Tag Archives: freelance writing

Dreaming of Italy

Outside, the Tyrrhenian Sea had disappeared into darkness. I could see this from my seat at the dinner table; one side of the restaurant was all windows looking out, but at the moment, there wasn’t anything to see except specks of light coming from neighbors’ windows. Nightfall in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, is at all not like nightfall in suburban New York City—it’s a true, deep, inky dark, not that hazy, pink dark that clouds Manhattan and all its neighbors from sundown til sunrise, giving you the false sense the sun never slipped away at all, it simply changed colors. We were enveloped by the blackness curling around the coastline while inside the restaurant, hundreds of candles glowed, what felt like the safest place to be on Earth that night. At the table next to me, a woman from Texas, a writer who now owns an artisanal wine and spirits shop in Los Angeles, stood up, and in her soft Southern drawl, delivered an impromptu buzzed speech about the importance of writing, the commitment to the process. She then raised her glass and said loudly and passionately “Fuck money!”

Cheers and applause followed. She was speaking to a restaurant filled with writers, some published, some not, some quite notable, and others who were trying to carve a name for themselves, like myself. And it was easy then, just two weeks ago today, to lift my glass and chirp “Fuck money!” in response. I was surrounded by supportive peers at a five-star hotel for a writers’ conference. I was someplace ancient and magical. I had redeemed frequent flyer miles to get there, and had flown business class for the first time in my life just to make the claustrophobia I feel on planes more tolerable. I couldn’t really afford the event, but I was there. “It’s an investment in your writing,” my husband said in the months leading up to the conference, and there I was saying “Fuck money!”



Most writers I know don’t earn much. The US Department of Labor says that in 2014, writers averaged about $58,000 per year. I’ve been on both sides of that figure in the last few years. My husband just finished edits on his fourth book, and tells anyone who asks—and it’s been asked several times—that he will never leave his day job as a writer for a mutual fund company. He loves what he does, and the company he does it for, and his job has changed our lives in ways we never thought manageable, allowing me to leave my office gig four years ago and return to full-time freelance writing and, more importantly, return to creative writing, something I hadn’t touched since college.

Three days after that candlelit toast, I was happy to be back home after 12 days in Europe, though, truthfully, I would’ve much preferred my family to fly out to Italy to be with me. I have no love for New York City. It’s the financial capital of America, and this toiling for coin dominates life here. In my leafy, snobby suburb, it is assumed everyone has a ton of money. I did not grow up with middle class comforts, yet years of working hard, paying off debt, and job promotions led us to a town of bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, human resource managers, engineers, and one neighbor who is a senior administrator for the United Nations. It’s a town of 60-hour work weeks and big paychecks. It is not a town where freelance writers live. But we were able to afford a small, aging house here because it offered the best education for our daughter, and an opportunity to build equity quickly, for houses in this town sell well. At home, busy not fitting in, I try to think of living here like I think of the conference in Positano or my writing in general, an investment. And investments are about time.

Meanwhile bills roll in, and the stress of not getting paid kicked in as soon as the jet lag wore off. I spent my first week home following up with clients, a daily constitution for most freelance writers I know. When I wasn’t doing that, I worried, which I’m very good at. There are often financial dry spells when working as a freelance writer, but it was difficult to have it follow such a luxurious week. Just days earlier, I sat inside a dreamy hotel sipping luscious red wine, nibbling on tuna carpaccio and talking with a Canadian writer about the restaurants down by the beach. Difficult clients, ignored emails, piling bills, and the snobbery of an overpriced, award-winning school district community were all four-thousand miles away.



Perspective was easier in Positano, not because of five-star accommodations, but because of Positano itself, with its Easter-egg colored houses clinging to a cliff, its lemon trees in between homes, twisting toward the sun, everything appearing so old and still and lovely. Fewer than five-thousand residents live there. I saw some of their undergarments drying. Laundry lines crisscrossed several households; just outside my fancy hotel, someone hung men’s briefs and a large bra from a clothesline strung across a front balcony.




