When I was in college, I had the great fortune to meet a very insightful developmental psychology lecturer who turned into an informal mentor for a time. He’d been all over the country, he’d done a lot of wild things and he had a lot of complicated thoughts about success.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately because I’ve been on a journey of a sort. I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going wrong in my life, just that something was out of balance.
As it turned out, a lot was out of balance. I’d let others dictate my own needs for so long that I forgot I even had any. It sounds like the sort of thing that only happens in Hallmark movies, but I can assure you, it happens to people every day.
We forget that we deserve to have peace and joy and success and redefining moments. We forget we deserve more than to merely exist. We forget we need more because we’re told there’s nothing left for us at the end of it all.
Today’s blog is for you, the writer with a teapot that’s constantly filling the cups of others, only to find that there’s nothing left for you. This blog is for you and I give it freely, while leaving something for myself.
The Journey and the Destination
Back to that psychology lecturer I once knew. His name was John. A lot of men are named John, so that alone wasn’t terribly remarkable. He was an old hippie, which was also not terribly remarkable, though at the time I hadn’t met a lot of hippies and for me maybe it was a bigger deal than I realized in the 1990s.
John knew better than I did what my journey was going to look like. I don’t know quite how that was, but maybe it’s the kind of thing that comes with that specialty. I’d already been in and out of school a few times, trying to work and have a life and not doing particularly well at juggling any of it. Maybe that’s why he’s wedged so firmly in my mind and why those times spent with him still resonate.
See, at the time I felt like I was all alone in the world, facing a lot of challenges no one else faced. I was trying to get a degree that was constantly having roadblocks thrown up in front of it, from my initial diagnosis of diabetes and subsequently learning how to manage it, the financial fallout from developing an autoimmune disease so early in life, the loss of a Big Dream when the whole concept of the local newspaper started imploding around me, the loss of people who meant the world to me.
The 1990s were a wild time for me. Won’t lie.
John, though, he never once let me lean on these things or treat them like defeats. I wasn’t even in his department, but he didn’t care. He was a kindred soul of sorts. He would remind me that every time it felt like I’d been hit in the face with a rock, I needed to pick that goddamn rock up and figure out what I can learn from it.
And, although I have never been short of mentors who helped me get to where I needed to be, John was a sort of umbrella that I still open in times of peril. Even though we’re not in contact anymore and he’d probably not even remember me now, he’s up there on that list of people who influenced me so profoundly that I can’t begin to thank them.
The Big Thing He Taught Me
Sorry, I’ve sort of buried the lede here, but it’s also a bit by design. See, the big takeaway from my time with John was that there’s not a lot to be had from a life lived without adversity. Not that it’s a great thing to always live in turmoil. I mean, you’ve got to have balance. But in tough times, it can be tempting to look at people who seem to have had some pretty smooth sailing and just envy the fuck out of them.
Trust me, I feel that so hard. Some days I’d trade all these character-building scars for some straightforward success and a lot fewer speedbumps.
But that’s when I drag that man out of my memory bank. Because the thing that old hippie taught me – that the journey was the thing, not the destination – you can’t begin to understand how many times that has saved me. From myself, from others. From the world.
John taught me to see hope and wonder in a world full of booby traps.
It was a gift.
It was a life preserver.
There are people you can never thank in the moment because the words won’t come. There are people you may not even realize have made such a profound impact until they’re long gone. There are people you will always need, even long after they’ve forgotten you.
When times are tough, remember the philosophy of my friend John. It’s about the journey and how you handle the troubles along the way, not how quickly you get to where you think you need to be going.
And also remember that you deserve to have your own needs met, even when that means you get to add a whole minefield to the road ahead of you. So when that client is being overly demanding, when that person in your life can’t respect you and your choices, go forth boldly. You are not alone. John and I both have your back.
Being a pen for hire is, like many other aspects of the gig economy, a really precarious existence. Unlike working for a publication as a full time employee (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA that rarely happens for writers anymore), you’re doing your best to stay above water, even when you need a sick day, even when you have to fly across the country for the funeral of a loved one, even when everything in the world is kicking you in the ass. Because you have no other choice and you have no benefits, you only have that keyboard and a lot riding on your not having any sort of emergency ever.
But the problem is that writers are still soft, fleshy blobs of skin and fat and muscle and, presumably, other stuff. We have nerve endings and we have emotions and we have shit in our lives that we have to deal with day in and day out. We live in a high stress world of feast and famine, where the feasts are always too small and the famines too long. In short, we’re all of us living on the razor’s edge between survival and failure.
This isn’t some kind of Bohemian fantasy where there’s redemption in poverty and mental illness. This is real life, where those things can end you up in the street, living rough. This is real life, where that means your kids might not have enough to eat. This is real life, where too much is outside of your control, but you muddle through anyway.
I Get Knocked Down
In real life, there are real problems. The economy the giggers have inherited is a far cry from that of their parents. That’s why you have two part time jobs and ten clients. That’s why your friends are constantly working side hustles and the only thing you talk to anybody about these days is work. We’re all against a wall, but at least we’re in this together…
Being in that very delicate position means that sometimes the wind will blow a bit too much, you sneeze one too many times or gravity shifts just enough that you get hit hard and you go down. For example, I had a major kidney infection early this summer. By the time I felt it, I was running a fever so high that nothing would keep it down and I couldn’t have left the house to get to a hospital even if I had wanted to.
