Workaholic writers: Plight or delight?

Two weeks ago, I could not wait one second longer to stop working. I had written seven articles over four days — a scenario fairly typical of the rest of the summer — and was simply tired of thinking, arranging interviews and stringing sentences together.

Luckily I had a four-day trip to the beach planned with my kids. We aren’t living too large these days, like most people, but I had carved out a short vacation at a nice hotel next to a clean stretch of sand. Ahhh . . . it was heaven that first day to spread my toes out in the hot white grains, listen to the seagulls beg us for Goldfish crackers, and feel the absence of deadlines.

I started the second day with a long barefoot walk straddling the surf while my kids slept in. Nobody expects anything from me today, I thought gratefully. Nobody, of course, meant editors. No one was waiting for copy or revisions. And no sources awaited phone calls to interview them for articles.

After the walk, I plopped down on a sand dune and checked my emails. There was never a second that my iPhone wasn’t in my possession or less than two feet away, and I did have to answer a couple of short questions about stories going through editing. But how could I mind? I was eating as much lobster and boardwalk custard as my gullet could hold. I could dip my toes in my work and the hotel pool at the same time. Life was good.

The spell broke on the third day when a magical email appeared in my inbox. An editor at a custom publishing company — someone I’d been courting for seven months off and on — had sent a fun, juicy assignment. I wondered if the kids saw the glint in my eyes as I quickly checked out the assignment details over appetizers that night. I wondered if they noticed I was breaking my own rule about no cell phones or texting at the table. But I’ll bet they noticed my smile.

By the time we all woke up the next day, we were ready to forego a few more hours at the beach and just head home. When I got there, our theoretical fourth day of vacation became just another work day, one where I had a new client to impress and a mounting list of contacts to make to set up this week’s stories. The kids were happy to be home (they’re home-bodies, like their mom) and I was ecstatic to sit down at my laptop. Once again, the blurry line between home and home office became nonexistent.

The experience has forced me to admit something to myself that I’ve only roundly joked about in recent months: I’m a workaholic. It took only 60 hours of vacation for the idea of work to go from feeling like a plight to a delight. But I never wanted to be one of those people who lived for weekends and vacations because their work was so stultifying. I never wanted to be someone who wondered what they really should have been when they grew up. And if I’m going to face working 50 weeks of each year for the next 25 or 30 years, isn’t this the better way to be?


Should writers respond to comments?

A lot of my articles get published on major news sites, so they get a lot of eyeballs. They also get a lot of comments, most of which I never read.

Why? I simply don’t have the time. It would probably take a couple of hours each week to wade through all the various points readers make about the topics I’ve tackled. Some of them just want to vent. Some have personal experience with the subject, and they want to share it. But many, I’ve found, want to do something else altogether: launch a personal attack.

Snark, unfortunately, is endemic to the Internet. The anonymity of the medium makes it all too easy to spew venom at others and then slink away into obscurity. Under the guise of civil discourse, many commenters throw civility right out the window when they decide to comment on what they’ve read.

I made an exception to my don’t-read-the-comments rule after a recent story of mine also included a poll at the end inviting readers to participate. The story, which was published on MSNBC, was about the various “new” milks out there — such as almond, rice, goat and coconut — and a couple of thousand readers piped up to say what kinds they drink, and why. Since I obviously researched the subject thoroughly to write the article, I was curious to see how these milk varieties were being received by consumers.

I don’t actually remember which milk they picked as their overall favorite. I do, however, remember the snarky comments that started under the poll. One reader said that I had “conveniently forgot” to mention a certain point about cow’s milk, and I had to laugh. Such a statement implies that I had some sort of agenda for what I was writing — that I wanted to push my own message onto the masses. Nothing could have been farther from reality.

The truth? I simply hadn’t thought to include that point in the article. I also had a certain word count to adhere to, and a predetermined list of milks my editor asked me to cover. All of these factors figure into how coverage comes out — not to mention the editing process the piece undergoes before publication.

It’s different with this blog. The vast majority of you reading it do so because the theme and topics I cover here resonate with you in some way. Either you’re a freelancer, or a work-at-home parent, or a journalist with kids, or all three. Those who choose to comment (and I thank you) usually point out how something I’ve said fits their life to a T. Together, we have a sense of community here, and I not only read all my comments, I respond to the vast majority. This is a place to connect, and it feels good.

