feedback, make sure you're on the right track, producing work at a reasonable rate. You have to be the judge of all of those things yourself. You have to send those invoices, reach out to those potential clients or contacts, and be your own boss. 

One time I met a photographer at a street fair who would take my picture with an oversized Polaroid if gave him some money. I said no thanks, and laughed "I'm a starving artist!" He didn't laugh and instead looked at me, eyebrow raised. "Why are you starving?"

The truth is, I wasn't starving, but I understood what he meant: that if I was starving it was my own damn fault and I needed to do something to fix it. And you can't fire you, you just have to make yourself better. Learn the skills you need to learn and rise to your own occasion. Ferdinand Foch once said, "The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire." So flame on, baby, and start your own blaze. Nobody else is going to do it for you.