Freelance Success: You never “make it” – and that’s OK

Here's why.

Freelance Success: You Never 'Make It'

For the last two years, I have worked on a book. When I sent the copy edited manuscript to my editor – the last step before the Word doc becomes an advance reader’s copy – I expected to feel something. Instead, I returned to my day gig copy editing blog posts for a major consumer magazine without so much as whoop or Michael Jordan-inspired fist pump.

There’s a scene in the movie Parenthood when the patriarch (Jason Robards) describes being a father to his adult son (Steve Martin). “You never cross the goal line, spike the ball, and do your touchdown dance,” he says. “Never.” That’s as apt a description for writing as I’ve ever encountered as well as the mindset required for this job.

I remember the first time I “made it.” It was May 2008. I landed a full-time freelance editing gig in New York City, which allowed me to quit slinging books and act like a publishing professional. That first day, I hopped on the NJ Transit bus, navigated the subway like a champ, and arrived early. I decided to take a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. I put on my iPod and blasted Rufus Wainwright’s “14th Street” and luxuriated in my narrative’s dash toward a long, luxurious apex. This, I thought to myself, was my time. Didn’t every great writer’s story start here? And in the summer, no less, when the air is ripe with sewer steam and luminous youth and sunshine off old buildings.

Three months later, I was laid off. It was the day before my birthday.

You never make it. I’ve been published in The New York Times four times. Each instance has been a legitimate thrill, but my professional life has remained as it was pre-byline. The same with pretty much any story I’ve ever written for any outlet. I long ago stopped writing to please other people or to become a sensation. I write to indulge my curiosity. That’s one of many celebrations.

 

The celebration is I enjoyed myself.

I made one promise with this book: have fun. I don’t know if I’ll do this again, so I wanted to make every day count. I’m proud to say I kept that promise, even though it goes against my old standard operating procedure of obsession and self-flagellation mixed with a blender full of imposter syndrome.

Getting over that required a lot of time. The self-criticism was an elixir. If I’m harder on myself than anyone, then no criticism can possibly sting me! It turns out that daily diet takes an enormous toll on your psyche. I’m not sure if I could have written 1,000 words a day for five months if I felt that way. It’s like running a marathon with a backpack full of rocks. You can do it, but the exertion will grind you to a halt.

 

The celebration is that I can submit a book and not have the doubts shackle me.

My editor was kind enough to let me send some minor corrections and revisions a few days after I submitted the manuscript. As soon as I did, my mind raced through the book, looking for mistakes and oversights and flaws that would cause my career to flatline.

I stopped and went through my crisis-to-calm checklist. I was exhausted. When I’m tired, I veer toward self-doubt. When I make a mistake, I’m gripped with a queasy, harsh dread. That feeling was absent. My system was out of whack. I took a deep breath, rode out the discomfort and reached the same place: Regardless of how big or small it is, no story is a culmination. Everything you write is an opportunity to improve and to learn. The same applies to a book. 

 

The celebration is I didn’t quit.

My New York City delusion was one of many abbreviated, shitty gigs I’ve had.

I wrote and edited a slate of community magazines where getting paid was a weekly casino game. Will this check bounce? Will it clear? Only Bank of America knows! That gig ended with me getting stiffed $1,500. I wrote synopses of movies nobody has ever heard of for $10 a pop and got lambasted by the company’s owner when I had the temerity to ask where my check was. I spent a year as a community reporter for a daily newspaper, where I was, in human relations speak, declared a failure by the managing editor. (Let me tell you, kids, having your dreams set on fire when you’re 23 is a scene.) I worked as a teen humor blogger, even though I was an unfunny bearded 32-year-old with a mortgage. I spent close to four years at a magazine where four of us cranked out 28 issues a year. The freelance budget was microscopic. There was no administrative staff. I answered phones and ordered office supplies. 

Either I was stupid, or I was stubborn. I’m not sure I’ll never know for sure.

 

The celebration is I’m OK with where I am.

I’ve wanted to write a book since I was 13 years old and found that writing made me feel like I had found the best version of myself. This book could sell not a single copy, and I’d be content. I got paid to write what has been living inside my mind for seven years. I don’t want prizes or bestseller designation or raves from the literary crowd. (The latter is doubtful. Most sports books are greeted with the enthusiasm of a Buick in the kitchen.) I want the book to open one door. Maybe an editor reads it and reaches out with an assignment. Maybe it creates an easier path to a second book deal. Maybe someone invites me to speak at their conference or college.

If those things don’t happen, the fact remains: I wrote a book. And it’s a good one.

 

My wife wants to celebrate. I should buy something nice, but with tax season coming up, I can’t summon the enthusiasm to whip out my credit card. It’s not mid-life malaise but a realization. My professional life is a celebration; the book is the biggest float.

For now.

 

 

Ithaca-based Pete Croatto is a veteran freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. He is also working on his first book. Twitter: @PeteCroatto.