But my articles? I think I’ll stick to my rule, thanks. What works for you?


The truth about WAHMing in summer

A conversation with my mother earlier today got me to admit something I’ve been mentally skirting: Being a WAHM during the summer can be really, really hard.

I’ve been trying to come from a place of gratitude, trying to focus on all that is good and wonderful. I have the right problems, after all — more than enough work (dare I say too much?), four healthy, active kids, a household buzzing with friends and family. A full and lucky life.

Which is why I start to feel torn in a thousand pieces when school lets out. What do I do with the 16-year-old who, try as he might, cannot find a summer job and is too old for camp? How do I manage to work with constant interruptions? (Mom, can you drive me to my friend’s? Mom, got money for the ice cream truck? Mom, there’s nothing in this house to eat!) How can I possibly clock the same hours I did when they were all guaranteed to be gone for at least six hours a day?

Part of my reluctance to admit that summer is hard is that it used to be so much harder. When those four little ones were all under 8, or even under 12, my life was not my own. The fact that I can work full-time at all, especially from home, is such a relief to me in light of how their needs have evolved that I feel guilty to admit it’s still not ideal.

No, they don’t need their noses wiped anymore (thank God). They don’t need me to watch them play outside, or make their lunch. But there is always someone needing my attention, and the topics they bring to me are often beyond a 5-minute answer or a 10-minute fix. Little kids need your hands; big kids need your brains.

So excuse the short rant. There’s really no time for indulgences — I’m on deadline.


What freelancers can learn from Oprah

Anyone who has paid even remote attention to Oprah Winfrey over the past 25 years can see that she is a formidable woman. Intelligent, empathetic, ambitious, warm and just plain brilliant at making others feel heard . . . it’s difficult not to be inspired her amazing career.

I’ve been a longtime subscriber to O Magazine, a publication I actually feel has made me a better person (and how often can you say that?). The call to “be your best self” isn’t hollow rhetoric in the magazine, with smart features that go beyond most in the genre to actually show readers the path to inner enlightenment. Her afternoon show wasn’t on my TV dial quite as often, but there’s good reason it was dubbed “the world’s biggest classroom” since it always imparted valuable insights into the people around us and the way we should live.

Oprah’s retirement last week from talk-show life got me thinking about the enduring values she’s passed along, values that transcend lifestyle or career choice. But it struck me that freelancers in particular are in a good position to use many of Oprah’s transcendent lessons to improve our writing and our business.

How can we emulate this classy lady?

1) Be relatable: Oprah — wealthy and powerful as she is — didn’t intimidate her guests. In fact, she went to great pains to connect with them on as many levels as she could, sharing her weight struggles, family problems, sexual abuse and day-to-day trials as she listened to theirs. Depending on what freelancers are writing about, we may be able to bring some of our own humanity into the story to help make it more relatable to readers. And even if I’m writing straight journalism — where my opinions and personal experiences aren’t part of the story — sharing a tidbit or two of my life with my interview sources often enhances my connection with them. If they like me, they may share more information — which definitely makes for a better end product.

2) Be persistent: Oprah’s life was marked by setback upon setback, from her hardscrabble childhood being raised by her grandmother to the abuse she endured at the hands of other family members. Even after she was fired from her first broadcasting job in her 20s, she never gave up on herself or her big dreams. Persistence is literally a job requirement for successful freelancers because of the virtual guarantee we’re going to be rejected dozens or hundreds of times as we try to get our ideas and writing out in the world. Oprah never took her rejections personally, and we can’t either.

3) Be generous: Who hasn’t heard about (or been jealous of) Oprah’s amazing giveaway shows, when audience members were treated to brand-new cars and fabulous vacations? Of course she could afford it, but Oprah’s outward generosity only reflected her endless capacity to give more — of her money, yes — but of herself. The generosity freelancers can extend isn’t material, but we have much to give that isn’t wallet-related: the benefit of the doubt to MIA sources, a kind word to an editor who seems out of sorts, encouragement to fellow writers enduring their own struggles. It may not come back to you immediately, but the good karma generated can be priceless.

