An Uncommitted Independent or, what it means to be a freelance writer

freelance (frê´làns´´) noun also free lance

1. A person, especially a writer or an artist, who sells his or her services to employers without a long-term commitment to any one of them.
2. An uncommitted independent.

In one way or another, I have been a freelance writer for more than 40 years. These days, I do it full-time. In the beginning, writing was somewhat of a fantasy for me—an impossible, unattainable dream. I played at it for a year or so before I earned my first byline. Only then did I dare to believe that this was something I could do.

I didn’t major in journalism or English in college. In fact, my sudden decision to “become a writer” was inexplicable, out of the blue, and out of context. I remember the exact moment when I knew, without doubt, that this was what I was going to do. The problem was that I had no idea how to do it; consequently, I did everything wrong. I read dozens of books on how to write and where to send a piece once it was written. I tackled just about every subject under the sun, most of which I knew nothing about. I took a night-school course. I wrote poetry, essays, and short stories. I even started a novel; and, eventually, I wallpapered an entire wall of my laundry room with rejection slips.

Yet, despite this complete lack of success, I was undeterred. The newspaper reporter who taught the only writing course I ever took had sent me on my way with these life-altering words: “Listen to me,” she said, gripping my shoulders (no kidding). “I know talent when I see it, and I see it in you. Keep writing!” I believed her. I kept writing. And when I was just about out of wall space in my laundry room, an editor actually accepted one of my efforts. My first published story was a humor piece called “HBAA: Handball Above All,” and it appeared in a national sports magazine.

It took another four-and-a-half years to fill a single portfolio with published clips, few of which earned more than $50. When I finally landed my first “real writing job,” it was even more of a fluke than having my first article published in a national magazine. In the space of forty-eight hours I went from the total obscurity of a barely published freelance writer to the high-visibility position of editor of a metropolitan magazine. It was called The St. Louisan.

Once again, I was in over my head, and thus began the first of many years of on-the-job training—a tough but indelible way to get an education. Every lesson was learned the hard way; every experience was a first; every person I met became a teacher.

Photographers taught me to read contact sheets and see the world as they did, through a viewfinder. Writers taught me to discern good writing from bad, fix the bad, or guide the writer through the revision process. Our art director taught me about layout and balance and the “look of the book.” Printing and paper salesmen taught me the technical side of the creativity, and our one-woman advertising department taught me what it takes to keep a monthly magazine afloat. Finally, the publisher taught me about the privilege of rank, personal agendas, and the meaning of those brackets at the bottom of a profit and loss statement. I didn’t even know what a P&L statement was, which turned out to be a very serious flaw.

Perhaps the most important lessons I learned came from freelancers. Since it quickly became apparent that I could not personally write an entire magazine every month, I had to depend on freelance writers, illustrators, and photographers to provide most of the content and color. There weren’t a lot of places freelancers could sell their work in those days; and, if they found one, often they had to deal with an editor who was an egomaniac.

I didn’t know enough to have an ego; the word spread that I would see anyone, read anything, look at any portfolio. I met a lot of freelancers that way. It has been thirty-seven years since I left that job, and yet my memories are still vivid. We were all very young and eager. We were all at the beginning of our careers. We were all hungry to see how good we really were.

I still have copies of every issue of The St. Louisan I helped to create. I treasure them because they were such labors of love for all of us. The writing was fresh and often passionate. The photography and art foretold of brilliant careers to come. And many of the relationships I formed then still exist today.

Between The St. Louisan and my return to full-time freelancing was a steady progression of career moves that took me from magazines to corporations to a quirky little company where I was able to fill in many of the remaining gaps in my professional education. Those were the building years. I honed my skills; broadened my repertoire; enlarged my network; and, at long last, increased my income. (For most of my career I have not found writing to be very lucrative.)

During all the years I worked as a full-time writer, freelancing was something I squeezed in between earning a living, raising my children, and trying to build a life. I did it for many reasons: for money, for the creative outlet, and sometimes just for fun. I never tired of writing; I never wanted to do anything else for a living; but, increasingly, I found the circumstances in which I was doing it to be unfulfilling at best and stifling at worst. Finally, armed with the smallest of nest eggs, I traded the corporate world for the scary, high-wire act of full-time freelancing. The only safety net I had was that tiny bit of savings. I knew that when it was gone, I would be up there on my own. It was a leap of faith, but I took it.

Frankly, I had no idea if anyone would remember me, if businesses hired freelancers, or if one could make a living doing this. Like Alan Alda in Same Time Next Year, “I guess I didn’t think it through.” I must have had a guardian angel or was just plain lucky, because the answer to all three questions was yes. My long-ago visibility had not completely faded; people knew who I was and took my calls. There was, at that time, an abundance of work “out there.” In fact, it seemed that every major corporation in St. Louis was using freelancers, no matter how large their marketing, communications, or public affairs departments might be.

My little business took off like a rocket, which was a good news-bad news story. The good news was that getting off to a great start built my confidence and reaffirmed my decision to take the leap. The bad news was, when the hard times hit, as they were bound to, I was caught off guard and had no back-up plan.

Somehow, I survived the first business slump. In fact, I have survived more than a few over the years—not always with style or new-found business acumen, often by mortgaging my future to finance my present, and occasionally by asking myself if it was time to get a “real job.” I haven’t succumbed so far because I came to my senses, business picked up, or no one was breaking down my door to offer me a six-figure salary.

Of course, having finally left the confinement of corporate life and tasted “freedom” for the first time, it would be next to impossible to return to captivity. That’s the most compelling reason I am still here and will probably remain here until they cart me off to my final resting place.

“Here” is a tiny enterprise called Bobbi Linkemer & Co./Business Communications—a one-person business operating out of a one-person condo. Who is “and company?” people ask me. The answer is that, when a project requires additional research, design, illustration, production, printing, or any other specialized service, I call upon experts in those areas to become part of my team. In a business environment where more and more talented people are going out on their own, they become each other’s extended companies. That makes it possible for each of us to do what we do best and yet provide our clients with a full array of talent and services, affordable fees, and convenient, on-call “partners” — when needed.

I am, in many ways, living in the best of all possible worlds: doing what I love, enjoying the freedom of freelancing, growing creatively and professionally, and seeking new and bigger challenges.

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