4.06.2005

My Inner Norma Rae

For the bulk of my working life, I've been a freelancer. Early on, I realized I didn't dig having the parameters of my life dictated by fluorescent lights, cubicle walls, petty middlemen, and rush-hour traffic, and figured there had to be a better way to make a buck. I'd paid my way through college by working as an artist's model and as a waitress, and swore that I'd only work jobs that in some way made use of my degree once I received it. I've always kept to that, and as a result have been a freelance editor to pay my bread and butter ever since I quit working at the garment workers' union — which, as it turned out, treated its employees roughly as badly as the errant shops that we were always laboring to organize.

But ain't that always the way?

Truth be told, I don't really dig editorial work that much anymore, at least the kind I'm doing still. For in order to remain free-lance, I've persistently avoided any upward mobility. Eventually, if you're good enough at your job, you get offered a higher, steadier position. I've never taken one simply because the claustrophobia of someone else dictating the tenor of five days of every week far outweighs the allure of a regular paycheck. Not to mention that managing editor gigs and the like always entail a level of bureaucracy to which I'm hardly suited.

The result, of course, is that I still do a hell of a lot of copy editing to pay my bills. And the more I work as an actual writer, the more this editing feels like a distraction that I resent, one too close to my actual work to not drain it in some way. I slog on, because after a decade, it's the only way I know to make a quick buck. Back in the day, I mostly separated church and state by editing architectural publications, and I still don't ever edit at publications for which I wish to write seriously. I'm convinced no one trusts the creativity of someone who's carefully excised their extra commas. Now I tend to work on publications in the entertainment industry that keep me informed about the shite that I write about and occasionally provide useful contacts.

For the last few years, I've edited in various capacities a television magazine owned by a well-endowed if nefarious company that can certainly foot my bills. The work is mostly easy and typically relevant to my own field, and if the prose is too slick and the office politics totally dysfunctional, I can keep mum since I know I'm only there a few weeks at a time. More importantly, it's financed my life as it's paid a very handsome rate.

So what do you do when it suddenly doesn’t?

For the last few months, I've not been paid by those guys. I know what happened: My overworked boss forgot to submit the invoices for my compensation. And once he realized it, he was loath to shuttle my paperwork through because he was loath to highlight how irresponsible his actions were, either to me or to his supervisor in turn. The result of that small act of selfishness has been that I've been unable to pay my rent let alone go out for dinner. Not getting paid for two months of work has meant that I've had to clear through my scanty savings, borrow money, impair business relationships based on the good faith that I pay my own bills on time, worry my parents who are old enough so they deserve to not worry about their oldest daughter. My life has been on hold.

As a freelancer, you always do have to be on your best behavior. If you prove too much trouble, you can simply not be rehired come next month. It's certainly not in your best interest to roll heads if you want to keep a gig, and until I wasn't get paid for my work, I had no intention of letting go of this cushy situation. I've been practically the only freelance writer I know who carries absolutely no debt. So in my repeated inquiries, I tried my best to be super polite, all while my savings account has steadily dwindled.

Being a woman who already can be perceived (and lo! I hate this expression) as a ball breaker simply by the virtue of taking up a fair amount of space is also a factor. The only way to compensate for being clear and outspoken when you're working under a male boss is to be not only funny but deferential. In other words, I sweeten my shit up at work.

But when, by Friday, an empty mailbox yawned at me once again, it was clear to me that I'd essentially been working my money job for no money like a stone-cold sucker. By then, I couldn't breathe for lack of finances. If it endures long enough, the shitty feeling of being super broke when you owe and are owed nags at the back of your head even during sex. It was time to step up the tone and do whatever it took to get paid.

During the process of then going over his head, sweet-talking the secretaries at corporate and leaving frank messages on his superior's voicemail, I realized how little my boss had actually done to take care of the problem. Eventually he faxed in my invoice, but he only acknowledged to me that he hadn't done so before when he knew I already knew. God forbid he of his own volition request that accounting expedite the month period it typically takes to process paperwork. Why? Because it didn’t really matter to him that his small carelessness had derailed my whole life unless I made it inconvenient for him.

It came down to me saying I wouldn't turn in any of the stories that I'd assigned on the magazine's behalf, that I wouldn't let any freelancer who I'd trained for them work there again, to writing a shaming letter that would have made George Bush admit he was wrong before they they agreed to fedex my check (and you know corporations can always expedite a check when need be). It came down to me having to reach far back in my bag of tricks and access the shite I learned from the garment workers to get my dollars. It came down to me standing on a table, essentially, with a big sign that read "UNION."

