Starting out as a freelance writer was tough. Really tough.
Because the leap into independence was unplanned and based mostly on instinct: - “My 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Blackwater said she liked my stories...” - I was filled with the fire and brimstone determination of knowing what I wanted to do - Get paid for writing stories - but lacked the tools, contacts and know-how to get there.
So I armed myself with trade weaponry: a computer, a copy of The Writer’s Market and a subscription to The Writer Magazine. I studied up on pitching editors, researching publications, writing query letters, honing writing skills, following-up pitches and negotiating story rights.
And it was mind boggling. The learning curve felt huge and in my eagerness to GET GOING NOW, lag time hadn’t been factored in.
That’s the time it takes to put together a few stories (several weeks for basic newsy features if they include interviews and research) or query an editor and wait for a reply (generally a month to six weeks) follow up on queries, get pieces commissioned (average one commission per 15-20 pitches), tailor the finished piece to publication, get published and get paid.
The entire process generally runs from a month to six months to a year from pitch to paycheck. During that time period phone talks, outline draw-ups, edits, re-edits, story line follow-ups and even last minute cancellations – which hopefully pay a kill fee – are not uncommon.
I looked at my bank account balance. Six months? A year?!
..And then struggled with inner demons. This was definitely not going to work. But cash out before getting started? No. As a purist, though, how could a self-respecting writer do anything but write for a living? Supplemental income would mean being a traitor to the trade; it would mean I wasn’t a real writer.
Advice: When financially pressed, allow purist principles to fall away. Purism is for people with trust funds or for those who squirrel away huge sums of money while planning a career shift. I fall into neither category.
So purism collapsed and The Cabbage Years ensued. Termed thus because during the bleakest bank account moments I routinely dined upon cabbage sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese and drizzled with olive oil and soy sauce. These were tough times. But hey, cabbage is tasty and affordable. (Read: CHEAP).
“We’ll look back at this time longingly, you know,” my brother Andrew shared between crunchy bites one evening. A struggling electronic music composer & engineer at the time, Andrew was living The Spaghetti Years.
My Cabbage Years meant other skills – the ones I could tap into for steady, immediate income – were put to task. Editing, copywriting, marketing writing, transcribing, translating, filing press releases and pulling the occasional babysitting gig allowed me to pay bills AND leisurely write and market stories of my choosing.
It did the trick. I made a go of writing and managed to scrape by at the same time.
There is no shame in cabbage jobs. And truth be told, I still pull cabbage gig as does every freelance writer I know. It’s part of the package. If we all wanted to work full time newspaper or magazine or university publication jobs, we would. But we don’t so this is the “fine print at the bottom of the contract" so to speak. Some have ended up preferring the cabbage careers over the writing.
The toughest part for me was letting go of purist ideals. And once I got past that, it was a mere matter of deciding what sauce to drizzle over the cabbage. I like cabbage. I still eat it. But now it's by choice.