The Amalfi Coast seduces. I get it now. This was my second trip to Italy (the first one being in March 1996), but my first trip going beyond Italy’s cities and to the smaller places. Our hotel, Le Sirenuse, is an exceptional place that deserves all the praise that’s ever been said or printed about it. And it has a magnificent outdoor swimming pool. On the Saturday morning I had to check out, I finally had a chance to try the pool. It had been a chilly, wet week in Positano, the sun often coming out when I had to be inside for a writer’s workshop. But a few hours before check out, the sun was strong; morning felt like early afternoon. I changed into my bathing suit and slipped into the pool. Many of my colleagues were still enjoying breakfast, and while they finished their eggs and cappuccinos, I had what now ranks as the best swim in my life.



As a hotel pool junkie, this is a notable claim. I have swum in many fine hotel pools around the world; I have gone into debt to travel and experience these places just like I went into debt to travel and experience Positano. The conference and the people and the learning were unparalleled. I hope to attend again. But that swim—the warm water, the smell of the beach just a few steep staircases away, the sounds of the cliff waking up and beginning another weekend. Wow. Just wow. That’s the best I can come up with because you really had to be there. What else can I say other than I had the pool to myself for about 20 minutes, that gliding across the water, I realized Italy was letting me in on its secrets, and that was when I knew I had been completely seduced. I no longer felt guilty about the expense of being there. I wanted to swim until my skin pruned. I wanted to tell the taxi driver taking me to the train station that I had changed my mind.

Positano will balloon with tourists this summer. I was grateful to enjoy the region in early spring, when things are quieter and slower. Many shops were still closed for the winter; a gelateria across the street opened for the season during my week there. Other shops began to unlock its doors and hang their shingles. Poverty used to plague this area during the early twentieth century, and by mid-century, Steinbeck and movie stars were showing up. Being a charming fishing village wasn’t enough anymore. Positano depends on tourism, it needs travelers to be swept away by its beauty, and to keep coming back.

Steinbeck is right: “it’s a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I thought I arrived with all my practicality in check, and since leaving two weeks ago, I feel haunted by the place. I think about how vertical Positano is, how you ascend or descend to see things. Everything is up or down. You climb stairs carved into homes or the cliff itself or make your way along exceptionally narrow stone roads you share with Vespas zipping by, and if the stairs and roads have been washed by the day’s rain, you pray there’s a railing nearby to steady you. Public buses use these same roads, which blew my mind as I watched drivers handle hairpin turns with familiarity, not slowing down when I thought they should, but they knew Positano’s curves. I did not.

I hope to earn enough money to go back. Writing has been cheapened. Freelance gigs are harder to come by. Book advances are shrinking. Everyone jokes how there’s no money in publishing. Meanwhile, the cost of housing, health care and education have all gone exponentially up while salaries have flattened, editorial salaries being among some of the worst. It’s hard to make things work in the United States. In this election year, I hear many people say the American dream is dead. I want to say “Fuck money!” that I write for the love of language, that I write for the same reasons Steinbeck wrote, that I am compelled by passion, not income or status, which I’ve never really had anyway. And when I was in Positano, it was easier for those things to feel true. Now back in suburban New York, I fret constantly about money. I feel defined by my lack of it. New York is so expensive, and even robust paychecks don’t feel like enough. No one here hangs their laundry outside to dry. Landscapers are always around tidying up people’s gardens and yards. We own one car where most driveways have at least two, sometimes three, and often newer models. What your kid wears and where your kid goes to summer camp reflects how well you are doing. Here in my 1926 Colonial, around the corner from some newly-constructed McMansions, I am writing in my pajamas—as freelance writers do—and I’d like to lift my coffee cup and loudly proclaim “Fuck money!” but the silence that would follow would overwhelm me.

Why Travel?

It’s been a bumpy year for freelance work so far. Projects have fallen through for different reasons, everything from someone assigning something to someone else while my editor was on vacation to a grant wrapping up to budget freezes. Belt-tightening is the wrong time to think about travel, and yet, that’s exactly what I am doing. While I follow up with clients about invoices and hustle for new assignments–cornerstones of any freelancer’s day–I check out hotels in Quebec City and flights to the Bahamas. It’s not the most prudent thing to do (granted, I haven’t purchased anything yet), and if my daughter were an adult doing this I’d advise against the Expedia surfing.

