The week was off to a great start. The washing machine refused to spin, an unpaid bill for the leaky pipe in the basement lingered. Not only were checks slow to arrive, but also editors seemed indifferent to my pitches. So I wrangled an advertorial into coherency while waiting for my next story to edit.
Then the country shut down.
As the uncertainty mounts, you might curse your decision to become a freelance writer. You’ll wonder about why you avoided a more stable profession. I know some writers have struggled to write; I don’t blame them. The days are a jumble of vague terror and hellish headlines. It’s hard to write a pitch or file a story when a sniffle induces a Stephen King story, when the people we should trust in a crisis act as if a mounting body count is a mild inconvenience.
Think about where you were before, when each day felt like your self-esteem was stuck in a vice. You need that fire now.
Life is exhausting, so why keep writing? Because there’s a reason you’ve stuck around. We all have it. The clip where you felt in control of every word. That email from an editor that still makes you smile. Think about where you were before, when each day felt like your self-esteem was stuck in a vice. You need that fire now.
Sometimes, the reminder comes from a source you never expected. Recently, I got a visit from the past courtesy of LinkedIn that made me grateful for my present.
For nearly four years, I was an editor at a magazine publisher that covered the natural products industry – e.g., supplements, organic food, herbs. I landed the job almost two years after I flamed out as a daily newspaper reporter. This was my comeback, which made me a perfect mark. I wanted to succeed so badly that I put my life on hold.
My misplaced ambition, coupled with the company’s brutal pace, produced a paralyzing centrifugal force. It was my understanding that magazines had a more forgiving pace than a newspaper’s daily onslaught. Not here, my dear. We produced 28 issues a year. I was part of an editorial staff of three. The freelance budget was basically a sad trombone. We worked all the time. Then we worked a little bit more. Chris, my best friend and the lone member of the production staff, worked harder than all of us. He once spent the night at the office, using the conference room table as a mattress.
The work was neither rewarding nor rewarded. Our immediate supervisor, the lead salesman, spent his days rocking in his office chair, sending misspelled, stilted mass emails to sales leads and putting papers in three-ring binders. He rarely left the office but was the first to go home every day. He showed zero concern for us, the plebeians who shaped the stories he sold against. We were tools paying the mortgage for his summer home. The owner, 3,000 miles away, was more interested in his tennis game. He’d come to New Jersey once or twice a year with the eagerness of a man renewing his driver’s license on his lunch break. We’d hear from him when he tore himself away from his groundstrokes. He’d berate us for a minor slight or advise us to “work smarter, not harder.”
I’m sorry to report that there is no smart solution for writing three 2,000-word features a month on top of several columns, copy editing three magazines, and performing an array of thankless administrative tasks.
And let’s not forget the trade shows.
The owner’s then-wife once said she loved them because she met up with old friends. I think that’s what she said. I couldn’t hear her over the sound of my eyes rolling into my skull. We had different experiences. I donned a cheap suit to walk miles of thinly carpeted concrete floors in stiff dress shoes, lugging a messenger bag so full of press kits my shoulder ached. I chatted up glassy-eyed vendors, looking for news. They mumbled responses, disappointed I was neither a potential client nor a pert blonde. I endured jet lag at 8 a.m. jargon-heavy seminars and saw well-compensated keynote speakers feign interest. There were times I thought I would die of boredom.
I was alone in big, vibrant cities but crippled by fatigue. By 7 p.m., the hotel bed was the most desirable attraction. I traveled to Las Vegas, Chicago, Baltimore, and Orlando. I can tell you nothing about these cities, other than not to stray too far from Harbor Place at night and that the pizza at Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno is nondescript.
The industry’s biggest show was the Natural Products Expo West, a three-day health-infused Mardi Gras that filled the colossal Anaheim Convention Center. The whole affair – noisy, crowded, and endless – was held every March. When January hit, I would make the same promise to myself. I won’t be here for Expo West. I’ll find another job. Then March would arrive, and I’d find myself crammed into a coach seat, readying myself for the same misery as the year before: three days of hell and handshakes and drink tickets and a Sunday red-eye back to mediocrity.
My beige condo was five minutes from the off-white office. As the years mounted and my desire to do satisfying work evaporated, I’d set my alarm clock for 8:45 a.m., get dressed in my failure uniform of khakis and a dress shirt, brush my teeth, and leave at 8:50 a.m.
For a while, I had a Monday night routine. I’d arrive home and go straight to bed.
My last day at the magazine was Nov. 15, 2006. My wife, my child, my book – anything good in my life – arose because I started to freelance at the age of 29. They are now my salvation.
I hadn’t thought about that expo in a while because why would I? Then, several weeks before “social distancing” became part of our lexicon, I hit a funk. I wandered over to LinkedIn for the usual social media maintenance. A good chunk of my connections are from my trade magazine days. A few had commented on the upcoming Natural Products Expo West.
The reasons why I’m freelancing rushed back, inadvertently preparing me for what was to come.
—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