Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reflections on the Bones: A sort-of Review

Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones is a classic to read again and again.
Image by Carol Rucker

For those who aren't familiar with Natalie Goldberg's classic book on writing, Writing Down the Bones, I highly recommend it, as well as her other books, including Wild Mind. As part of a my college writing class, I'm required to read books on writing by various authors. This has been an interesting exercise for me as a writer, because I've read so many books on writing, but years have passed since I picked one up. Once you've read four or five books on writing, they can start to feel repetitive... and I, like most writers who've been in the game a while, have long abandoned the habit of devouring books on writing on a regular basis.

Reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones for the second time was like visiting an old childhood haunt. It made me realize how much I’ve “grown up” as a writer. The book itself is a timeless classic that I recommend to any beginning writer, or anyone who hasn't yet had the privilege of reading one of her books. Goldberg’s sense of fun and the tossing off of the fetters of formality are freeing to many writers who might have become a little too bogged down with the "rules" of good writing and the discipline of "writing every day". While daily attention to the craft is part of Goldberg's philosophy, she gives writers permission to break all the rules and write selfishly, something we often forget in our endless pursuit of craft and writing "to the market". 

Reading the book again, after over ten years of growth and change as a writer, there were many memories I smiled over, recognizing how much influence this book had on me. Natalie Goldberg’s Zen philosophies are universal in many aspects. The resonance I felt with her ideas and perspective hasn’t changed. In fact, I laughed when reading her thoughts on metaphor, because the idea is one of those that stayed with me after all these years. 

Natalie Goldberg wrote:

 “If you think big enough to let people eat cars, you will be able to see that ants are elephants and men are women. You will be able to see the transparency of all forms so that all separations disappear.
This is what metaphor is. It is not saying that an ant is like an elephant. Perhaps; both are alive. No. Metaphor is saying the ant is an elephant.” 

The superimposition of ants and elephants, the way the two words fit together, short, wriggling, determined little ants, and lumbering, majestic, indifferent elephants, settled into my heart and eventually bubbled up in the idea that lead me to write a short poem for children; An Ant is An Elephant:

An ant is an elephant
                        If you’re a flea.
                        You might not even notice me
                        If you were an ant
                        And I, a flea.

Although I wrote the poem over six years ago, in 2007, I can still remember the way the words came, the battle I had re-arranging and trimming and fussing over them, and how many drafts I wrote to perfect those few, rather silly lines. I rarely write poetry these days, simply because it’s difficult to make much of a living from it. Reading this book again, I remembered where I was as a writer the first time I read it, and those memories have left me feeling anchored, and considering taking up poetry again. I'm satisfied, in some ways, to see how far I've come as a writer, and anxious, in others, to see how much further I have to go.

Joseph Campbell, the famous comparative mythologist, wrote;

 “God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, 'Ah!”

Reading Writing Down the Bones again, I came back to a familiar tree, loved, lost, forgotten and found. For me, writing is an integral part of who I am, so finding my way on the page is more than just a professional process. It is, in fact, the first step toward finding a new way in a life that has recently undergone some earth-shaking changes. Re-reading books like Writing Down the Bones, I'm re-discovering who I am as a writer, and taking stock of my place on the map. Bones has been part of my journey, and I owe a debt of gratitude to writers like Natalie Goldberg.

What book on writing has been life-changing for you, if any? To whom do you owe your writing debts?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Making a Living Part 3- Finding Balance

Most aspiring freelancers tend to err toward one of two extremes: The over-achiever or the slacker.

 The over-achiever allows themselves to be pulled in too many directions at once, immersing themselves in work and rarely coming up for air, until their friends vanish and their family threatens to disown them. This type of freelancer tends to burn out quickly and find themselves sinking into a depression. They may be successful financially for a time, but when the pressure becomes too much, they blow up, losing precious time to an emotional meltdown or worse, to depression and torpor, which can be very difficult to break out of once it takes hold.
The freelancer who tries to be everything to everyone will burn out fast.
Photo by Arron Jacobs
Most freelancers start out as this type, burning the midnight oil, convinced they must accept every single job that comes along, applying to every available entry on job sites. In my first few months of freelancing, this was me. In the span of about three months, I wrote three lengthy e-books, about 500 "descriptions" for a jewelry sales site, and wrote about 120 blog entries.

I attempted all of this while attending college full time. Then it caught up with me. The third e-book fell apart, and I lost the contract because I simply couldn't keep up with the client's deadlines. I got a lower grade than I wanted in my foreign-language class because I couldn't stuff one more syllable of Spanish into my over-crowded brain. I had to ask for an extension in another class. I learned the lessons of moderation and focus the hard way, by nearly burning out entirely.

 The Slacker is at the other extreme. This is the freelancer who assumes the work will magically get done while they go out for a long lunch with friends or an impromptu shopping trip. This type of freelancer might make a few half-hearted attempts before deciding that freelancing is a scam after all, and that no one makes a real living as a freelancer. They leave clients in the lurch and let everyone down, including themselves.
This type of freelancer needs to recognize their own tendencies toward slacking off, and take the time to closely examine their commitment to freelancing.

Remember, freelancing is a marathon, not a sprint.
 The successful freelancer will recognize his or her own tendencies. It's important to make a firm commitment to keeping a reasonable schedule, which includes breaks and time to socialize, as well as a reasonable number of hours for client work. The beginning freelancer should consider focusing on one or two types of jobs, and play to his or her strengths. Early successes build confidence, and in turn, confidence builds success.

Never forget that freelancing is a job, not an identity. Success or failure of a business can become a burden for some. While commitment to one's work is commendable and important to success, businesses fail every single day, by no fault of their owners. If your ego is too caught up in your work, it will be difficult to take the inevitable criticism from clients in a constructive light, or to make sound decisions regarding which jobs to accept and which to turn down.

Your time is valuable. In your quest to establish your freelance career, don't overlook this important concept!
 All this talk of finding balance and focus is well and good, but how do you do it? How do you choose which jobs to accept, which to turn down, and which to run from screaming as if they were the zombie apocalypse?
Here's a quick guideline:

1) Choose jobs that you know you can accomplish. Do you have experience with research? Blog entries and articles often require seeking out information. The ability to gather research and turn it into original writing is critical to bloggers. Data entry will usually require experience working in Excel, Access or other data-management programs. It's wise to inquire about the program you'll be expected to use as part of the application process.

2) Choose an hourly rate and stick to it. Don't allow yourself to get roped into a low-paying job unless the project is one you are very passionate about, or if it furthers your career somehow.  It might take some time to figure out your average turn-around time on a job. Consider starting out accepting fixed-price jobs, but keep close track of how long each one takes you, so that you have a good baseline for estimating prices. It won't take long to get a feel for your speed.

So there you have it, the very bare-bones basics of making a go at freelancing as a career. I hope this information helps you avoid a few of the steeper pitfalls as you begin this journey toward success!