Monthly Archives: May 2011

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!

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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.