Freelance life. La vie boheme. The impossible dream.

by Maddy Myers

It's easier to give up on your dreams, right?

I could just stop insisting on this "writing" nonsense and pursue a career in administrative work at the local massage parlor. Or so I shouted at my significant other last night after explaining to him how much difficulty I'm having getting my pieces accepted by outlets that respond promptly and offer to pay me a reasonable wage for the hours that the given pitch will take me to write.

"We love this, but we can't take it right now. Yeeeah, we don't know when we can take it, actually. Huh. Give us a month or longer to chew on this dilemma."

"I need pitches for my new project! I don't know when it's launching. Or when I can pay you. If ever. But I need your pitches!"

"Okay, we're willing to pay you an eighth of what your previous writing gigs paid you. What? Are you sure? Okay, a sixth. What? Are you SURE? You know, a lot of people are willing to take those wages because they write out of passion!"

Each of those quotes refers to 3+ people, so 9+ people total. Are you one of them? Probably, but don't feel bad, because you're not alone. You're all suffering from the same troubles, folks. Some of you have no money. Some of you have truckloads of it. You're all uncertain.

It's okay. So am I. 

I need a full-time job in order to take on any one of these "passion" assignments. Okay, fair enough. It is quite naive of me to assume I can keep living in an expensive urban area, subsisting solely off of freelance writing. I know some people do it -- people who are better at this than I am. The rest move to the boonies. And even those people are better at this than I am. Know more people. Have better cocaine. Ha ha ha. Ha.

They're just. Better.

I'm not sleeping normally; I'm not waking normally. I still dream about going back to work at my old workplace like nothing changed. I don't have a schedule, I don't have a "real" "job" (what is real? what is job?), and I don't know which of the job listings I see will match up to an opportunity that will quiet the scream in my stomach. But I'm looking. And I'm applying, even though every time I see a long-term job prospect that looks even remotely do-able, I feel like I'm cheating on my dead spouse.

I worry that I am not useful to anyone. I want to be useful. I want to help people in some way via the work that I do. I don't know how to do that. I am afraid I am not doing it now, have never done it. I am afraid that no one, the journos and artists and colleagues and friends that I respect and love, likes me. I am afraid that I care too much about the fact that no one likes me. I am afraid that it is NOT a fact that no one likes me but that I cannot tell fact from fiction. I am afraid because I am the only person who can convince myself otherwise on any of these points, but I'm in no position to do that kind of self-persuading right now. I am afraid that I will never sleep well again, that this is it, that eventually I will collapse or explode or just ... fade ... away.

But even that would be too easy.

And yet, it would also be too hard. Impossible, even.

----

I founded a theater company shortly after college, and it failed. I wasted thousands of dollars on it. I knew on some level at the time that I'd never see a cent of that investment again, that the project would only waste money rather than make more, that each of us was pouring our money into a black hole. None of us knew what we were doing, and theater companies tend to hemorrhage money even when they're run by experienced professionals.

I only burned about $2K of my own savings before getting angry enough to quit, but $2K was and still is an absurd amount of money to me. Back then, it was all I had, saved up after a lifetime of part-time and summer jobs, supplemented only slightly by the low-paying entry-level job at the Phoenix that I got post-graduation.

I suppose I should look back on this memory as worthwhile, as a good project that I'm glad to have done, but I don't. I remember the wasted money first, every time, for some reason. I don't think about the fact that I lost about thirty friends after the entire company went under. We just can't talk to each other anymore, and so we don't. We tried to wrestle our hope into a beautiful thing together and that thing died, slowly and painfully. So instead of thinking about all of my old friends and our optimism and our dream, I think about the money. What an idiot I was, I think, to spend all that money on a project that failed.

But it wasn't the money that failed. It was me, it was us. We failed one another.

We gossiped. We back-bit. We threw sand in one another's faces. We didn't agree on how the project should be led or should be organized or should be advertised. The three people in charge of the group, of which I was one, did not get along with one another. The rest of the group discerned this and attempted to stage a coup. I quit in a fit of anger at the group's other two leaders before that coup gained traction, which meant I unintentionally ensured its eventual success.

The group fizzled out in a slow burn of energy and money after my resignation, the new leaders blaming the group's problems on me as much as they could since I no longer stood in the room to defend myself. But making me into a back-turned enemy did not save the group; after leaving, I secretly hoped it would, out of some strange sense of martyrdom ("they're better off without me, the group will turn it back around now"). But the group had failed with me and without me. It was all just rotten.

The love had gone. The sails were still. The ship lay dormant in the middle of the ocean, with a variety of rotating captains insisting the wind would return, all while the crew visibly starved to death around them. We burned out.

Why does any of this matter now?