4) Work hard: On many levels, it’s undeniable that Oprah seems to live a charmed life despite her personal pain. But oh, how hard she’s worked to reach that pinnacle. It’s the rare writer who can achieve any meaningful success without pounding the computer keys day after day, night after night, giving up their social lives, TV watching, or even regular bathing. People tend to look only at the finished package — the success — and ignore the sheer level of grueling effort it took to get there. But we’d better be clear-eyed about this, freelancers. To a great degree, time invested = success earned, no magic involved.

5) Be versatile: Most of us have heard, if not already watched, Oprah’s newest venture — the OWN channel. When she announced a year and a half ago that her show would end in May 2011, she clearly intended to stay in the public eye beyond that, albeit in a different role. Many of the successful freelancers I know juggle a similar mix of projects, either as a way to supplement their primary income stream or keep up with ever-changing business needs in their niche. The ones working on e-books and podcasts along with their articles and blog posts are better positioned to catch the success wave wherever it takes them, and a versatile mindset can separate the successful from those doomed to languish.

I’m sure there are many other Oprah traits freelancers can steal to enhance our own businesses — pipe in and tell me your ideas!


Great (WAHM) expectations: myth vs. reality

NOT!

I ventured out of my lair last week for the ASJA conference in New York City, a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the business of writing, meet many of my freelance friends and network with editors and agents. Anybody who saw me, polished and professional-looking (one hopes)  in suits, heels and actual accessories, might never have guessed the flurry of craziness it took to get me there.

Even though my kids are a bit older now, I essentially still need to replace myself when I leave for any longer than one day. If I was to go to the conference, I knew I’d need someone to put the kids on their respective buses Friday morning and be there when they came home. And, just to make things more interesting, my husband had already planned a Boy Scout weekend away for himself — and only one of our sons. To take care of the other two until I returned Saturday night, my best friend and my sister-in-law were called to duty, each keeping one kid.

It took a village to keep everything afloat when this WAHM, for a change, stepped out of the house to work. But really, it takes a village to stay home and get it all done anyway. Whether we delegate chores to family members, hire help or choose some combination thereof, very few of us can expect to actually work and take care of the kids and house even if we are at home all day.

One of my favorite bloggers, Meagan Francis, has been knocking around this issue lately on The Happiest Mom. When she divulged that she hires a cleaning lady twice a month to keep her digs in order (and mind you, Meagan has 5 kids), some of the comments on her blog were less than understanding.

“I think working-at-home moms walk a difficult line sometimes,” she wrote. “We’re expected to occupy both worlds: working to support our families financially without ever admitting that we can’t, in actuality, earn an income plus raise the kids plus do every bit of housecleaning by ourselves.”

Full disclosure: I hire a posse of cleaning ladies twice a month to make my house sparkle, too. At this point I honestly don’t know how I’d manage without them. But I won’t apologize for deciding I needed the help and I don’t think any other WAHM should either, whether it’s child care, cleaning, a laundry service or grocery delivery. (I’d definitely be getting my groceries delivered if that service were available nearby.)

Just who do people think we are? But here’s a better question: Who do we think we are? I may bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, but my teenagers are darn well going to clean that pan when I’m done. And do their own laundry. And take out the garbage. And whatever else I ask (grumbling expected).

I always laugh at the Staples commercial featuring their signature gimmick, the Easy Button. If only the WAHM juggle were really as easy as pushing a button. But we need to forgive ourselves when the world pushes ours.


How freelancers stay motivated

What’s a freelancer‘s most important moment of the day?

Maybe it’s those few minutes you spend getting your to-do list ready each morning. Or maybe it’s the moment you hit Send to turn a story in to your editor.

For me, that moment is at 6:15 a.m. when my alarm clock rings. I’ve realized through trial and error that my first conscious moment of the day is also the most influential on my daily productivity. Go figure.

Why? Because that’s the moment that I decide whether I’ll jump into the shower and get dressed immediately, or keep my PJs on as I begin the process of ushering three kids out the door to school. Believe it or not, that single decision sets the stage for my entire day ahead.

I discovered this anew recently. Usually I’m dressed and pressed — makeup on, hair flat-ironed — by the time the last kid gets on his bus at 8 a.m. Then I sit down and begin working, and this raring-to-go mindset carries me through some crazy-busy hours.

One day last week, though, I lapsed on this routine. I thought, What the heck? I’ll just work in my jammies today. Nice and comfy.

