It’s a Freelance Life

It has taken me a very long time to start describing myself as “a freelance writer.” In fact, I don’t think I really felt okay about it until I heard other people refer to me as one—a classic case of impostor syndrome—which then gave me “permission” to apply the label to myself. But I’ve finally grown comfortable with it, and I’ve found that freelancing really suits me.*

People have often asked me if I want to find a full-time job as a journalist in China, and I always respond no. I don’t want a “J” (journalist) visa in my passport, because that can make life a little more difficult (if you can even get one), and I don’t want to sit through an interminable government press conference because my paper needs a 500-word article about it. (Hannah Beech at Time has a hilarious description of being at the National People’s Congress this week, but I suspect it’s an experience that grows much funnier after it’s over.)

I like writing for a number of publications because each one is slightly different in tone and audience, and I think it’s fun to play around with form and style. And I like the flexibility to decide when I’m going to write and when I’m going to work on other things. In short, freelancing suits me for the same reason that a tenure-track faculty job wouldn’t: I prefer to be my own boss and I like to pursue a variety of projects according to my own schedule.

However, I and every other freelance writer (or artist, or restaurant owner, or adjunct professor, or anyone else who doesn’t have a secure job with a paycheck that arrives every other week) will admit that the flip side of all this wonderful flexibility is instability. Work dries up, payments take months and often many follow-up emails to arrive, we have to figure out our own taxes (thank you, Dad, for providing free accounting services), and so far, it’s only been possible for me to freelance because I have other sources of income (a university grant while I finish my dissertation and a teaching job with a study-abroad program lined up for the fall). My goal is to live off my writing, but I think that’s probably several years away. In the meantime, I have teaching and editing to pay the rent.

So it’s probably more accurate to call myself a freelance writer with a safety net, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t laugh at two things that came across my Feedly page this morning. “The Freelancer’s Cookbook” tells you how to survive when deadlines are looming and checks are slow to arrive. (Personally, I’m a fan of peanut butter, straight from the jar. Also oatmeal.) And “It’s a Freelance Life” is a work of genius, a parody of “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from Annie (the best song in a movie I’ve watched more times than I can count):

I love it. And now, back to the writing that pays the bills … when the payment finally shows up, that is.

*Yes, I am still working on my dissertation, and yes, I am going to finish my PhD—soon! But I went into the doctoral program knowing that this was where I wanted to end up, and am happy to say that my advisor and other professors have done countless things to help make that happen. At some point, I plan to write an article explaining why I’ll be a freelance writer with a PhD, since that’s easily the question I hear the most—probably even more than, “How’s your dissertation going?’”

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