March 29, 2005

Choose Your Own Adventure from a Freelance Writer's Perspective

1. It's close to seven o'clock. You've spent most of the day doing everything in your power to put off deadlines. Now the phone won't stop ringing as you pound away on the computer trying to finish some bland copy for a nonprofit foundation. Nevertheless, you're curious. Who could be calling at this hour? If you pick up the phone, go to 22. If you keep writing, go to 5.

2. John Grisham's dull prose has you pondering why you never became a multi-millionaire. Tanenhaus repeatedly calls. Due to unexpected pressure from Times brass (they can't justify paying an excessive word rate for a freelancer hanging on by the skin of his teeth and demand answers), Tanenhaus asks you to cut your 30-word profile down to 25 words. If you accommodate Tanenhaus, go to 4. If you stick to your artistic guns and stick with the 30 words you promised, go to 8.

3. The midnight oil has burned brightly like Kipling's tiger. Savor this moment. The hapless drones who must march off to a nine-to-five job can't possibly compete with this wonderful luxury of walking around the flat in jammies. Just as you revel in your superiority, your spouse, who has spent the day working for a state-funded planning department for scant pay and thankless distinction, arrives through the door. The spouse, suffering from a minor depression, wants sex. If you go through with this, go to 12. If you don't, go to 14.

4. You can't give the copy editors an answer. The ten cent words you've crammed into the slightly tightened blurb, the idea being that they would make you appear genteel and smart, don't cut the mustard. You try negotiating with Tanenhaus for an additional sentence or two. But with the NYTBR going to press, there's no time. Tanenhaus hires an intern to perform your work at one quarter the price. Meanwhile, with the kill fee long forgotten, you've had to suffer through another Grisham novel. You burn your entire library and decide that a screenwriting career might be in the cards.

5. Damn the Fleet Street hacks. Damn the amateurs. You've spent years working yourself up to this magnificent level of professionalism and poverty. Why stop now? You compose some 600 words on how John O'Hara, Richard Yates, or another dead white male hankering for a 21st century comeback has been unfairly neglected by the cognoscenti, little realizing that Alex, that smug trust fund kid you keep running into at cocktail parties, has already pitched Lewis Lapham on the same subject. But the piece is done. And you're not exactly one to shun a dead horse. If you write a query letter for the piece you've just written, go to 3. If you decide to sleep off your energy, go to 18.

6. Sara Nelson is so impressed by your full-fledged attack piece that she appoints you an associate editor, which involves correcting atrocious copy when you're not surfing the Internet. But it does mean free ARCs, even if the novel you had hoped to write before the age of 35 falls by the wayside. You eat well when you can afford it. And now that you have an actual job title, the spouse has some tangible vocational position that she can announce to her parents without fear of shame. You contemplate purchasing Connecticut real estate.

7. You bone up on M.F.K. Fisher. But it's not enough. Tanenhaus watches the way you salivate over your shrimp salad. When the main course arrives, a waiter offers pepper. If you accept the pepper, go to 11. If not, go to 27.

8. Tanenhaus is satisfied and never calls you again. You don't exactly have Rachel Donadio's legs. But he does invite you to dinner, assuming of course that you'll cover him. If you go to dinner with Tanenhaus, go to 7. If you prefer a home-cooked meal with the spouse, go to 13.

9. Sam Tanenhaus bemoans the lack of confrontational writing within your 25-word blurb. Where's the Wieseltier or the Clive James feel? You have no answer. You meet with Tanenhaus at an upscale restaurant on the west side and he slaps you on the wrist with his portable ruler, which was specially constructed for him as a tchotchke from the good folks at McGraw Hill, who had hoped to ingratiate him. He dons a yarmulke, shouts to you that "He hef no son" and has two men throw you out of the building. You spend years in a padded cell, clutching onto a toy manatee named Simon given to you by Jungians to free you mind. It takes 27 years for you to fully recover. But that's okay. By the time you're sane, the flying cars have arrived.

10. You decide that if Top Ramen and Stove Top are the fruits of hard labor, then this freelance gambit really isn't worth it. You open a co-op in Seattle and specialize in organic vegetables. Two of your friends regularly give you hugs.

11. The pepper makes you sneeze. And you let loose a booger that makes Tanenhaus slightly uncomfortable. If you tell Tanenhaus that the booger was the result of a childhood trauma that you're too embarassed to go into the details over, go to 21. If you offer Tanenhaus a napkin, go to 23.

12. You're intimately familiar with your spouse's contours and genitalia What a dependable port in a storm! Unfortunately, you should have listened to your high school gym coach. Don't let it all loose before the game. There's the 2,000 words you have to bang out tomorrow for Elizabeth Spiers. But sore from the previous evening's gymnastics, you sleep in untll 2 PM and find yourself distracted by daytime soaps. Your editors don't forgive you and you go back to grad school to get a master's in zoology. Your freelance career is over.

13. The spouse points to the copious collection of Top Ramen in the cupboard. The spouse points out that the check from the Iowa Herald Press, the "shitstorm piece" you spent several days celebrating over, has yet to clear. If you dine on Top Ramen, go to 10. If you decide that Allah is on your side and you take the spouse to a nice restaurant, go to 19.

14. Sure, let the spouse suffer. You're an artist, dammit, and the last thing you want to feel is relaxed. It's that dependable edginess that's kept the checks coming in. But your spouse has tired of these excuses. The spouse forces you to sleep on the couch. You wake up the next day and shuffle around the refrigerator for a bite to eat. But your spouse decided to move back to the parents and take all of the food. Your credit cards are maxed. There isn't a single sou in your wallet. And collecting unemployment would be a detriment to your pride. But since there's none of Cheever's bread and buttermilk, you die of starvation inside of two weeks. But at least there's the work to stand the test of time.

