Sunday, January 14, 2007

Part Two: A life full of...

...blind leaps, mistakes and general dumbness.

I have to admit I didn't jump into the world of journalism completely unprepared. In fact, as far back as high school, I considered some kind of writing career, and, after a year as editor of the newspaper at the small-time college I (briefly) attended, I actually applied for some writing jobs, and made it all the way to the interview process for one.

PARENTHETICAL PUTTING-THINGS-IN-ORDER THOUGHT: This last year of college came during a slowdown in the film business. I was in my very early 20s, and not yet committed to animation as a profession. I was also considering music and (God help us all!) politics....

So I went to talk to a publisher about becoming editor of a small-town newspaper. Entry-level reporter's jobs didn't interest me; I was making much more in the film biz. While I waited outside his office, I had time to think: since this would still involve writing some stories, I would have to cover some human tragedies, something I found distasteful and felt myself ill-equipped to do. And, almost as bad, I leafed through a few back issues of the paper; the previous week's headline story dealt with the collapse of someone's driveway after a rainstorm.

Right on the spot, newspaper work stopped looking so interesting to me. This seemed a long, long way from the Big Time, and I was impatient. I left without being interviewed, and started another film job the next day.

When, years later, I met the magazine editor referred to in the earlier entry, we were discussing a subject in which I had been interested for as long as I could remember. Writing was not difficult for me, and neither was the research. Because I was something of a "fan," I already knew more about the specific story than most people.

By sheer good fortune, the magazine that published my first story was (then) one of the top publications in the field. That made it easy for me to call on editors of "lesser" magazines and say "when I'm through doing this story for -----, I might have time to do some stuff for you."

It worked.

There were certain things I didn't know in the early days that came along to haunt me later. First, I didn't realize that I was starting at a "peak" time for the business. I was offered virtually unlimited access to everything I needed, along with an abundance of trips to exotic locales. These things became more the exception than the rule as time went on and corporate budgets were squeezed.

PARENTHETICAL PAYING-THE-PRICE THOUGHT: My new "career" was also the final straw in my already-shaky marriage. The financial uncertainty of freelancing, the fact that I could go happily globe-trotting while the wife stayed home and one other related factor I can't mention made her decide to bail out while the bailing was good.

Worst of all, the rates paid when I began have not increased much when they have increased at all. As more magazines came under corporate ownership -- or, in a few cases, were acquired by cash-strapped and/or unscrupulous operators -- budgets were slashed, and payment policies changed, too. More and more magazines went over to the pay-on-publication system, which means waiting for three months or more to see any return for my work.

As the cost of living increased, I was forced to write more and more just to stay afloat, and faced more and more competition from new writers who were lured to the subject and who are either (a) independently wealthy enough to consider this a "hobby" or (b) had left another profession that gives them a pension to fall back on.

I tried for a few staff positions -- and am trying for one at this moment -- to get additional security and regular checks, but for one reason or another (sometimes my fault) none have worked out. Staff people might write as little as one story a month (or as many as four or five) while I have to turn around a minimum of five just to avoid monetary meltdown.

My real mistake was attempting to survive as a freelance writer. It is extremely difficult, perhaps too difficult for me. But I feel more or less stuck with it, as most employers are looking for younger, less-demanding staff people.

I've written a few articles outside my "specialty" -- which is fairly broad anyway -- and have had requests for more, but the pay offered in those niches is usually even lower than what I'm used to.

Books? Forget 'em. I've been offered several, and they are a huge financial crapshoot for the writer. Tom Clancy I ain't; my "style" doesn't lend itself to fiction.

Granted, "name" writers in several fields can command the big bucks, but for every headliner in a major publication, there are hundreds -- make that thousands -- of us just scraping by. And we have to prove ourselves all over again with each new article. One bad piece, and the offers start to vanish....

I won't say it's all been awful. Far from it. I've filled three passports with entry and exit stamps over the years, have plenty of wonderful memories, and have had experiences that -- if I may say so -- most people will never have. I'm happy about those things.

