Ah, the Life of a Freelance (Ithaca New Times, 10/6/1974)

By Quas. E. Dada

I am, as far as I know, the only fulltime freelance writer currently residing in Ithaca. This either makes me some sort of literary prodigy or the biggest idiot this side of the Continental Divide. Don’t tell me which.
Oh, it’s not so bad. While your average magazine article pays $300 or $400, unfortunately I only get to write one of these about once every two months. In the meantime I subsist like most the nation’s other 16000 freelance writers: ghostwriting law and medical school applications, playing harmonica for blues bands, pawning family heirlooms, etc. It’s quite a life, all right. (Like most other romantics I already have my epitaph picked out. Mine reads: “I just hope my life wasn’t a bad movie.” Alternative: “Dada Rides Again.”)
Actually, if your agent lives in New York City, Ithaca isn’t a bad town for a freelance writer. The weather is different enough; the policemen are nice enough; the street people are colorful enough; the dogs are mangy enough; the gorges are deep enough. The only trouble is that after dark – the time that most writers like to work – there is no place to go. The Palms is too dark, the State Diner too dangerous so you have to take inspiration from blank walls. Ithaca used to be a better town for writers when the University Delicatessen stayed open all night. By 1 a.m. when Collegetown seems completely deserted, I stand at the corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road and listen to the wind, pretending that I am Dostoevski’s Underground Man. By doing this and also catching all the reruns of “The Twilight Zone,” I remain sane.
If this sounds as though I don’t take myself too seriously, you’re right. The successful freelance writer must be able to laugh at himself once in a while; otherwise he is going to go mad.
I still go mad once in a while.

Eye For the Obscure

Of course, freelance writing requires something more than a sense of humor – some talent. It requires an eye for the obscure: You must always be on the lookout for good ideas. This is difficult and takes a while to come up with a fresh angle on an original subject weekly. It also requires a ken for merchandising: a good idea for a magazine article is worthless unless you know which magazine editor to approach it with. The New Yorker does not publish articles about making candy; similarly, Candy and Confectionary Quarterly does not accept short stories about frustrated suburban housewives.
Freelance writing also requires discipline. Too many writers do not live up to their potential because they can’t make a deadline and/or can’t make themselves wake up at a regular time.
Education? It helps but I guess it really depends upon which school you go to. I graduated from Cornell which was excellent preparation for my present occupation (predicament?). During my six and a half years on the Hill I majored in many subjects, so many in fact, that when I graduated I was so confused I could do little else but write.
It’s so easy. I research a subject of public interest – flying, boats, for example – then write a term paper about it (“Flying Boats: a Useful Medium for Communication” or “Amelia Earhart, Where are You?”), omitting the once obligatory footnotes. Then, instead of handing it in to a professor, I submit it to an editor. Instead of getting a grade, I get money. It’s a snap!

Editor’s Special Recreation

Not really. As some famous writer once said, “I hate to write, but I love to have written.” That’s about the way I feel about it. Writing itself can be a real grind – trying to find just the right word for a nuance, emotion or idea; trying to find an original lead for a piece; trying to draw up earthshaking conclusions; trying to meet a deadline. There are, indeed, many drawbacks to this supposedly glamorous profession.
Then there are other hassles – dealing with editors, for instance. Editors love to screw writers as their special form of recreation. They tell a writer to do a story one way; then, after it’s finished, they want it rewritten another way. This can get very tiring. Editors will also pigeonhole your manuscripts for weeks – then, finally after your telephone has been cut off for non-payment, they may decide to give it a quick look. The check for the piece usually arrives the day after you’ve been evicted.
As you’re sitting on the sidewalk watching your furniture being thrown out the window, someone will walk by and chortle, “Hey man, I read your article yesterday!” That makes it all worthwhile; however, if you’re thinking seriously of a freelance writing career, I suggest that you have your head examined.

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