Am I a Freelance Writer, or Am I Unemployed?


I'm coming up on a full month of unemployment in Los Angeles, and I’m starting to have questions. I moved here to be a writer, after dropping out of grad school* and determining that the only thing I needed to do to launch my writing career was design a life that supported my writing, instead of getting in its way. I lamented my lack of productivity; I pointed fingers at part-time jobs and the hustle of East coast cities. I work too much. I'm too tired to write. I can't think clearly in this loud city. My brain feels so crowded. I turned the excuses over in my mouth like hard candy. My favorite of them all: I cannot do my best writing when I am thinking, all the time, about survival. 

Last week, I had three interviews at restaurants I hadn’t heard of before I applied. I spent the week prior glued to my couch in my still-new apartment, scouring the Internet for jobs.  A few actually seemed promising —  Busy mom with four kids and one on the way seeking help in the afternoons, Real Estate blogger looking for co-contributors (the words unpaid buried somewhere in the fine print).  I Googled how to write compelling email subject lines; I got a background check on to make myself 95% more hirable. I even went to the Career Center at the school from which I’m taking a leave of absence. (*A year of grad school had it’s benefits, but I stepped back when I realized the price I was paying to be there was changing my life more than my classes themselves. I haven’t completely opted out yet, but I probably won’t go back. I’m determined to find a way to study my craft without the burden of being financially enslaved by loan repayment.)  I updated my resume; I finessed my cover letter. I called upon the wisdom of The Secret and visualized an unsaved number calling my phone, and me clearing my voice before answering, then feigning surprise as I gasped, "Oh! Hi, yes, this is she. Thank you so much, Yes! I'd love to work with you, too." 

I applied to three writing fellowships in the past three months, which shouldn't feel as noteworthy as it does. The thing is, I've only recently gained the confidence to try and get my writing published; as such, I've only recently discovered how little I know about what it means to be a writer. These fellowships offer mentorship, publication, conversations with editors and professional writers, workshops, panels, feedback, and guidance on making a manuscript.  These things combined are my own personal lottery. I can still be a writer if I don't get the fellowship, I remind myself to avoid being paralyzed by an emotional attachment to the prospect of failure.

I am not ashamed to say I prayed over an application.  I kneeled in front of an altar and asked the Universe to pick me for a miracle.  I don’t know if such things work, but if they do, I want to be the first to say, I believed it all along. 

This morning I wrote in my journal, I suppose I am officially "freelance." This is what I wanted, isn't it? Why doesn't it feel good yet? 

For four weeks I have sat in front of my computer, my body riddled with dread, trying to find a job. “What sort of work are you looking for?” friends and well-connected acquaintances asked. “At this point, I’ll take anything,” I answered, hearing myself say the words and hating how true they were. I had reached a point of desperation around finding a job. I found myself standing at the open mouth of a rabbit hole,  overcome with urgency about designing a life that would allow me to put my writing first. I need some consistency, dammit, I thought to myself, a schedule to follow with intentional space carved out for writing, just enough money to buy a small desk to put by the window downstairs.

In the middle of a last-minute application meltdown last week, I reached out to a writer-friend of mine, who lovingly reminded me that half of our work as writers is putting our work into the world. I always seem to forget this, even though I know it to be the thing about writing that is the most true.  Fear quite often tricks me into believing that what happens once my words leave my brain is up to fate or one of many gods. My friend reminded me that the opposite is true —  that being a writer means joyfully committing not just to the writing, but to the work it takes to give our words a home someplace other than our notebooks and laptops.

At the end of this conversation, a thought occurred to me: What if I stopped looking for a job and spent those hours reading, brainstorming, writing and pitching ideas to magazines and newspapers? What if I abandoned the task of trying to find part-time employment, and instead committed to pursuing nothing other than the thing I want the most?

For years, the idea of being a writer felt like a lifetime of walking down an endless hallway, knocking and knocking and turning all the handles trying to find an unlocked door.  After spending what already feels like forever looking for part-time jobs that will "support my writing" — even though I know my search has just begun — I’m compelled to ask myself what I might be able to manifest if I spend as much time and energy actually pursuing my career. What would happen if I denounce my employment search entirely in favor of spending all my waking moments writing? Will that mean that I’m officially a freelance writer with no boss but my damn self— the thing I want more than anything in the world— or does that mean I’m just …. unemployed?

My brain ran wild: I have a list of places that accept pitches and pay contributors. A few even pay up to 200 per post. Just four paid published articles a month could cover my rent and humble groceries. I'd rather spend 40 hours a week researching, writing drafts, pitching and pitching and pitching until I got published often enough to not have to do anything else!

Thrilled by my own bravery, I started making plans: I’d wake up at sunrise and begin each day with tea, prayer, thirty minutes of journaling, a warm breakfast, and then: writing, writing, writing. Just as soon as the image of myself and my new life flashed across my mind, so did fear. A little voice in my head interrupted my fantasy to say, "This could be the beginning of something wonderful, or it will be one the dumbest things you'll ever do in your life."

So here I am, trying to figure out which one of these things is true.

Most days, I believe in the impossible. On others, impossible is all I can believe.  I know it’s not either or — I can work three part-time day jobs and still prioritize my writing. I can work a full-time salaried job and still prioritize my writing. I can be unemployed, and still prioritize my writing.  I think about Lucille Clifton, and how she raised six children and still managed to write and publish books while doing so.  If she could do it in the seventies while raising six children, certainly I can do it today, without any. The question for me has always been how. This has been my question for years, and I am finally starting to understand that no one can answer it but me.

Being able to write for a living, by which I mean being able to make a living from writing — to not have to do anything else but write — is a privilege for which I pray daily. I believe that miracles can happen only if you think that they will, so I'm trusting the Universe to hold me down on this one. I say all this to say: I've been waiting for this miracle to fall into my lap, but I'm starting to wonder if it's been right in front of me all along. If it's up to me to simply choose it.  But what do you do when the choice to pursue your purpose feels as foolish as it does wise?  I promise I’ll let you know when I find out. For now, my wisdom tells me to just keep writing. My wisdom tells me that if I choose my purpose, it will choose me back. My wisdom tells me to do whatever I need to do so that when people ask me what I do for a living, I can tell them, "I'm a writer," and have no doubts that it's true.

Jamila Reddy