It doesn't, except that it's hard not to see some parallels to projects that I see around me again now. Inexperienced and optimistic folks pointing fingers at one another, claiming they're all here for "the art" and "the passion" but secretly being very, very angry about how much money and time and emotional energy they have also sunk into the ordeal, whatever it may be. And, not even just the money, but the I-thought-you-were-my-friend undercurrent that runs through it all.

We are like children at Disneyland, angry to find our perfect dream looks unreal and plastic and involves a whole lot of walking. We don't know how to explain our disappointment at la vie boheme , at the dream that failed us, so we point fingers at one another instead.

You didn't tell me this would be so hard, so much work.

I wasted all of my money on this bullshit.  And for WHAT!?

And so on. 

----

Last night, I lectured my significant other about online media. I told him about ad revenue and subscriber models and click-bait and gave him all sorts of very, very good reasons why media was doomed.

He lectured me back about how I was good at what I did and should keep trying and stop looking for excuses for why my chosen profession would fail. Why can't I make my own blog? Self-publish? Get donations?

Like Ben Wyatt of Parks and Recreation, I am haunted by my past failures -- but also by my current, ongoing ones. I created a company for the sake of art in my youth, and it failed. I worked at a liberal alt-weekly for six years, and it failed. I dreamed my whole life for the chance to write full-time, and now that I have been thrust into unemployment and thus the "opportunity" to try freelance writing full-time, I find that selling pieces requires more luck than I seem to have gotten so far, more connections than I've ever had nor know how to make, and less anxiety than my brain contains by default. I could conquer any one of these three on their own, but for now, I drown in the trio.

I can't create my own company, I explained to my SO, because I know several other journalists who've recently done so or whose new websites/magazines/alt-journo-heroisms are already in the works. I told those journos I'd pitch to their publications and do my best to help them succeed. And I will. Even though I have no idea how their plans will work in the long term.

I don't have a better idea than any of those people, either. I didn't have a better idea for the longevity of my theater company, and I don't have a better idea now for how to make a video game website succeed. Ad revenue, subscriber models, free or pay-walled content, underpaid writers -- I know all the problems. I list them all the time, mostly to my dear SO, who gamely listens. I don't have solutions, besides "have a ton of money in the first place and be willing to burn it for as long as you can." Art!!

I am not even 27 yet, and already I feel pessimistic and bitter, with more than one spectacular, beautiful, chilling failure behind me. I hear about the new projects that my friends want to do, the new web series production companies or podcasts or books or games, and rather than feel hopeful, I feel my teeth grit in anger. You know you're not going to make any money, right?

That's usually a sign that I need to take a break and have a cup of tea until the hope comes back.

----

I still believe in the impossible dream, in spite of myself.

I still have a half-finished novel that I return to, from time to time, and poke around in, amused at my old prose (it's a vampire romance novel about two women loosely inspired by Holmes and Watson, and I started it years and years and years ago -- imagine how rich I'd be if I'd finished and sold that shit earlier, right?). I still edit my best friend's indie web series TV show scripts and assure him that, yeah, totally, we'll find the time and money to film all of these somehow, some way. I practice music with my nerd-core rock band twice a week; we've been working on an album we can't afford to finish for over six months now. I have a half-finished Twine game called Daughter; it's about Mommy issues. I have a half-finished concept album about Metroid. I still pitch articles about video games to places that can't pay me, or barely can, because I STILL BELIEVE.

I don't even, can't even disrespect writers who work for free. Those of us who don't may as well be, most of the time. What's the difference between 1 cent an hour and free, anyway? And it's not like I'm making any money off of any other art I do -- and I believe, believed?, believe in all of that other art just as much.

I know what it's like, to want to create with no compromises. Not no editors, per se -- not creation without help! But creation without compromises. Working with people who think what you do matters, who don't want to change your work, who believe in you and what you have to say and just want to make sure you can say it your best way.

It would be nice, also, to work with people who can pay you. But I tend to end up working for people who would pay me more, or pay me at all, if they only could  ...

You can't eat dreams, though.

And I am very, very hungry.

----

It would be easier to give up on the dream. But I don't think I can. When I quit the theater company, I almost immediately did some other performances elsewhere and started a rock band. If it's not a novel, it's a column, or a Twine game, or a blog. I'll rally and get the hope back again and do it whether anyone wants to hear from me or not. My own brain tells me to stop, doubts me, shouts at me. But I don't stop. I can't stop. Even when it's hard, even when I hate it and everything about it.

Creation isn't even about talent. It's about whether or not you have that inner, jerky, inconvenient drive that makes you keep on creating whether you want to or not. I guess I have it. Because I keep. Making. Stuff.

It would be much easier if I could stop and become a secretary at the local massage parlor, wouldn't it? It would be much easier if I could only be happy with that. It would be much easier if I could only be happy at all.

But that's not my lot. I'm stuck with this.