There’s no support group for this kind of behavior. Wanderlust can be obsessive, but is not always compulsive (at least it isn’t for me), and it doesn’t fit in with other shopping addictions or fall neatly into any DSM-V categories (I checked). I’m relieved I fly to San Francisco on Saturday even though I hate flying, for a trip gives me somewhere to go and something to do besides checking email for work-related updates. Travel provides a break from worrying about the future.

I’m tagging along on one of Mike’s business trips and had enough frequent flyer miles to grab a free seat on a Boeing 757; he’ll be at the office, the kid is at camp, and I have San Francisco to myself. I haven’t been this untethered in over a decade. My guess is I will alternate between skipping down the Embarcadero and balling up under the hotel bedroom covers with my laptop and a few books. What will eight days of uninhibited silence and maid service do to me? I’m about to find out.


But after San Francisco, I’ll be out of freebies, which means if I want to go anywhere, I’m going to have to do it the old-fashioned way with cold, hard cash, something that has been in short supply. I love my life and am not complaining, but writing isn’t exactly a lucrative line of work (my college professors did warn me about this), and the publishing industry is having some serious growing pains. Carving out an income as a freelance writer in an age when everyone is being advised to learn code (there is computer coding camp for kids) and train to become a computer engineer is not easy. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the 2012 median income for writers and authors was just under $56,000. That’s great if you live in rural South Dakota (is there an urban part of South Dakota?), but not so great if you live almost anywhere else, particularly the overpriced New York City area. I have a front row seat to watch the deappreciation of my profession. The Internet has cheapened the written word. Book advances are down. Dollar-per-word rates have barely budged since I began freelancing fifteen years ago, even though the cost of food, gas, and a roof over your head have all gone up. It’s the wrong time to travel. However, as things temporarily dry up, I feel even more compelled to grab the family and book a trip. My accountant, who has asked me for vacation recommendations, is probably shaking his head right now.

Out and About

Celebrate the Lunar New Year in the Berkshires? Sure, why not. Actually, the scheduling happened by accident, but I’m visiting Kripalu this Friday for a Buddhist meditation and yoga retreat for bucolic escape and the chance to embrace something I’ve been wanting to learn for a while. Kripalu is a three-hour drive away, and wasn’t on my radar two years ago when I blogged about yoga retreat travel, but I’m excited to go and learn something new.

Unfortunately, that means I’m going to miss New York City’s New Year’s Day parade in Chinatown uh-gain, that wonderful kaleidoscope of reds and golds that I am so eager to see. It is the Year of the Horse, which I believe is related to hard work and money, so here’s hoping for a lucrative year for everyone, particularly us freelance writers! To kick off the Year of the Horse, the family and I will swing by Roosevelt Park for Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year depending on who you talk to) celebrations, before I get on the road to meditate in the Berkshires. The Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival begins in the late morning and runs through the afternoon on Friday, January 31, if you’re in the area and looking for something interesting to do on a Friday. The big parade is on Sunday, just a few hours before the Super Bowl. I can’t believe we’ve lived here a decade and haven’t been to this event yet, which goes to show there’s always something new to discover about your backyard.


Speaking of backyards, I recently wrote about being a travel writer without traveling far, an awesome strategy for anyone on a budget (that’s us) or for anyone who hates flying (that’s definitely me) or for anyone who just really, really, really loves where they live and wants to shout it from the Internet mountaintop. So go poke around your town and dig up a story. Reality is always stranger than fiction, anyway. I found reality to be stranger than fiction during my recent trip to Phoenix where I saw more signs for guns than actual guns. Pam Mandel of Nerds Eye View was kind enough to let me opine about these observations on her blog. Outside of Phoenix along the Interstate, you’ll find plenty of signs for pie, which to me feel more welcoming. Someone needs to shoot a movie out there about all the wacky billboards in the Southwest.

