What I'm Doing in the Desert

The wheels are off the wagon. Okay, that’s not entirely true, but I did make a rookie freelancer mistake this fall and now find myself doing a little scrambling.

When I jumped off the employee wagon train nearly four months ago, I had a decent cushion in place and some nice contracts lined up. My immediate plans were clear. I also needed to set up the structures inherent in self-employment, including new apps, accounts, and health insurance. (That experience is worth its own post—once my tendency toward sarcasm ceases to overwhelm me.) Then there was a month’s backlog of graduate work to knock through before I could align my research and writing schedule to the remaining academic deadlines.

Can you tell what’s missing from the list? That’s right: Hustling for new sources of work to replace the projects I completed. Just after Thanksgiving, at exactly the same time I finished the semester’s MFA assignments, I found myself staring at the Great Freelance Holiday Desert, and realized I hadn’t filled up my barrels at the last watering hole. Chunky projects for existing clients are waiting on the other side, resting just within sight on January’s horizon. But in the meantime, the wind is whistling and the tumbleweeds are rolling past.

Strangely, my main reaction has been a rueful chuckle at my own lack of foresight. On the great map that is next year’s calendar, I’m putting a big detour around December. That is, I’m looking not only at the periods of time when I am not available to take on substantial work, but also at the times when work may not be available in abundance. Now, though, what am I doing with this swath of free time?

First, since I’m also free of MFA deadlines—except a little prep work for our week-long winter residency—I’m revising last semester’s book proposal and three drafted chapters. Those will go for an initial fact-check while I write new chunks of the book based on documentary research. At the same time, I’m lining up the next round of interviews so I know which three or four chapters I can submit in the spring. From there, it’s a look ahead. Ideally, I would write another four or five chapters over our long summer break and the rest of the book next fall. That would allow me to spend my final semester (spring 2017) layering in additional research and refining the prose and flow of the whole manuscript. We’ll see how that ambitious schedule works out! 

Second, I’m being more methodical about my health. That starts with owning the schedule I set for myself. I have long been a night-owl, although I don’t do my best work at night. So, I’m slowly shifting myself back into semi-early-rising mode. At the same time, I’m adding regimented activity into the day. With luck, it will help me sleep better, shrink the space my clothes occupy in my carry-on, and on- and offload my kayak next summer without scraping the car.

Third, I’m squeezing usable office space into an edge of the spare bedroom—while improving the room's usefulness to guests and ensuring access to the contents of closets. In essence, I’m ejecting flotsam and jetsam gained through 18 or more moves (including one across the country), five elementary schools, three colleges, seven jobs, four pipe bands, five overseas trips for momentous events, three grandparents’ passings, and multiple friends’ deployments, adventures, and celebrations. The remains are being organized to make future moves or eliminations much less daunting.

Finally, I’m walking through the desert. I’ll reconnect with a number of professional contacts right after the holidays. In the meantime, I’m signing up with freelance writing networks, reaching out to local organizations, and picking up projects. I’m starting to connect the book topic and potential audiences. And I’m lining up a variety of literary journal contests and submission guidelines so I have reasons to write, beyond—and maybe even leading to—income. If I pull myself up by my bootstraps now, next December should look a lot less dry.