Without money

I have one major resolution this year for my career: Get more discriminating about what I take on. This is a particularly difficult thing for freelancers to do. The simple formula for our success goes like this: The more I work, the more money I make. This assumes you’re already turning down those assignments that pay in “exposure” only. But even having sworn off free work, you can still find yourself mired in a lot of stupid stuff that isn’t the best use of your time.

Most of the “success” I’ve had in life has come, I’m afraid, by saying yes. I made teachers happy. I worked the hardest. I climbed up ladders. I kept my job during bad economic times by rarely saying no. The key to magazine staff job security in the mid-to-late 2000s went from “be a brilliant writer with great ideas” to “do the job of a junior staffer and a senior staffer combined.” When I transitioned to freelancing two and a half years ago, I kept that work ethic. I said yes to everything the space-time continuum allowed me to do, worried that every opportunity could be the last, at least for a while. The theory being: An assignment in the hand is worth two in the hand of your freelancer acquaintance who always seems to do better than you.

But I’ve been rethinking this position in the last year. Granted, part of that is because I simply started to get more work. It does happen, the work just rolling in unbidden, but it takes longer than you think it will. People recommend me to each other now, think of me when stuff comes up. So in some ways, my work has paid off yet again — doing a good job for one person has led her to recommend me to another, and editor contacts have moved up and around to other publications where they could hire me for better gigs. I also wrote a book that did okay, which has brought a few assignments my way.

Because freelancers by definition work outside of a corporate structure, we get a lot of freedom — but we also don’t have clear ideas about when we’ve advanced our careers to a new level. It’s not like I went from being called “staff freelancer” to “senior freelancer” or something. So I’ve continued to operate the same way, saying yes to anything that came my way with even the slightest bit of payment attached to it. With the internet, there are more opportunities than ever for freelancers to make a bit of money here or there. There are smaller websites paying $50 for your soul-baring essay, online platforms offering you the chance to teach mini-classes, lead tours, sell short e-books. There are good reasons to do any of these things.

But there comes a time when we must be more discriminating in order to up our games. That’s what I’m hoping to do this year.

Every activity you take on takes time and energy away from other things. Every minute I’m writing something totally unrelated to my passions and expertise for not-much-money, I’m essentially ignoring the things that really matter to me: writing books, teaching writing and journalism, and writing about women and pop culture.

Last night, when I was particularly frustrated by a particular recent energy-drain of a pointless project, my boyfriend took a cue from the “What Would Beyonce Do?” placard on my desk and translated it to a career that’s a little closer to mine: “I think you want to be Mary Roach,” he said, accurately. Or, at least the Mary Roach of pop culture writing. “Worrying about that thing is not going to make you Mary Roach.”

It’s true: You know Beyonce and Mary Roach aren’t fussing with anything but what makes them Beyonce and Mary Roach. At some point, we all need to figure out what that is for our own careers.