15. Despite three years of Spanish in high school, they don't want to talk. You meet Jorge, the guy who runs the place. You don't entirely hit it off and find yourself sleeping with the fishes. So much for journalistic credibility.

16. The new Sunday book review format has made this a lot easier than you initially thought. Hell, you might even get a MacArthur Genius Grant out of this. Just when you're about to submit your blurb to Tanenahus, however, you get a call from Sara Nelson. Nelson has observed your bouncing around. Hell, she's an expert at it. She offers the magic carrot of writing a Grisham review for Publisher's Weekly. 800 words. Time to tear that onerous attorney-turned-author a new one. If you accept Nelson's offer, go to 6. If you stick with Tanenhaus, go to 9.

17. You promise Reichl that you'll find an angle. Mad with glee, you shake on it over the phone. $500 for 2,000 words. A so-so sum, but a veritable miracle. But you don't know anyone other than the Puerto Ricans who run the donut shop down the street. And Reichl and her fact checkers demand sources. If you talk with the donut shop owners, go to 15. If you make up your sources, go to 20.

18. You fall upon the dumpy futon. You haven't eaten since noon. And with no spouse around to second-guess your appetite and your need for sleep, you find yourself pinned to the futon for several days. The spouse, viewing you as a responsible adult, doesn't count on the last-minute rescue call from Sam Tanenhaus, who expects you to write a 30-word review of the latest Grisham as a dare. You accept. If you write the 30 words without reading the novel, go to 16. If you're an ethical type who must read the novel before writing the review, go to 2.

19. You enjoy a prix fixe menu at an upscale bistro. You declare bankruptcy, but thanks to recent lax legislation, your debtors are able to incarcerate you. Your spouse divorces you and gets booked on a daytime talk show with the theme, "My Spouse Thought He Was a Freelance Writer and Didn't Know When to Quit." Years later, you win first prize in a public access version of American Idol, but you're not nearly as successful as Jonah Moananu. You found a leper colony in Carmel, California, but have difficulty finding bona-fide lepers.

20. When the blogosphere reveals what a liar you are, you declare yourself Jayson Blair's illegitimate cousin. You appear on Larry King, sobbing like Jerry Falwell. Hayden Christensen plays you in the biopic.

21. Tanenhaus replies, "If pain's your game, write a memoir, kid." You send a proposal to Random House and, to your surprise, they agree to publish 5,000 Boogers of the Soul, your childhood memoir. You win the National Book Critics Circle Award and get tenured at a prominent Eastern university.

22. You're not really one for discipline, are you? Your spouse has taken on two full-time jobs to support your artistic temperament and this is the thanks she gets?

Well, never mind. You bang out about 500 words, most of it rubbish. You look to the empty bottle of whiskey, the telltale flask you put on your desk in honor of Faulkner but never bothered to replace. Nothing to drink, but the phone's still ringing.

Bored out of your gourd, you decided to pick up.

It's Ruth Reichl. She was amused by one of your essays that appeared in the Voice and now she's interested in having you write something about donuts. You hate donuts. You're a bagel person. In fact, you don't see what's so gastronomic about those sugary monstrosities that have long been the dinner of choice for the fuzz. And you've already got five things to finish by Saturday. But the liquor cabinet is empty and you could use a pick-me-up. And this is Ruth Reichl. If you accept the assignment, go to 17. If you say no, go to 25.

23. Tanenhaus accepts the napkin and replies that you have guts. He's willing to give you the cover essay if you can get published in the New Yorker before the winter. If you accept his offer, go to 24. If not, go to 26.

24. You throw yourself on the knees of David Remnick at a philanthropic function. You offer to draw cartoons. Remnick hires you as a human model. You spend an evening in a frozen and recumbent position, observing various millionaires eating canapés off your naked back. Remnick, however, to his credit agrees to put an essay you've written in the "Talk of the Town" section. Tanenhaus gives you the cover essay. Real health insurance isn't far behind.

25. Ruth Reichl tells you that you're making a foolish mistake and vows to smear your name at the next cocktail function. She hangs up, shortly before declaring you a rank amateur. The Voice stops taking your work. You have difficulty and, with the spouse pissed off with you about royally screwing up an opportunity, you consider a safe career as a taxidermist. Your friends remark that there's more life in the dead birds than there ever was in your writing. You abandon your writing career and purchase a two-bedroom home in Ohio.

26. You decide to rail against the machine, becoming the editor of a new blog, Flaubert Liked Tennis. The blog gets quoted in the New York Times. You get all sorts of free books but the lacrosse lessons aren't successful.

27. "Son, that's the ballsiest move I've ever seen a freelancer make in a four-star restaurant," says Tanenhaus. You've ingratiated yourself into the machine. You take Deborah Solomon's interviewing job and prove yourself even more vicious with your questions than she did, earning the enmity of all bloggers.

Posted by DrMabuse at March 29, 2005 01:39 AM


Posted by: birnbaum at March 29, 2005 06:38 AM

Lordy Ed. Fan-fucking-tastic.

Posted by: Scott at March 29, 2005 08:47 AM

This is New Yorker back page material. SO funny!
xx, THB

Posted by: The Happy Booker at March 29, 2005 02:28 PM

Great stuff.

Posted by: Dan Green at March 29, 2005 02:36 PM

Don't forget Volume II: The Grant Application Years.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at March 29, 2005 04:53 PM


Vol II. Come on.

Posted by: birnbaum at March 30, 2005 04:25 AM

*Kipling's* tiger? I don't think so.

Posted by: john at March 30, 2005 07:33 AM