Comfy, yes, but a veritable disaster to my motivation level. I ended up scrolling through Twitter and Facebook for about two hours as if it were Saturday morning before getting down to writing. I’d planned to finish two assignments that day, but only one actually got done because I’d squandered so much time on this weekend mindset.

Can I really blame it all on the pajamas? Yes, I think I can. There’s a subtle mental shift that occurs when I go through the motions of getting dressed each morning, a shift that makes me sharper, more prepared. Clothes and makeup = productivity. Pajamas and dirty hair = slothfulness.

People like to joke that freelance writers are lucky. “You can work in your pajamas if you want to!” some of my friends say admiringly. And they’re right. We can make that choice, and for some of us it makes no difference to our output what we’re wearing. But it’s funny how much what’s on the outside can affect what’s going on inside.

For me, the clothes really do make the woman — a woman whose success apparently depends on the very first moment of the day.


The WAHM life, then and now

I remember the moment I decided I would be a WAHM. I recently learned I was pregnant with our first child and wondered how in the world I could go back to the unpredictable hours of a newsroom with a baby at home. I loved being a reporter, and my husband and I needed my income.

But a reporter’s income would barely pay for the child care needed to go to work every day, and I was bereft at the thought of having my baby cared for by others. When I revealed my pregnancy to my editor at the three-month mark, I already had a one-page proposal in hand. I could work half-time at home, I told her confidently, sending my stories through a modem hooked up to my PC.

This was a revolutionary idea at the time (it was 1992). No other reporter at this daily newspaper had ever worked from home. Not see each other in person? Check in with editors each day by phone? How could they be sure I would get the job done?

The proof would be in my productivity, I said. They would know I was doing my job by the stories I produced — or didn’t. Couldn’t we just give it a shot?

A year later, at my employee review, the editor-in-chief sat back on his desk chair and smiled. “This has worked out far better than we ever anticipated,” he said.

And I knew it would. Why? Because I wanted it to work badly enough to make the sacrifices involved. When my baby slept (and thankfully he took naps like clockwork), I got on the phone, conducted interviews and wrote. At night, when my husband walked through the door, I often played pass-the-baby on my way out to a meeting I needed to cover.

The rest of the time, my son and I read books, took long walks, played music and went to play groups. I was the mom I’d always wanted to be, and felt I had the best of both worlds.

I still do, only now I work full-time-plus and have four kids. And fortunately, this attempt at work-life balance is not at all unusual anymore. I am one of millions of WAHMs, many of us writers, who never set foot in a corporate office and barely ever need to see the editors we work with. I now laugh at the thought of the blinking, screechy modem attached to my PC — my virtual umbilical cord before the rise of the Internet and email.

But the virtues that made a successful WAHM then are the same ones needed to succeed now: self-discipline, flexibility, determination and the optimism that convinces us we can indeed juggle all of this. I no longer need to convince my editors that I’ll somehow be able to do my job without constant oversight.

Then, as now, the proof is on the page.


What snow days, spring break and summer have in common for WAHMs

Gray. That’s the color of the sky today, yesterday, and supposedly tomorrow. It was pretty much the color all last week, too, when my kids were off from school for spring break. And the week before that, when they had a late-March snow day.

But all this gray is proving useful for one thing — making me think ahead to summer, when the skies had better be blue. That’s because snow days, spring break and summer all have one thing in common for WAHMs: our kids are around way more than usual.

I’ve developed a rock-solid routine of working nearly non-stop each day while my kids are at school. That means I don’t spend those six hours grocery shopping (relegated to a week night), lunching with friends (well, almost never) or  running errands (something I can do with kids in tow). But because I’ve gotten used to focusing so intensely during that time, the avalanche of snow days we endured this winter really knocked my work days off balance.

Ditto for spring break last week. Not that it was unexpected, mind you — it had been on the calendar for months — but as luck would have it, my husband also happened to be away on a business trip all week. So all kid- and house-related duties were mine. As were about 45 or 50 hours of freelancing.

By the end of the week, I’d gotten pretty used to having the kids around while I was working. I took interview calls upstairs, where an errant quarrel between siblings couldn’t be heard, and I learned to put up with regular interruptions when I was writing. It wasn’t so bad, except that it brought a quiet dread about the summer to come.

