I suspect a lot of you are pop-culture freelancers yourselves. So I do not have to tell you how inconsistent and crazy-making the field can be. When the pitches are accepted, the calendar is filling up nicely and money is steadily migrating into your checking account, Paypal and mailboxes, you feel like the queen of the world, like you’ve figured it all out and are making a living from play, from watching and writing about silly movies and pop songs while all the grim 9 to 5 types are sullenly going through the motions.
When the pitches are being angrily rejected (and if you’re in a sensitive enough place emotionally, all rejections are angry and brutal), and the calendar is as empty as your mailbox and checking account, writing about pop culture for a living freelance can seem like a Sisyphean endeavor, if not downright impossible, no matter how long you’ve been doing it or how impressive your credits.
I was having one of those days a little while ago, although it would be more accurate to say that I was having one of those days that makes up a week, which then makes up a month and then a year of struggling so consistently that you regularly ask yourself, “Why am I even doing this?”
I felt like I was drowning, that I was further away from whatever my goal was (at this point, it’s essentially to continue making my living as a professional writer, and be able to support my family in the process) than ever before.
So I emailed someone in a somewhat analogous professional situation asking for advice and was unprepared for the response. She suggested that I get a day job to pay the bills and provide benefits and insurance and pursue my passion for writing about pop culture on the side. The advice was well-intentioned and in another context, even sound but looking over the email I quickly realized that I was looking for inspiration as much as I was looking for advice. “Eh, maybe it’s time to start applying for jobs in advertising” was the least encouraging advice I could imagine.
The advice did not come out of left field, however. A week earlier I was talking about how my preschool teacher of a wife and I struggle financially now, pretty much always have, and probably always will, to my much more practical older sister, and she told me that I could do or be anything I wanted to be, with the possible exception of a doctor, except that I chose to forego security and stability and wealth to pursue my dream of being paid modestly to write about pop culture.
My sister told me that if I put my mind to it, and really applied myself, there was no reason I couldn’t be a hard-charging, successful lawyer despite complete disinterest in the law. At that point, I wanted to ask my sister if she’d ever met me, or was remotely familiar with my personality because I could not imagine something I would be less suited for than being a late-in-the-game lawyer.
I was convinced, not without cause, that two solid decades of writing about pop culture, and politics, and my crumbling mental health, qualified me pretty much only for further work writing about pop culture, and politics, and my crumbling mental health. It’s true that writing is my great passion and love but it’s not as if I had to choose between being a dazzlingly accomplished forensic accountant or a guy who’s lucky to make 250 bucks spending the day writing a 6000 word essay on Billy Jack. I write because that’s all I can do.
I’m not going to lie. I was super discouraged by the email suggesting I consider looking for non-creatively fulfilling but higher paying and more responsible work, and this was before The A.V Club informed me they were going to stop running my signature column, My World Of Flops. Then I got up the next morning and had an epiphany. I can say with near absolute certainty that my sister was wrong when she said that the only thing standing me and a career as a highly-paid attorney was will and, I suppose, a law degree.
But my sister was not wrong when she said that I was choosing to forego security and stability and wealth to pursue my dream. That is absolutely true. I love what I do, and the freedom that comes with it so much that I am willing to make sacrifices and compromises for it. That’s much of what Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place is about: I want to create something wonderful that is all my own, and I’m willing to make sacrifices for it.
When I emailed the woman who recommended a day job, I was frustrated because, despite my best efforts, it seemed impossible to have any kind of security or stability as a freelance pop culture writer. I came to realize that I was looking at things the wrong way. I didn’t need to change my profession, I needed to change my perspective, my attitude and my expectations.
The question I was asking shouldn’t have been, “Why can’t I attain security or stability as a pop-culture freelancer?” The question should have been, “Why was I expecting security of stability as a pop-culture writer when I know that giving up security and stability is a huge part of the trade-off for doing something that you genuine love?”
In its own strange way, the day-job advice was inspirational and encouraging. It made me re-examine my priorities. It also gave me a different, more healthy and optimistic way to view the situation. So now, instead of getting angry at the Gods of Freelance for making security and stability such impossible objectives, I’m just grateful that I’m able to make a living and feed my family as a writer at all. If a lifetime of insecurity and instability are the cost I have to pay for doing something creatively and spiritually fulfilling, then I’m willing to continue paying that price.