Fortunately, I had just been in to see my PCP and he was more than happy to call in a shitload of antibiotics. I tried to get up and work, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I had a week or two of nothing but high fevers and sweating through my bedsheets. I’m pretty sure my dog was trying to decide how to serve me when I did, inevitably, die.
This is where the razor’s edge comes in. Too many of my clients were ready to jump ship. There was nothing I could do. I could only watch as I was abandoned to my fate.
The tragedy is that this wasn’t the first time I’d had to rebuild. Oh, no. In late 2011, I was very, very sick and I played the same game. That was much worse because I’d never had to do it before. In 2016, in preparation for moving to Texas, I cut my client load back on purpose in order to give myself space to pack (it was self-induced, but still sucked). Then in 2019, the kidney infection.
Life wasn’t an option in any of those situations. There was no sick time, no PTO I could take to handle my own shit, there was survival and there was nothing. But it’s not just my story, it’s the story of so many I know in this industry. It goes like this: bad thing happens, clients jump ship looking for someone who is available today, not in a week when the writer had had space to deal with their life (no matter how long their writer had been working for them). Writer ends up in a bad position because suddenly they have no income.
That’s the getting knocked down.
But I Get Up Again
Getting knocked down is easy by comparison to what comes next. If you survive that kidney infection or you manage to get your head screwed back on after being in a mental hospital or you somehow stare death in the face and regain your strength to carry on, you have to figure out how to move forward.
You are probably, understandably, salty with your former clients. You are probably, understandably, salty with life. You are almost certainly confused, tired and scared, but you also probably coat that thickly with sarcasm and hope no one can tell.
Maybe you apply for a Real Life Job, only to discover that you can’t actually get one because once part of the gig economy, always a part of the gig economy. No one told you that when you fell into it backward in a moment of desperation, but it’s the reality for so many people.
I couldn’t get a job at a gas station in late 2011, when I was still hoping to make an exit from this life. I wish I were kidding. Pizza Hut also told me to go hang. Walmart wouldn’t hire me to do overnight stocking.
This is the reality of being knocked down.
The only option is to get back up again. To the few who have escaped the endless hamster wheel of client work, I salute you. To those of you who love client work and wouldn’t have it any other way, I also salute you. But know that you’ll get knocked down and you’ll have to get up again at some point.
You Are Never Gonna Keep Me Down
We all have a survival instinct, we all have a need to achieve homeostasis. So when we go down, we get back up — eventually. I was pretty sure I’d never be able to get back up after that last one, I was so, so sick for so long. I’m still taking every day as it comes, but with each passing week, I’m a bit improved.
The same is true of you, your friends in the gig economy and those strangers you’ll be meeting soon. You may not be able to get up as quickly as you hope, but you will get up. You won’t lay on the floor forever, just long enough to catch your breath. But it might mean you have to change things a bit.
Maybe you have to move into management because you can’t bang ‘em out like you used to do because that thing caused some kind of brain injury. Maybe you don’t have the tolerance for dealing with clients anymore and all you want to do is bang ‘em out because of the salt. There are gig jobs for all of this. It’s not just driving for Uber and grinding for pennies.
This is my official announcement that I’ve gotten knocked down pretty goddamn far, but I’ve gotten up again. And so can you. And I am here to make sure you do, to be your hand in the darkness, no matter what has you down there.
We, the free people of the gig economy, can’t be killed so easily. We get knocked down, but we get up again. You’re never gonna keep us down.
So, it appears to be October 7, 2019, it’s been about two months since I “officially” retired. And now I’m unretiring. It wasn’t working out, I didn’t survive the 90 day trial period.
It’s ok. I mean, I wasn’t sure it’d be a good fit anyway. But it did give me time to figure out what it was that I *did* find to be a good fit. Turns out slinging words like a motherfucker is still the thing I’m best built for…
So here we are. I’m back. I hope you bastards are happy.
Why I Came Back
Beside taking an extreme enjoyment in tormenting humanity at large (and having a platform like the entire Internet gives me no lack of space in which to do that), it turned out that I needed some kind of purpose. Who knew that fuckery and debauchery is ACTUALLY a calling?
Immediately upon making the decision to go back to work, I felt better. I felt like there was a reason I existed and a thing for me to do with my many, many crawling hours. The clock stopped being a way to track how many days were left and starting being an opponent again. Not “what am I going to do?” but “how can I do it all?”
I’m not suited to retirement, apparently.
And I think that’s ok. Even if many will say otherwise. Those people can fuck themselves, because they don’t know me. I do what I want!
Is It Life or Existence?
It turns out that being very, very sick is a great way to get a lot of perspective. When you lay staring at a ceiling long enough, you start to drift off on a little raft that only exists in your head. It’s a place where you can do anything, be anybody, and it’s pretty telling. Maybe this is the suburbian version of a vision quest, IDK.
But in that stillness, I didn’t see myself cleaning house and making meals and grocery shopping. I saw myself building websites and dispensing advice and helping people access more and better information.
Sorry, I’m apparently that lame.
Someone has to be. It just turns out it’s me.
Will it be hard?
Sure. This life is nothing but a wild ride of stress and reward.
Will it be fulfilling?
So that’s what I’ve been up to. What’s new with you?
When I was young, I often wondered about the human condition. What makes us the way we are, how do we exist in the way that we exist apart from the way that lamps exist and floors exist and that electrical boxes exist? I mean, it’s all atoms and mostly carbon and water, so we’re not all that different, really. Except we are… and that’s where it gets weird.