Oy.

As freelancers, we writers and editors work our asses off for jobs that never grant us insurance, let alone bonuses or vacations. The least these people can do is pay us without making us jump through hurdles. Yet how many of us get paid as regularly or as well as we should? And how carefully do we always broach that subject, fearful as we are of biting (read: irritating) the hand that ostensibly feeds us? Even now, after being treated like a subhuman for months, I'm wary of posting these comments.

I keep thinking on it. I do these stupid small-time jobs so I can finance the rest of my endeavors. If they end up instead depleting me to the point that I can't get anything else done — and note how infrequently I've updated this blog in the last few weeks — what's the point?

The point is that freelancing as both an editor and a writer has still meant that I could take off on an ill-advised trip when I wanted to, that I could still work out in the middle of the day or have a long lunch with a dear old friend, that I could sometimes stay up till 4 am or get up at 4 am to write. It meant that I didn't have to answer ultimately to anyone but myself. It meant that I could write about what I wish. But what if, as right now, I can't sleep let alone write because I'm so worried about how I'm going to pay my electric bill in the next few months? What if I now feel like I'm dancing awkwardly between self-respect and solvency?

We seem to think these days that unions are deeply outdated. We white-collar kids don’t even know our labor rights, let alone insist they be enforced. Most everybody gets screwed in some way by the new companies that look impressive as hell on our resumes. I've written and edited for I don't know how many hipper-than-thou pubs over the last few years that employ college grads for diddly, make us work weekends and nights without any benefits, let alone overtime, pay us when it suits them, drop deadlines like bombs, and remind us how disposable we are when we utter the slightest peep. Email only worsens things, as there's no excuse in employers' eyes to not constantly be on call. Most companies, truth be told, should be called LaborViolations.com rather than whatever oblique wordplay they use as their monikers. And all we do is complain over overpriced cocktails without much recourse.

There's not much room for, you should forgive the term, true bohemia in our current climate even though it's necessary to create truly original art. I never want to make a ton of cash; I don't give a fuck about working for all the glossy publications that treat copy like mere captions for celebrity pics. I simply want to lead a life of financial integrity, in which I finance myself, the occasional trip, the occasional emergency, and the occasional loved one who needs my support through work I believe in.

I know how to live on not so much cash; have been practicing that skill forever so that I could pursue a life on my own terms rather than on someone else's. For I truly believe that only when you lead a life that entails acceptable rather than unacceptable compromise can you excavate your authentic self well enough to write from it.

Sure enough everything happens for a reason, and this experience has helped me affirm that organizer within myself again. Helped me experience anger as a motivating force rather than merely as a sick drain. But I'm devastated that things are still so rough, are only getting rougher in our political climate in which fascism is so glibly confused for patriotism, in which the rights of middle and lower class Americans grow increasingly less germane to the leaders who purport to represent us. It's time to kick more ass. For all of us to try to use our art and commerce to wake each other up rather than inure us further.

What's scary, of course, is I don't know if I can do any more work in good faith for an employer who has shown such disregard for the work I do. I also, simply put, don't know how else I will live. How I will feed the cats. What's exciting is now I get to find out. It's time for me personally to shed my old-school lefty feelings of being repulsed by money, as a friend recently observed, and become truly self-employed. Money can finance wonderful endeavors in addition to problematic ones.

As they say in my country, what the fuck?

3 Comments:

Anonymous jkg said...

your call to action reminds me of a new year's resolution of a few years ago... i was thinking you know how most girls want to be "tits and ass"? well, this year i'm going to be: ass and kick ass. still working on living up to that one...

4/06/2005 8:25 PM  
Blogger Lisa Rosman said...

yes, but this is the year when we both will. ass and kick ass indeed! onward not-particularly christian soldiers!

4/07/2005 8:09 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

I read this when posted (wow, three years ago!) and it's stuck in my head in recent weeks as I -- also full-time freelance in New York, also a magazine copy editor -- am owed one month's wages, zeroing in on #2. When I, ahem, politely inquired again I was asked to "hang in there another week." I quit. So I had to return to this post. Thank you!

4/23/2008 6:14 PM  

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