Being a Freelance Writer

I had a lot of thoughts run through my head while reading a recent article by Noah Davis on The Awl:

I would love to make 12.50 an hour with my writing. Hell I would love to make 250 for every article I write. I don't see either of those things happening soon, sadly.

Admittedly I may be slightly bitter about this. I recently wrote what I think is one of the best articles I've ever written []. I wrote many, many drafts. I did about two hours of interviews, which I of course transcribed myself. To prepare for this, I read seven books on top of web research. I was working on other projects all this time, but I always thought of the John Lewis as my major project.

I won't say how little I made but it was a lot less than 250.

Of course it was a great experience. I got to meet and spend some time with Congressman John Lewis, a great man. I spent time reading and looking into the Civil Rights Movement. I had the chance to write about something substantive and meaningful and important. The result was something that was pretty good. Even though it wasn't a good money-making endeavor, I should just chalk it up as an experience – like my summer in Europe, the time in the Middle East, road trip across the United States, etc. – and move on.

Of course it would be nice to get some recognition. I don't necessarily mean that I want people to pat me on the back or pay me extra. I just would like to get some reaction from people that this is good, this is something. I'm improving as a writer.


Most of what I get as a writer is rejection. I pitch publications and never hear back. I pitch publications and get a no. I get articles published and for the most part I don't get a response from anyone about them. Or if I do, the concerns are about formatting or procedure. In the Awl article, writer David Samuels makes the point that writing is a craft and craft is learned through work and apprenticeship. I'd like to be an apprentice.

I read the article with no small amount of sadness and frustration when Davis wrote what he's been paid to write features at various publications – many of which I've pitched, many of which have never responded to me.

What's frustrating in the end is that I don't have answer. I would like to know the whys. That's one reason I'm a writer, I want to know why and how and the process. Do I get rejected because I'm pitching cold and ignore all those? Did did not go to the right school? Is it a crappy idea? Am I mediocre writer? The answer is always dead silence.

This week I know that I'll pitch some more editors. Some I've worked with before, others I've pitched before, some I don't know. I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best.The thing is, you can only hop for the best and keep making a bad living for so long before it starts to wear you down. Before you start to feel old. Before you just start dreading the process of pitching and not hearing back and trying again and trying other people.

This is why people leave journalism. It's exhausting and there's no money in it. And it's hard to be rejected all day at work – or hear nothing – and then go out at night and put on a happy face, be confident and positive.

I wonder what it's like to have a job as a journalist. You know, with a desk and an office and a workplace. A salary and vacation days and health benefits. Where you don't stress out constantly about trying to make ends meet and maybe this week people won't respond to your pitches.

I wonder...


Data plans and "smart" phones and am I missing something?

I own a smart phone. When I tried to buy a phone plan from a company, I tried to buy a plan without a data plan. I do use the phone for such things, but I have wifi at home and elsewhere, so in the interests of cutting costs I said that I wanted just a phone plan. I was told by a sales person that just wasn't possible. Of course I couldn't get an answer as to why that was impossible. I suppose that the short answer is that they simply refused to sell me such a plan.

After all, I can turn off the cellular data on the phone - as far as I know one can do that with any "smart" phone - and the phone still works. I can make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, check my voicemail, add and edit contacts, use some of the applications.

Shouldn't I be able to simply buy a phone plan with data and have the phone work fine? Or am I missing something?


I open Firefox to find a small box with the message:

Security and privacy are not optional. Stand with a broad coalition to demand that the NSA stop watching us:

I believe that security and privacy are important. Of course I laughed like a crazy person because this message is located immediately below a google search box – a corporation that doesn't believe in privacy.

The question of privacy is one of the great issues of the 21st century and it has yet to be decided in any fashion, though it seems pretty clear that privacy is losing. Governments don't think we should have privacy and neither do corporations and for the most part people go along with it. It's interesting because a number of key decisions made by the US Supreme Court in the Post-WW II era were predicated on the belief that there is a right to privacy. Of course one of the cornerstones of many conservative legal scholars has been the idea that there is no right to privacy.

What does it mean if we give up on privacy? Or have we already passed that point?


June 18's Ear Cave in Hartford

It was a bittersweet affair when dozens of us gathered at La Paloma Sabanera for the Ear Cave. With the coffee house closing at the end of the month, it's the last ear cave that will be held there and it's reminder of how much Hartford will be losing when La Paloma closes.

WNPR's Catie Talarski introduced the evening's host/presenter, Bradley Campbell, who works at Rhode Island Public Radio. Previously he worked at WGBH, the Takeaway, Morning Edition and WCAI. He's also a graduate a Salt Institute and a native Oregonian. Campbell played four stories for us, which is most of the upcoming season of stories of a new series that he's produced with Muck Rock.

Muck Rock is a website designed to help people obtained documents through Freedom of Information requests. The radio show, which is being launched soon through the Public Radio Exchange, really has its own voice and approach - in part helped by the multiple reporters who are in the stories. It's also a very lively and interesting series. I feel that should be said since let's be honest, I think very few people think of FOIA as exciting.