Some people turn to religion, others to a blind faith in the void, but I think the truth is something in between. Like so many batteries in a circuit, we work together. We exist together. And one can continue to live on, even when the physical remains of that one are gone.
I think it’s why we’re such story-driven creatures. We tell stories so we remember. And if someone lives in a story, do they ever really stop existing? If we still love them and know them and feel them around us in the day to day, can they be lost to a void or whisked away to Heaven without us?
Every time one of ours falls away, I think about this. About how they can’t be gone because I remember them. Because you remember them. Because we remember them.
There’s a poem by Henry Scott Holland that drives this home, really, for me.
Death is Nothing At All
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
Clean yourself up. I’ll wait.
Ok, that’s enough. Life is for the living, as they say.
So many have gone before us and will continue to leave us throughout this life… they might not even die, they may simply become someone completely unrecognizable or their lives may take them somewhere we can’t go. Surely those are to be mourned just as hard as someone we’ve lost to the grave… loves not loved enough, friends we maybe never knew as well as we wished we had.
Every person who goes out also stays, though. They echo in shadows. They reflect off of every shimmering surface. They’re with us forever, they never go away. They are ours, we are theirs and that’s for as long as memory can last. For better and for worse. How, then, can the dead be lost?
Today… well, honestly, since I heard about the loss of Nefarious’s younger brother, I’ve been trying to find the right words for her. Because it’s unfair for her to suffer this alone when so many people feel her so hard right now.
It’s hard to see it with the blinders of grief on, I know, but in time, one day, you’ll notice us, Kiddo. You’ll realize you were never alone through any of this and your adopted family had your back for every step.
The Internet has brought us some strange relationships and moved some peculiar people into and out of our lives, but I have never once regretted our friendship. You’ve made me a better person because I find myself trying to set a good example or to live up to your expectations… I thought you should know.
You’re family, kid. And your pain is my pain. Your loss, my loss. But you know he’s not really gone, don’t you? He’s just in the next room. Like Mocha’s mom and Our Judith and Billy and so many others.
It’s probably getting kinda crowded in there, frankly.
… you would be the asshole that got me back to work, wouldn’t you? It’s the kind of thing you do…
Much love, have a safe trip and remember that you only ever have to ask and a whole community will crawl all over themselves to help you. Because you are so, so loved.
And so are the rest of you fuckers.
But today this is a blog for one. And I know she’s reading.
It’s funny, the longer I spend on the Internet, the more I forget what a truly terrible place it can be. This goes doubly when you’re working for clients that don’t realize how difficult it is to intuit their intent from a few pointed words. Most of the time, these clients are corporate or working on behalf of corporations.
For example, I have done a great deal of work for a particular window manufacturer that I won’t name (but there’s a cartoon Martian that has the same “goes by”). When those suggestions and edits come down the pipe, it feels like a ballistic bean bag to the heart. Every time. Even though I know this is the way they do things.
This is probably why so many freelancers avoid corporate clients like the fucking plague.
Rub Some Dirt In That Wound
As painful as it can be, those edits are semi-solicited comments. They’re included in your content package. You told them to bring you comments, in not so many words.
I mean, you still pray to God and Dog and whoever else ya got that you don’t hemorrhage during the process, but you persist because you like having a roof over your head and whatnot.
You do the thing because that’s your job and you are the adult in the room.
But it’s not kind, it’s often not fair and frequently very confusing. When six people are editing your work at the same time, they will end up contradicting themselves. Then your head explodes.
Of course, corporate clients aren’t the only people in the world dropping buckets into the Ocean of Negativity that is the virtual world. Sometimes it’s smaller clients — or worse — your social network.
I Get By With a Little Help…
Last night, a thing happened in the Tubes that shook me up more than it should have. And I did eventually walk it off, but it took me by such surprise that it took the breath out of me for a minute.
I posted to my social network something kind of personal about how this calendar I bought in — who knows, let’s say the 90s — profoundly affected my outlook on life and whatnot. It was called “Nuns Having Fun.” Literally, this is a calendar series full of nuns having fun. What could be less objectionable?
Apparently we can’t have nice things because it wasn’t long before someone came along to shit on my parade. Because there are bad people in the world and a few of them happen to be nuns, we can’t secretly spy on the joy of those nuns that aren’t doing bad things and enjoy it.
This was the lesson. Or, so it tried to be. Several of my very clever friends came in with sarcasm and sharp wit and potentially ruled the day. If anything that happens online can be considered to be real.
Face That Ish Head On
I realized in that moment that the two things, the edits we endure as writers and the slings and arrows chucked at us by online moral purists aren’t really all that different.
Edit-By-Committee means to weed out all the imperfections in short editing rounds by involving every person who might be remotely attached to a project; Online Moral Purity seeks to weed out all the problems of society by raising awareness, even if that means shitting on everything you love.
Now, as to what to do about it.
Face that ish head on. Here, have five ways to do that:
Remember that you’re in control. Even when you aren’t in control of the situation, you’re in control of how you respond to it. You can cry, you can freak the fuck out, you can punch a pillow (not a person), but do it in the goddamn closet. You rule the day, keep a handle on yourself.
Bitch loudly to your friends. Get that poison out of your system, but not where there’s anyone in your professional network to see. Tell your friends, who almost certainly don’t understand what it is that you’re upset about, that your client is squirrely. Just saying it outloud can give you some perspective.
Sleep on it. Seriously. This makes all the difference for me. When I have a good night’s sleep after an edit, I wake up with an improved outlook. I can see those comments in their very best light, as awful as they may have felt the day before. Sleep. It’s really awesome.