And since I’m shilling myself today, I’ve got one more byline coming up; next Sunday my article about Taos, New Mexico, is supposed to appear in The Los Angeles Times’ travel section. This will be my third story for the LA Times, and it has given the impression to some that I’m a West Coast writer, which I once was, but haven’t been since 2000. But it’s true that in the world of newspapers, my byline has appeared more often in West Coast print, so perhaps for 2014, I’ll focus on trying to break into The New York Times, a freelance writer’s dream.

On Building Up

Since the spring launch of “Lean In” written by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, there’s been undulating buzz among working women on whether “Lean In” was a service or disservice, welcomed wisdom or another label from a female corporate executive who can afford nannies and housekeepers. The response to Sandberg’s bestseller was the term “Opt Out,” which somehow developed a negative connotation suggesting that working women were angry with the limited career opportunities before them (understandably so), and instead of conforming to corporate cultural norms (which often have patriarchal frameworks) and HR handbooks laden with politically-correct jargon, they were walking away from the mainstream workforce to either work on their own, raise families, or something in between. “Opt Out” suggested you just would not work or play with others ever again.

I’ll come clean: I haven’t read “Lean In” yet, though I’d like to. My coffee table has a stack of books pertaining to a novel I am working on, so building my novel is the bigger priority right now. But this past spring, when reading the reviews about Sandberg’s book, I leaned toward the “Opt Out” crowd. As I continued to build my own communications consulting service, and gained new clients in 2013, I started thinking that “Opt Out” wasn’t quite right either. I hate labels, but societies thrive on them, and a couple of succinct words that can quickly convey an idea isn’t a bad thing. So I propose a new paradigm and catch phrase: “Build Up.”

What is “Build Up?” Maybe it’s people who had leaned in, opted out and decided to build up. Or maybe it’s people who didn’t even know there was anything to lean into, were completely unaware that there was anything to opt out from, and they just were too excited with their own ideas to do anything but build up. I relate to both groups.

Normally, my little online soapbox is reserved for opining about travel, but the “Lean In/Opt Out” dialogue, which really is a 21st century twist on the late 20th century “Mommy Wars” has resonated with me. So I am adding my voice to the din. Here we go:

I don’t like office life and I don’t think the current US workplace is a place for creativity, though there are some exceptions. Everyone says they want you to think out of the box, but they are afraid of risk. I’ve done office life. I’ve been successful at it. I “leaned in” and earned a promotion and bonuses, and was on several occasions the last parent to pick up my kid long after business hours had ended. I bathed my preschooler while Blackberrying edits. I got phone calls on weekends and vacations. I did apple orchard picking with the family on a sunny Sunday afternoon while working through copy over the phone with a boss who had abysmal time-management skills. I’ve had two bosses get fired over bad behavior. I participated in project management and listening workshops to advance my skills so that I could better weather the disorganization and rudeness of others.

So yes, in a sense, I “opted out” of all that to go build something of my own. As an entrepreneur, I am building the kind of writing career I could never have had in the office realm. I am free of labels and titles and pigeon-holed tasks. Earlier this spring, I finalized the paperwork to incorporate my editorial consulting service, and loved receiving the federal Equal Employment Opportunity poster with my approval forms. I was tempted to hang the poster in the kitchen. I love working for me. Perhaps the one downside to solo entrepreneurship is the lack of a holiday office party. Me wearing a Santa hat drinking vodka alone just doesn’t say “Seasons Greetings.”

What I’ve learned since going completely solo in July 2012, and with no inclination of ever going back, is that entrepreneurship is a lot like gardening. It’s a trite analogy, but it fits. There are quiet, slow days when you’re just waiting for something to sprout up. You plant seeds. You have coffee with people you don’t know. You talk about what you can do. You talk about what you’ve done. And then you wait. Sometimes you wait a long time. And sometimes when you’re not thinking about it, a call comes. A project is offered. You’re going to get paid! You blink and something grew.

I’m not against teamwork, but solo entrepreneurship takes a kind of dedication and focus that you don’t always get to exercise when working for a company. There’s no feedback but your own. The little voice inside your head *is* your boss. There’s no one to motivate you but you. You’re building something slowly by hand, which takes time and can be truly gratifying. You’re not leaning in. You’re not opting out. You’re building up.