(And those are just the people who know about FOIA...)

What's interesting is how they manage to use the documents and the process of obtaining the information as part of the story. It never comes out as feeling meta or behind the scenes, but rather a step by step process of beginning with some information and then trying to uncover more. It's a structure that works well for what they're doing and in part by having a different approach, by telling these stories in a new and different way – especially considering that some or a lot of the information is already out there and known to people – it really adds something to the experience.

The stories he played ran the gamut. There were aerial drones and the effort by Muck Rock to get documents about drones from all fifty states – in Seattle they found that the police department had obtained two drones through a Department of Homeland Security grant and that the police department failed to notify the City government about this fact for two years, which led to some very angry people.

There were also stories about the well known Hmong leader Vang Pao and an entertaining story about Beyonce and her lip syncing of the National Anthem at President Obama's second inaugural.

Can't wait to hear the rest.

Congressman John Lewis and remembering "March"

I have to admit that I am not a dispassionate person when it comes to Congressman John Lewis. Whatever one might think about this vote that he's cast or that stand he's taken, the Congressman has spent his life working for social change and put his life on the line for a better world. Starting as a teenager he worked to end segregation, to make it possible for people to register to vote – and the vast scope of what he was able to accomplish is such that within his own lifetime, it's puzzling for most of us to conceive of what America must have been like then.

So I made it clear that I wanted to write this story and I pitched lots of places arguing that it's hard to find someone who knows as much about comics and the Civil Rights Movement and nonviolence as I do. One of the other people who fits that bill is Andrew Aydin, one of Congressman Lewis' aides who co-wrote the book. Along with artist Nate Powell, who I've spoken to in the past and is an immesnsely talented artist, they've told the story of Congressman Lewis' life in the first of three volumes.

The article's long enough so I'll spare anyone reading this except to say that I get to meet and talk with a lot of amazing people in my job, but very rarely in life, does one get to me a truly great person. There's that old saying about how you should never meet your heroes, but I've never been disappointed meeting my heroes. It was a pleasure and an honor to talk with John Lewis.

This is why:

Congratulations to Ghassan Zaqtan and Fady Joudah!

I was thrilled to read that the poet Ghassan Zaqtan and his translator Fady Joudah received the Griffin Prize this year for the book Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me And Other Poems, which Yale University Press published the other year. It is a great book of poetry and I hope that it encourages more people to read it and discover Zaqtan, as I did when the book was first released. I also hope that, as Fady said when I interviewed him, it expands people's thinking about Arabic poetry and Palestinian poetry more specifically. If English language readers know Arabic poetry they know Darwish and Adonis and Zaqtan is a very different poet from them. It's a great book and I'm eager to read more of Zaqtan's work. 


Paul Roman Martinez and The Adventures of 19XX

I like steampunk but dislike most steampunk works. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that so many people seem to think of it as less a genre and more a formula. One work I do enjoy is the comic The Adventures of 19XX. Paul Roman Martinez has been posting it online for years and it has everything one would want from steampunk - or dieselpunk, for those who prefer to get technical about subgenres.

It's a 1930's adventure tale  with Nazis and secret societies, magicians and steampunk technology, dinosaurs and Lovecraftian creatures. There are also dirigibles, cameos by Nikola Tesla and Howard Hughes, the ghosts of Harry Houdini and Isambard Kingdom Brunnel, dogfights between airplanes and dinosaurs and the world's smartest rabbit. It's a great looking comic and a lot of fun.

Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks Monkey around with "Primates"

Apologies for the pun-ny title. Jim Ottaviani is one of the great unheralded writers in comics today. I was a huge fan of his last book, Feynman, a biography of the great physicist and educator. His new book Primates is a different book aimed a younger audience than Feynman - those who thought there was too much physics in Feynman will likely be relieved by this. The book tells the linked stories of the Twentieth Century's three great primatologists - Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas.
The three were each helped in their quest by Lewis Leakey, a fascinating and important character in his own right.

I am admittedly not a disinterested figure. I know Ottaviani's work and though I loved the book less than many of his others, mostly because it was written for a younger audience so I enjoyed it but it's not written for me. I also know Maris Wicks who I've met at conventions and events and I think she's fabulously talented. Highly recommended and a great book for young budding scientists.

Patrick McDonnell ("Mutts"), who I've spoken with in the past, created a picture book a few years back, Me...Jane, about Jane Goodall. It's a great title for young kids and animal lovers and a fabulous story about following one's dreams. Primates is the book to give to those kids a few years later. 

Austin Grossman and "You"

I had the chance recently to speak with Austin Grossman, the novelist and video game writer about his new project, "You." The novel is about a group of people who work in the video game industry, and I'm sure for people who are in the world or deeply familiar with it, there will be plenty to think about in the book, but it's much more than that. It's about games and fantasy more generally, about why we need escape from our lives and how they can enrich us.

It's not a book for everyone, and I don't think it has the built-in audience that his first novel "Soon I Will Be Invincible" had, but it's a thoughtful, rewarding book and a fun read.