Address the offense. Hey, that’s a perfectly valid point about your stupid windows, you dumb window making people. Or, hey, boot makers, guess what? Women work construction, too, so don’t be telling me that only a man can review your dumb work boots. Because you’re all dumb. (but be more eloquent)
Get down to business. Look, you’re a pro or you at least want to be one. There’s absolutely no reason to act like anything but. Don’t let them see you sweat, just clean up the mess of comments in your working document and move the fuck on. They’re paying for it, so if they want something changed, just do it. Let them kill your darlings. You can make more.
Social media and clients can both be full of malaria and alligators, much like Florida, but you don’t have to spend your life bogged down in the fucking swamp. Remember that you are amazing and that the swamp is also a great place for orchids, which really makes some of the malaria pretty tolerable.
For the last several weeks, I’ve been streaming Bob Ross pretty much non-stop during writing time. At first, I did this because I believed his soothing voice was keeping my high strung dogs from flying off the handle every time a garbage truck drove by, but as time went on, I also found myself lulled by his dulcet tones.
Then it happened.
Bob said, “You’re going to need a friend when Nature rises up and takes over.”
That was in season 25 or so, I can’t remember the exact episode now. But I remember the shock. I’m pretty sure I had a happy accident.
Happy New Year!
This is how I’m opening my New Year’s Letter for 2019. If you’re still reading, I really admire your ability to digest bullshit. I really did hear him say that and as the seasons roll on, he says a lot of very weird shit. Then he goes on to justify it by saying that if you’re a painter, people expect you to be a little strange.
Number one, Bob, you’re way more than a little strange. You’re potentially deranged. And yet the world loved you and I think that’s ok. I’m just not buying that wholesome act you’re putting on any longer. There’s nothing more terrifying than the look on his face when he cleans a brush with paint thinner and “just beats the Devil outta it.”
Number two, Bob… seriously? Are you going to continue to perpetuate that tired stereotype? Blerg.
In the New Year, I will be continuing to watch Bob, listen to him tell stories about being in the military, living in Alaska, his dreams of living inside his paintings and Steve, his sorry excuse for a hippie son.
Even though he says very disturbing things.
Maybe because he does.
Welcome to 2019, Plebeians
This letter was written on December 27, so not quite the New Year, but certainly in the run up to it. The last several years have been indescribably difficult. I would say it was epic, but you wouldn’t get the impact I intend. I mean epic like Odysseus’ voyage home… or like one of those dreams where you run and run and run, but you can’t ever get to where you’re going.
A good friend of mine has, at various times, compared times in this life to a coma dream. She was actually IN a coma, so she knows better what that means than I do. But I assume that there’s a sort of eerie sense that things aren’t quite real, but they’re not fake either. It’s like how I feel about those multiverse theories. But I digress.
A lot of fucked up stuff has happened the last few years. It started… well, I can’t tell you when it started because it’s been like waking from a dream. I know you guys probably don’t realize it, but I have been in a really bad way and basically on automatic pilot for a while now. Pieces of me were always there, but not like now.
Let me start over.
Finding Yourself Again is Tricky
About a week after Terry Pratchett died in 2015, The Guardian ran this long essay that he had written about his fight with Alzheimer’s. The deeper I got into it, the more I cried. And not for the reasons you might think. In 2015, I was still losing myself, a piece would fall away here and there. Sometimes I’d find an odd bit, but I’d lose another. What caught me was that the weird Jelloy world I was living in was what Pratchett was described in vivid detail.
“I have posterior cortical atrophy or PCA. They say, rather ingenuously, that if you have Alzheimer’s it’s the best form of Alzheimer’s to have. This is a moot point, but what it does do, while gradually robbing you of your memory, visual acuity and other things you didn’t know you had until you miss them, is leave you more or less fluent and coherent as you have always been…. [while] the disease slips you away a little bit at a time and lets you watch it happen.”
This was my lightbulb moment. Or, rather, it was sort of a dimmish-nightlight-in-the-hall sort of moment. I wasn’t together enough to realize how important this description would be for me or how it would shape my future.
I knew something was very wrong, but most days I couldn’t tell you what it was. I couldn’t tell you what I had for lunch. But somehow I could still write and so I did. That’s all I did. That’s all I could do.
Then the muscle spasms started getting so bad that I couldn’t deny them. My abs would buckle so hard that it looked like I was in some kind of mad sit-up contest for one, my hands would shake, my arms refused to swing as I limped slowly along. I brought these things to my neurologist in Missouri and she did a few tests, but ended up writing it off as “spells.” I was having spells, but I didn’t get better (but to be fair, no one turned me into a newt).
All My Exes Live in Texas?
We moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 2017, and I lucked onto a neurologist who was a genius diagnostician. He said almost nothing to me the first several times I was in his office. He ordered an MRI, he checked my arm swing and how well my muscles responded, all that normal stuff. Then, one day, he asked me to try a drug I’d never heard of: ropinirole, a dopamine agonist.
I had already been reading up on what might be said one day by that quiet man with the big computer of a brain. That’s why I cried as I left the office. If the ropinirole helped, it was another nail in the coffin. And, like Pratchett describes his own moment of clarity, I was suddenly experiencing pretty much every emotion at once.
“When Milton’s Satan stood in the pit of hell and raged at heaven, he was merely a trifle miffed compared to how I felt on that day. I felt totally alone, with the world receding away from me in every direction, and you could have used my anger to weld steel.”
