I try my best to avoid the word “freelance”.
Something about the combination of “free” and “lance”. From the out, you’ve got a lack of value, some type of worthless, unsatisfying giveaway. Then, something — bad or septic, I’m sure — being sliced open, gored, or excised. That action happening free of charge, or without a thought. Nope.
I say “I’m a journalist,” which I’ve been saying since 2011, and forget that I am issuing, every time, an invitation for another question, a question I used to have different answers for, but now have just one.
“I’m freelancing,” I pull out the corners of my mouth and say it through the narrow shape of a smile. Because of this disconcerting variety of rigor mortis, I often have to repeat myself.
As an intern, a conversation kicked off in the office about a journalist who had “gone freelance”. Does that not sound incredibly dire? And quite…final? Where did he go? What kind of episode did this wretch have?
“You know what ‘freelance’ means?” the editor seated to my left asked.
“Freelance,” the jovial, sibilant end leant on the air until it ran out of steam.
“Freelance means unemployed.”
If you’re stupid enough, or privileged enough, to believe that the thing you liked doing most as a child should become your means of earning a living, the what-do-you-do question can be either gaily anticipated or dreaded. “I’m a reporter at a newspaper!” I would bleat at 22, 23, 24, 25, and 26. “THE SUNDAY BUSINESS POST!”
I could not have known how tightly intertwined this job was with my sense of self. This job, this set of terms cooked up by an establishment that I had nothing else to do with, and no control over, and no financial stake in, and no blood relationship with. I could not have known, or understood, until I left it.
The evidence of this dawning realization was physical and publicly available. Quitting required more than five failed journeys to the editor’s office. I would steel myself at my desk, walk to the office door, and spin on my heel in retreat. In deep-to-the-point-of-unidentifiable denial, I didn't prepare anything to say on my last day. When I stood to ad-lib a few words I began crying uncontrollably. I am not what one would call “a crier”.
I didn’t reflect in any depth on whether I was good journalist or a bad journalist when busily pasting this label securely across my forehead. The designation was, for a long time, enough. Sure, I cared about being good, but “care”, in the end, needed only go so far. There was a certain security in the appellation. In the business card, for as long as I could hold it. In the identifying strip on TV.
So I wasn’t a homeowner, a mom, or a girlfriend. I was something!
Previously I have been a painter, a shoe seller, a bar promoter, an ultrasound assistant, and a waitress at a “seafood house”. I played each of the parts with brio.
I leapt into a cleanroom suit and carried my brush and tin of creosote out to the fencing with a Discman resting heavily in the pocket of the hoodie beneath. I worked until I could eat lunch while watching Home and Away. Sometimes I went back out. (My uncle was my employer). I was paid in Irish pounds.
I wore a fitted t-shirt for the first and last time in my life while running the stairs of a narrow residential building that had been repurposed into a footwear retailer. I watched as my sales were etched onto a scoreboard on the top of the stairs. Once, in the run up to Christmas, I helped a man with a pirate hook for a hand into a pair of boots.
I pirouetted about in high heels and short dresses on a Spanish side street while passing out flyers and flirting with passing stag parties. I robustly, in three languages, extolled the virtues of pitchers of Red Bull and vodka. I took breaks to drink some of the same mixture. After 1am, I smiled awkwardly at prostitutes who joined us on the kerb.
I wore a white uniform tunic and a silver badge with my full name on it while I refilled bottles of conductivity gel, used a clipboard, and made smalltalk with doctors. I helped patients, some tearful or trembling, into gowns and waited with them until their scans. I became proficient in the mechanics of the wheelchair.
I wore black from head to toe, and my hair in a high ponytail, while bringing chowder, bowls of mussels, and Irish coffees made by my own hand with the cheapest and worst available ingredients, to tourists. I got called “bitch” by a chef. I listened to/withstood Michael Bublé’s album, Crazy Love, 700 times. I once waited John Mahoney’s table.
These were jobs, they resulted in income, and I loved each. I loved them at arm’s length, privately, and separately. I loved them as I carried them out, more or less, and I love them as I look back on them. I loved them without needing anything from them on spec, or getting that thing. I loved them because their spoils — many, weird, and difficult to define — were wholly unexpected.
Since moving to New York in 2015, I have struggled with the basic expression of an identity that I, in quitting a job that I considered central to it (if not…it?), decided to core like an apple.
I have skipped around, from an employment perspective. From a journalistic perspective, after applying to jobs with “writer” in the title, and being occasionally introduced as a “writer”, have started to use “writer” self-referentially.
There are more “writers” in America, proportionally. “Writer” is now, despite the absence of qualification or any appreciable development, part of my Twitter bio. I am acutely aware of scores of writers I admire, widely published, widely read, their work widely liked, who exhibit greater reluctance than I have in terming themselves such.
When can you call yourself a writer? As soon as you start calling self a writer. In doing this, even with the attendant discomfort, I have been forced to confront the undressed, literal truth of my own ambition. It’s a terrible sight. With nothing to stand behind, no arrangement to attribute it to, I have just arrived at my own “title”. How hollow it rings, free of institutional backing! How remote its provability! How bad that feels! How completely dishonest!
I have found freelance writing to be the most awful trial, and not just because of an identity crisis personal (I’m sure) to me. Often it feels like the loneliest, most listless place, a warm and damp breeding ground for self-doubt, a forever home for paralyzing inertia. There is so much to be said, some thousands of words, for having colleagues who sustain you and a boss who pushes you around.
But there is also a lot to be said for selling shoes and plating plaice. And not treating your work as your worth. OR treating it like that, and arriving at different values, no less precious.