With me going full-throttle with my freelancing — and happily so — it got me wondering exactly how I will adjust to the constant household hub-bub four kids on summer vacation will bring. Granted, the two oldest boys will have jobs, and my daughter is enrolled in six weeks of day camp and a week of sleep-away. And Son #3 will be gone for two weeks straight with his dad on a grand Boy Scout adventure.

Still . . . there will be more dishes, and more food needed. More commotion. More friends ringing the doorbell. More nights holding dinner waiting for the last kid to trickle in. More . . . everything.

Is this a brand-new challenge? Certainly not. But it changes every year, as my kids and business grow side by side. This summer will require a fresh approach to running such a busy household and a profitable business simultaneously.

How do you plan to cope?


The “right” mix of marketing and creating

A great post on The Urban Muse this week got me thinking: Is there such a thing as the “right” mix of marketing and creating?

Ideally, freelancers spend at least a few hours a week marketing their work — i.e., searching for and contacting new clients along with Tweeting, Facebooking and otherwise promoting their writing. Normally, I enjoy this mix. I almost consider it a break to switch from the intensity of creating new stories to sniffing out opportunities to sell more.

But this week — one in which I found myself rolling from corporate writing to journalism to public relations and back again — I barely indulged in social media and entirely ignored the idea of marketing to new clients. In fact, every time I accidentally flipped from my to-do list to the page behind it — a running list of editors to contact — my stomach lurched.

Why? My reasons were both patently absurd and completely logical. I was overwhelmed as it was, working early mornings and late nights, and worried another editor would say yes. How ridiculous is that? I was afraid of more success.

But one of my hard-and-fast policies — never accepting work I know I can’t finish on time — was firmly at play. There was simply no more time in which to squeeze a last-minute assignment, and most of my stories have a one- to three-day window between assignment and deadline. In the interest of creating well, my marketing had to go on a short hiatus.

I suspect this mix is a tenuous one for a great many freelancers, and something that needs to stay fluid. As my business changes, shifts and grows, I need to be open to the idea that some weeks may include almost no marketing, and that is just as OK as weeks in which I exhaust my list of new prospects. The goals are the same, after all — to maximize my output, my potential for growth and my ability to do my best writing for each client.

So maybe there’s no “right” mix of marketing and creating at all — maybe it’s a recipe that, depending on the portions, tastes a little different every day. It’s one of the reasons freelancing rarely grows bland or stale. A tasty career choice indeed.


Why freelancers should never stop learning

I’m pretty excited. I recently was accepted into the American Society of Journalists & Authors — a process that involved a review of my portfolio and credentials — and just registered for its annual conference that’s held in New York City at the end of April. It’s always a good idea to meet your colleagues, shmooze with editors and maybe exchange a business card or 10, right? Even a writer-hermit like me can see the value in it.

But I didn’t realize how much two days among some of the leaders in this biz might teach me about aspects of it I’ve barely grazed. It’s going to be mighty difficult to pick which seminars to attend — including those on marketing, technology, craft and blogging — from among the dozens offered.

During one time slot, I can choose “Tweet, Blog, Like and Link! Using Social Media to Build Your Platform” or “What Else Can I Write? Adding Income Streams to Your Portfolio.” During another, I have to decide if I’d rather learn about “Negotiating a Book Deal” (hmm. . . maybe someday) or “Producing a Podcast” (which has never crossed my mind).

In the health field, it’s called “continuing medical education.”  In education, it’s known as “professional development.” But no matter what you call it, time spent adding to your knowledge base can never be a waste. Here’s why freelancers should never stop learning:

* Ka-ching, ka-ching: Obviously, the more you know, the more you can convert your knowledge into money. If I learn to podcast, for example, I will add another income stream to my business. This could help protect me from losing income during down times.

* Name recognition: All of that platform-building I’ll be learning about at the conference can only enhance my ability to get my name out there — which is half the battle to getting clients, I think. We don’t need to become famous, but I’m always gratified when a new editor I’ve contacted tells me she’s already seen my work. Names matter.

* It’s fun: Really, when you’re in a field you love, how can learning more about it be boring? It’s a kick to find out even better ways to do what you’re already good at, and it fans the desire to take your business up a notch.

I’m sure there are many more reasons I don’t touch on, but I’ll bet you’re already thinking of your own. How do you keep your “student status” active while running your freelance biz?


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