But, as I near my 57th birthday and consider where I am and what my future prospects are, it doesn't look so damn wonderful. What seemed a worthwhile risk when I was 46 now looks suspiciously like a wasted effort, no matter how much entertainment and information I've provided for others. I used to say I'd never retire because I loved the work; nowadays, I say that because I can't afford to.

When the fun and the rewards are more a matter of memories than present reality, it's hard not to think you've screwed up your life big-time.

Hate to end on a downer, but that's how it is.

11 comments:

lowandslow said...

I can relate, Scribbs. While I enjoy what I do, I can see myself being slowly squeezed out. I just hope I can stay one step ahead of the corporate mega-employers. And as we're the exact same age, I know what it's like to even think about another career. (Not gonna happen.) But I'm good at what I do, just like you, so I guess we'll just have to keep plugin' along. I know those memories of yours don't pay the bills, but can you imagine your life WITHOUT those memories? Count you blessings, friend.

HarpO'Fly said...

I have no choice but to start over. Looking back is poison for me because it is impossible to do without seeing the possibilites that were ignored, and realizing I often walked away a day too soon, tomorrow would have brought it all together.
You've done well, and one big event of nature or man could change the entire thing anyway. We'll survive, and maybe even thrive. No clue how, but it can happen.

likeisaid said...

This is so interesting! After reading this and the previous entry it sounds like you've had a wonderful, exciting life. I've had a couple of things published in the newspaper and even that was exciting! I can imagine what it would be like to be a real writer!

Waiting for the next installment. :)

Sally said...

I sure would like to read some of your work. I'll bet it's great. However, if it has a thing to do with politics it would be way over my head, lol. DH I think feels the same way about his age and trying for something new. I think you and he could do whatever you set your mind to no matter what age, course I am a stay at home wife and mom, so I don't really know too much about the business world. I hope you can find something more suitable to your needs very soon. *hugs*

Sunny said...

"When the fun and rewards are more a matter of memories" Yes, I sure can relate to this.

I think it has 'something' to do with getting older.

Memories are all I have now. I'm just biding time..and alot is spent in here ..CyberLand,lol. {{hugs}}

MrScribbler said...

Sally, I can promise you my work has nothing to do with politics! Except, of course, for the usual "office politics," which I despise.

kathy said...

It's really too bad that it's so difficult to freelance. I hope an opportunity comes along that helps you retire when and how you want to.
BTW, if you ever feel like sharing some of your work, you can always send me a link to peterson@telusplanet.net :)

joan said...

It does sound like you have had a fascinating life. Too bad the free lance stuff is so tough these days since it sounds like you are very good at it.

It's hard to ever feel secure isn't it? Secruity seems so fragile.

MrScribbler said...

Joan -- I'm not sure I have ever known "security" in my entire adult life. Sometimes, I wonder if the fun was worth it....

KauaiFinn said...

Wow, I would love to hear more about your travels and experiences!

I completely understand your dismay, though....

However: Think about this. There are many people who have reached retirement age with decent financial security via working some job they weren't all that thrilled with - and regret that they carry few (or ZERO) memories of great adventures that they can talk about with their grandchildren.

It works both ways - except of course i understand the financial security issue very much.

I'm utterly *terrified* of my future.

I see many elderly people working in grocery stores bagging groceries... or mopping floors in the County buildings... And i think to myself: MY GOD!!! By that age, i wish to be sitting in my hammock with a Mai Tai, reading books!!! NOT mopping floors or bagging groceries!! (or worse: homeless and on the streets!)

It's a very realistic fear.

And our fond memories of great adventures may not be enough to alleviate our spirits while we shove that mop around...

*sigh*

May I cry with you now?

**hugs** and alooooHaaaaa....

Anonymous said...

I thought I was the only one who didn't know "what" your writing specialty is, I was embarrassed to asked as I have known you so long...Tell, tell. Can I read some....
I have done a lot of work with the elderly, I have found that it makes some older people very sad notto be active.
Especially, it seems, older men like that grocery bagging thing...
lz