It took about two days before I was confident enough to call Dr. Dhaliwal to tell him that yes, the drugs were working. And in ways I never expected. Things I didn’t know I had lost had returned like a not very funny cream pie to the face. Colors were brighter, scents were scentier, emotions were deeper, oh and that lmp I’d had since I was a teen (always blamed on a soccer injury) had disappeared entirely.
After all the things that had happened in Missouri, including a suicide attempt and two (!!) cancer scares, this was the worst thing I could have ever imagined happening. My neurologist would ultimately diagnose me with early onset Parkinson’s with Essential Tremor. And I would take more ropinirole. And I would get worse.
The funny thing about starting the drugs you desperately need is that the more you need them, the less you notice how sick you are. So, as I regained function bit by bit, I also got worse. More ropinirole. More symptoms.
Today we’re at a reasonably middling dose of ropinirole, plus a few other drugs that help keep the many symptoms of Parkinson’s in check by helping me sleep, giving me a little energy boost or working on other parts that we never knew were connected.
Really, it’s very good. But understand that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s share a lot of features and may actually be related disease.processes. So as you read that essay, know that it could just as easily be me writing it.
The takeaway should be that 2018 was the year I got my mind back. There’s nothing more important.
Oh, and Then There Was That Time I Died
2018 was such a weird year.
It was the year that I died.
Did I tell you? If not, please don’t feel bad. I was still trying to find my feet in a world of neurological issues when it happened. I was overwhelmed.
The plan this past summer was to have a relatively routine surgery that I won’t go into the details of here, but I assure you that it was seriously no big deal. My body had other plans, though. Once they had me prepped and the really deep anesthesia started, my blood pressure bottomed out.
And there it stayed.
I’m not sure what it took to bring me back from the brink, but when I woke up in the recovery ward, I was surrounded by the anxious eyes of the entire anesthesiology team. They were pale and shaking and fearful, as if they’d seen the dead rise again.
Having had many, many surgeries over the years (autoimmune disease, yay!), I knew that it wasn’t normal to wake up to a fan club. But they didn’t want to tell me what had happened. I was moved to a private room at the hospital (woo woo!), where the hospitalist and my surgeon explained it all.
They really thought I was going to die. At first, this was all a big joke to me. I mean, not really, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so instead I made dumb jokes. It was all I could do.
Mostly, I was kind of embarrassed. I mean, I thought people were supposed to have life-altering epiphanies or see visions or something when they die. I got nada. It was just another Thursday in my world, albeit one where I scared a lot of people, a hobby I don’t generally engage in.
So that happened. And even now, I don’t know what it means. Or if it means anything. We all live, we all die and some of us do stuff in between.
And Then We Opened In The Cloud
To be fair, ITC had been around a while already, it was meant to be a rebranding of Waterworth Writes, a company I know you’re all familiar with.
See, a friend told us the winter prior that she was very sick. She’d always been supportive, even trying to help raise the past iterations of a ship like this one that we could never quite get to sail. So, with her terrifying news, I was determined to launch In The Cloud before she posted her last Breitbart article to social media.
I had launched it, but nothing happened. I was just… still me and a big empty, useless boat. I assumed I’d figure it out as I went. I didn’t do well with that until after I came back to life. After that, I kind of got a headwind.
This is mostly a roundabout way of saying that I want her to know that she was a big reason to move the timetables up. And even though she’s sick enough that she doesn’t check in sometimes for weeks, she’s the reason I keep pushing forward with it.
She’s the reason I keep pushing, even when I don’t have anything left. So there’s that. After losing Don, Kat, Our Judith, Rich, Billy, Earl and so many others, I couldn’t let her slip away without really understanding that she changed my world profoundly. That’s about the best that she’ll ever get out of me.
2019 Had Better Hold on Tight
I’ve made some great connections in the world of copy, copywriting, marketing and general shenaniganry over the last few years. I completely believe that we will create something profound in 2019. And if not profound, then we might at least settle for profane.
In The Cloud should roughly double in orders this year, if current signs are any indication. We’re on fire and even though I am one of the more inept business owners around, at least I keep getting back on that horse and riding. We’re in high demand, so that’s always nice.
I just have to remember what we’re worth. My Jewish Second Mom will keep beating this into me until I buy it, I think. We’re worth a lot, she says. There aren’t a lot of people who can do what my team at In The Cloud does, nor with so much flare.
We make this Internet look good, that’s what I’m saying.
Goal-Setting for 2019
The days and nights and nights and days of effort it has taken to set 2019 up for success have not only shown me what I’m made of, but what those around me are capable of. And they’re pretty damn awesome. That being said, I need to get some of my life sort of rebalanced. So here come the 2019 goals!
Double ITC’s output and revenue. We already discussed this. But I thought it was worth mentioning again. Maybe I can actually get my taxes paid on time for once!
Spend more time exploring. I have barely left the (home) office in a year. I have my groceries delivered, I have a postage machine, Amazon brings me everything else. I need to get out of the house and look around at the world. I need to find out what makes it worth living in Fort Worth, Texas (besides Dr. Dhaliwal).
Write more for our company. I have seriously neglected my duties as head blogger at the companies under my direction. That’s already in the process of being fixed, but I need to make it last. Keep it up. We used to blog here all the time, me and you. Time to do better.
Cut the fat. I spend a lot of time fucking around. There’s no way to say it other than like that. I’m a real good fucker arounder. I have to concentrate my fuckery so I have time to do anything besides fuckery and work. Like, you know, take a walk or eat an orange.
