Thursday, September 01, 2005


Yagoda on the freelance life, Nerve, Fats Domino, hurricane relief

Due to my absence last week, I only just came across Ben Yagoda's excellent piece in Slate about the perils (many) and pleasures (rapidly diminishing) of the freelance life. I wish I could say he was exaggerating, but believe me, he isn't--and Yagoda is a successful journalist, not some embittered Rupert Pupkin figure skulking in his mother's basement. He's also wondering whether he's just too old for another decade on the freelance hamster wheel:
Perhaps this is just the Lion King factor--the circle of life. Freelancing, with all its scrambling and uncertainty, is like rock climbing or white-water kayaking: one of those things that comes fairly easily in your 20s and 30s but requires some mulling over as you enter your 50s.

But I'm convinced that the nature of the game has changed as well. For one thing, the economics of the freelance life seem worse than ever. And they were never good. Just take a look at George Gissing's 1891 novel, New Grub Street, about London hacks barely breaking even. In the cosmos of skilled tradespeople, freelance journalists have always been bottom-dwellers. Plumbers don't do kill fees. Screenwriters have negotiated an ironbound fee schedule: currently, a minimum of $53,256 (I said minimum) for two drafts of an original script, plus $17,474 more for a rewrite and $8,742 for a "polish." But for magazine hacks, an unlimited number of rewrites and polishes have always been gratis.
All of this brought to mind one of my more amusing freelance experiences. About five years ago, I wrote a short piece for Nerve, my one and only excursion into erotica. I had kicked around several ideas with the editor, all of them fairly tame. What I finally wrote about was my occasional habit, when reading children's books to my toddler son for the hundredth time, of concocting erotic daydreams about the second-tier female characters--say, the nanny in Kay Thompson's Eloise. (Not that she's really my type.) After I sent in the piece, there was a long silence. And it turned out that some of the staffers at Nerve--those bold argonauts of human sexuality--had been rattled by my Walter-Mitty-like fantasia. Whips and chains were fine, intercourse with a goat or the Green Bay Packers was fine, but daydreaming with a child on your knee was verboten.

After a heated editorial meeting (I imagined everybody in leather), the piece ran. There was no jammed switchboard, no torrent of reader complaints. I got my check in the mail. And when I deposited it in my bank account, it bounced. Possibly I had held onto it for too long, since it showed up just as I was moving from Seattle back to New York. But the real moral of the story is that I can't seem to throw the check away: like a classically masochistic freelancer, I've left it on the shelf near my desk, a silent reproof. But for what? Pushing the erotic envelope? Failing to dun the magazine for the money they owed me? Or for the original sin of dodging a nine-to-five job?

On a more serious note: Fats Domino is missing. The creator of "Blueberry Hill," "Ain't That A Shame," and numerous other specimens of drawling New Orleans R&B, Domino owns a house in the city's low-lying Ninth Ward, and may have perished when the area flooded. I truly hope he survived, along with his wife and daughter. The scope of the disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf States is beyond reckoning. If you're looking for a way to donate, try the McCormick Tribune Foundation Hurricane Katrina Relief Campaign, which is matching every dollar with fifty cents and bearing all administrative costs itself. (Thanks to About Last Night for pointing me towards this site, and for their superb coverage of the unfolding catastrophe.)

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