Improve focus and productivity. Sometimes it’s everything I can do to focus on the day ahead. Or the one that just got away from me. This year that’s getting attention. Sleeping well and better is the first phase.
Stay active. I am currently doing about an hour of cardio daily to help keep myself moving. It has helped dramatically, but it’s hard to start after I’ve stopped. So I’m not stopping. I need to keep on movin’ on.
Own my shit. You may not believe this, but there are certain people in this world that I am genuinely concerned about what they think of me. It makes it hard for me to have an honest face to face without falling to pieces. I need to own my shit. I’m owning this today.
I guess that’s about it. I have some big goals for next year, but I have no doubt that the people around me will help turn our company into something really magical. Something real special. We’re not a lot now, we’re just learning to crawl, but we’re going to get there. This is everything. We’ve got this nailed so hard.
Thank you for reading all the way down.
Thank you for believing in my vision, if you’re Team ITC. Thank you for being patient.
Thank you for being an inspiration, if you’re a particular reader. Whatever you’ve done in your life and whatever mistakes along the way, know that simply knowing you changed my life profoundly. In my eyes, all those sins are forgiven. Well, except Breitbart.
Thank you for being a friend, if you’re a bee enthusiast. Those long, dark nights of the soul can get pretty bleak. Having so many bees in my corner has been… what’s the word, even? Nonetheless, I would not be here without you.
Thank you for letting me go, if you’re part of the clan back home. I would never have gotten better there. They didn’t know how to help me, I had to leave to realize my potential.
Thank you for everything. All of you. There are so many people who need hand-written notes that I’m very likely to not actually write any due to the overwhelm. But I’m shouting out to you right now, in this blog that gets easily six views a month.
Happy New Year from Waterworth Writes and In The Cloud
Happy New Year, you jerks. May your champagne be bubbly and paper horns noisy and annoying. I’ll be here, clicking the keyboard, trying to figure out why Whataburger is such a big deal and generally feeling my way around in the dark until I find another door.
Oh, and if you need any salty copy written for your company, we’re here to serve. Check out our leaky ship, In The Cloud Copy for more details.
Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really incredible people. Intense, talented, fucking extra terrestrial people, but most of them ebb and flow in and out of my life. That’s how freelancing works, that’s the life.
But a rare few stick around a bit and you start to really like working together, you know? They go from just people you see here and there to someone you consider an actual colleague and friend. When that chemistry works, it turns everything into rocket fuel. They give you the idea that maybe you can be more.
And, hey, I don’t know you, maybe you can be.
Ten Gallon Hats and Mercy Killings
Sometimes, though, you’re going to find yourself on sinking ships that you can’t find a way off of. You may really like that project at first, even, but over time it becomes glaringly obvious that the client or the client of the client doesn’t give two damns about you.
Maybe you even find out that they would actually replace you or your team with someone who would work for less than the almost nothing you’d agreed to years ago because this project was supposed to grow both in scope and dollars as time went by. (Let that demoralizing little apple bob around a bit….)
When those people who set you on fire as a creative still have your back despite it all, you can’t just walk away from them, you know? Those are YOUR people. You’ve chosen each other, for better or worse. And in this industry, worse is almost guaranteed to be a thing that happens often.
Those are the same people who give you the strength and words to pull the plug on that project that’s been eating you up for years. You can’t please everyone, they remind you. You have to live for today because tomorrow isn’t promised. But the loyalty of a few good friends and contemporaries, well, that’s a big deal.
Loyalty. That’s just… everything.
Moving From Lone Wolf to Freelancing Team Spirit
I work with a team that I adore. I also work on a few projects with a few lovely and wonderful people that I respect deeply. When I started in this business, though, I started out on my own. I didn’t really know anyone and I was like, “I don’t need nobody.” Which, let’s face it, isn’t true. Or it is if you work out the double negative there.
Anyway, the point here is that being a Lone Wolf can be ok for a while, but if you really want to make it in the changing climate that is freelance writing, someone needs to be watching your back and you need to be doing the same for them. Just because it’s highly competitive doesn’t mean that you have to turn other writers into the enemy or be an asshole. Not to other writers, anyway.
The truth is that I have found much more success thinking of myself as part of a team or a partnership than I ever did alone. That being said, I’m going to tell you how to find that same sort A-Team of writing as I have.
Remember: There’s nothing as important as loyalty when the odds are stacked against you as hard as they are in this writing life.
Finding Your Creative Posse
We’ve discussed the power of networking at least once, I know. Maybe a few times. But we never really discussed the longer-term implications of that, so that’s where we’re going right now. How do you find and form a creative posse? Like this.
1 Hang out with other writers online. Check Facebook, LinkedIn, fucking Reddit if that’s your thing, there are bound to be professional writing groups. A lot of them are shit, so keep that in mind as you plunge in. Many are supposed to be for the writing industry and turn out to just be a lot of people who want to “wait on their muse” to do their fucking job and beg everyone for work. If you see that, just block all those fuckers. Or leave. You could just leave.
2. Cultivate relationships with your clients. Believe it or not, your clients are people, too. Sure, they’re kind of the boss, but also they’re kind of a creative collaborator. If you consistently meet or exceed their expectations, then after several months maybe you can do something nice for them. Like, maybe it’s Boss’ Day (that’s still a thing, right?) and you start out delicate by sending an eCard. Or maybe Facebook tells you it’s their birthday, snag a $10 Starbucks gift card for them. Who doesn’t like Starbucks? Shoosh.
3. Meet creatives in your own town. I understand there are still Meetups and other sorts of, you know… social things out there. I don’t participate because I’m essentially just a head in a jar. But I hear things. Go grab a cup of coffee and hang out with some people in your city that do what you do.
4. Attend a writing conference. I mean, I haven’t yet, but it’s on my list. After all, those guys paid to be there, so they’re at least a little serious. They’re not going to show up on a first date with their unpublished manuscript asking you for notes. Instead, they’ll try to impress you with their most recent article in Tiger Beat or something.
5. Help others. Your next door neighbor’s kid just graduated from college with a technical writing degree and is having a hard time getting work? Hey, this is where you offer to take said kid under your umbrella and help them get started. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, that’s a friend who absolutely knows you inside and out.
I can hear you now: Sure, it’s all well and good to make friends and be a social butterfly, but I’m in this for the money. Oh, you special little unicorn, I hear you. I smell your precious farts.
I haven’t been in this business for 23 years for the kicks. Well, I like the kicks, but I also really like the fat stacks of cash. Like totally in my top three.
When you make friends in this world, you expand your network, you rub up against new possibilities, you learn things you’d never think to learn and, you selfish asshole, you get to experience that thing about rising tides and boats. It’s a beautiful thing. And one that will ensure you’re stocked up on Ramen and beans and rice for life.
You don’t get ahead as a creative by stepping on others or using them to make a buck. You get ahead in this writing life by sharing, networking and writing until your fingers bleed.
This message is for all of you: choose your friends wisely and your best creative team will follow. This job isn’t a fucking contest. It’s not a fucking sideshow. It’s not a goddamn charity. But it is hard, you will work long hours, and sometimes things will go to shit completely.
And in those moments, if you’re very lucky, your team will be there to help you reset your compass and guide you back to sanity.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is an ongoing struggle for so many of us in this here writing life. You can be on a winning streak, with so many happy clients and then one comment will send you spinning out of control.
I’m the worst. No one deserves to have me inflicted upon them. I knew eventually they’d figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing.The Doubting Man echos nad amplifies these sentiments because it’s his duty to ensure that you don’t reach your potential. He’s a manifestation of Imposter Syndrome, with one solitary focus: to make you quit.
Never Give Up, Never Surrender
It’s one thing to have a panic attack when you get an unmerciful edit sent your way and quite another to slip into a sneaky self-hate spiral that destroys everything else around you. I think most writers panic a little when they get any sort of comments. I can’t blame them, you put yourself into those words, so a criticism of them feels a bit like a criticism of the writer on a personal level.
Let me make this clear: That’s not actually what’s happening.
In fact, many of these kinds of comments are made to help you improve your copy on the next go, or to educate you about something the client really wants you to stress. Comments and constructive criticism are tools you can use to build your work up.
They make you better.
Even if they feel awful.
Never give up, hold on to yourself as the overwhelm sets in. Let the fear pour over you like so much water off a duck. Remind yourself that you are enough. Tell yourself that surrender isn’t an option. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Remember your worth and then add sales tax.
Five Things That Are Worse Than Extensive Edits
Sometimes it also helps me to reframe the situation. So a client sent a document over with a lot of suggestions. So what? It’s not the end of the world, you knew this was going to happen. It’s part of the process. Let’s pick out five things that are much worse than a lot of red pen.
#1. Oranges that are hard to peel.
Look. It’s the most important meal of the day and you should be eating more fruit. But when them bastards won’t shed their skin, it’s just… it’s like the universe, or at least the part that belongs to Citrus, is against you. No breakfast oranges, no early morning vitamin C boost.
#2. Overly catchy songs that you despise.
I’m never gonna Rickroll you, but I know when I get a song stuck in my head that’s mortifying to admit to, there’s no good way out. Recently, I managed to get Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass stuck in my husband’s head. This is because of Just Dance 2018. It has a bee dance set to this song and I do it a lot. Because I’m all about that bass, that bass — no treble.
#3. Running out of toner.
I have one stinking set of mailers left to send out and BAM. It happens every time. I run out of black or blue or yellow or magenta toner. Amazon’s got lots of cheap(ish) toners, but they’re slow. UGH. Cannot bear the wait for new toners, cannot bear the cost of buying them in person. It’s a rough call.
#4. Decluttering my office.
Dude, you should see this fucking mess.
#5. Running out of desk candy.
It’s that important. Running out of sugar at my desk is career suicide. That’s why I keep a backup bag of candy in the set of plastic drawers behind me.
Edits Happen, They’re a New Beginning
We’re none perfect, no matter how much we may want to believe we are. Our work is highly subjective, which is why it’s sometimes difficult for clients and writers to communicate effectively enough. If only we could do a Vulcan mind meld, we’d not need to mess with edits because we’d have the full picture of what the client wants the very first time.
And it’s not the client’s fault. And it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of this language we have. This inefficient, confusing, maze-like shitty language. English is cobbled together from spare parts, making mastering it one of the greatest challenges you may ever face in your life.
English is awful. I should go back to writing that series. Because it is.
Take your pen into battle with The Doubting Man. Stab that bastard in the eye.
Look, I got the keywords in. Ok? I thought you’d be happy about that.
This isn’t about copywriting, or — at least — it isn’t directly. This is one of those rare pieces when I speak plainly about my life because I think it might help you, too.
Anyone who knows me is probably aware that a couple of months ago I shaved my head. I mean, not to the skin, but the best you can get with a beard trimmer. It’s some kind of scorched Earth approach, anyway.
And while I never thought of myself as the kind of person who cared about that sort of thing too much, I’ve noticed a big difference in the way I’ve been acting toward others and how they act toward me. And that’s what this blog is all about.
So, read on or bounce away. You’ll get what you get from it, I guess.
Chapter 1: The Backstory
The day I decided to shave my head I had had it. I was fucking done. I spent hundreds of dollars a month trying to protect it, trying to heal it (even though I know it’s dead), trying to keep it from abandoning me, but the longer the fight went, the bigger the clumps of hair I was pulling out of my head daily got.
I mean, one was the size of a small mouse.
That was the day I was done.
I had been hiding, trying to keep anyone from noticing that my hair was thinning visibly, trying to avoid having to answer any questions about it. I asked my doctor, I asked my friends, I asked the people I trusted to not judge me. My meds were the culprit, but overall, I was doing better than I had in years, maybe a decade even.
They. Were. Not. Optional.
My RA is still not controlled the greatest. My Parkinson’s flares up from the exercise I do to keep my joints from screaming. It’s all a delicate balance that makes me tired just thinking about it. But for now, it is in balance, and I only had to give up my hair.
That Cancer Look…
I felt ok about my shearing decision in the moment (it wasn’t a decision I made that day, I had been pondering it for months). I felt ok about it afterward, for about three days. And that was when I got that cancer look for the first time. I was horrified and embarrassed. This woman thought I had cancer.
Later, at the market, I got asked about my chemo regimen. I bought some ill-fitting hats and then couldn’t stand wearing them. I went back to the grocery store weeks later and another person cornered me at the check-out wanting to talk about my cancer treatment.
I told all of these people that it was a side-effect of my RA drugs. I’m not a complete dick. But I also was apologizing for something I shouldn’t be sorry about.
I was sorry for being sick and having to take drugs that make my hair fall out and thus, giving the wrong impression. I was sorry because of how *my* illness was affecting these strangers who were jumping to conclusions.
It took me until just now to realize that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been apologizing for doing what I have to do. And I think — no, I know — that this is the last fucking thing near what a proud, angry, (potentially sugar buzzed) celebrated and successful writer does.
Or anybody with any fucking self-worth.
Today, I changed it. It’s Sunday, September 30. And today, things are different and I also have a lesson to share out of it.
Bold Marketing is Your Bald Head
When you boldly brand you company, or you run a clever and risky marketing effort, you’re really putting yourself out there. When you ask for referrals, you risk that your audience will say no. In fact, the chances are better that they will say no than that they’ll say yes simply because it’s easier for people to do nothing than something. We’re awful like that.
But we also try really hard to get along sometimes. Since I shaved my head, I’ve been trying WAY TOO HARD TO GET ALONG.
For example, I wrote a blog a few weeks ago for my marketing company, In the Cloud, about how my company was unfortunately branded what with the serious hurricanes and whatnot pounding the Carolinas at the time.
I FUCKING APOLOGIZED FOR MY BRANDING EVEN THOUGH THE HURRICANES IN QUESTION WEREN’T A PR STUNT.
That’s not how you do branding. You do branding from a place of strength. Your branding may be done in a moment of sheer adrenaline, like the time you took that razor to your scalp and watched as your ringlets fell into the sink, but it has to be maintained like the twice a week shave in the shower that ends up with a neat pile that looks like you’ve pulled a bit of lint off your sweater.
Your branding is you. And it’s your people. And it’s your bald fucking head, because it’s impossible to tear away from your company once you’ve set it in motion. And In The Cloud being branded with weather themes is fucking brilliant, and you can all go fuck yourselves if you don’t like it.
My Plan Going Forward
My bald head is my own fucking business. My company, its logo, its branding, its clients, its employees, all of that bullshit is my own fucking business (except where the IRS gets to be involved).
I am not going to apologize for my bald head.
I am not going to apologize for In The Cloud.
I was wrong to do it for even a moment. Hell, I was wrong to think I was the one with the problem.
Copywriter, there are always going to be people who think their offense is your fault and therefore your problem. And I say fuck that. If you’re going about your own business and someone else feels the need to tell you that you’re wrong, you show them that middle finger and walk the fuck away. You don’t have time for that shit.
And I don’t, either.
When I was in the newspaper business, I got a really nasty response to an Op-Ed way back in the Dark Ages. I was really upset. Visibly. My editor handed me this little pebble at the time and I’ve held on to and rubbed the shit out of it like my little worry stone for decades. “If they’re not complaining, they’re not reading.”
And fuck all if that’s not the case, my friends.
I included karoshi in the title, so I guess I’ll wrap it up with this thought: If your bald head is caused by stress and overwork, karoshi could be coming for you.
If your bald head is caused by RA drugs and/or other systemic issues, you’re a glorious motherfucker, so don’t sweat it. Flaunt that shit. Buy fancy hats.
If your bald head is caused by cancer, that’s terrible and I hope you go into remission soon. I don’t have cancer, though, never claimed I did (even for free dessert) and I’m not sorry I shaved my head because your hard is different from mine.
When you’re freelancing, it often feels like you’re either running around like mad trying to get work or you’re trying to keep yourself buckled into the hot seat writing all the work you managed to find. The ebb and flow is pretty rough on a person, there’s no doubt. Burnout is for real and can completely ruin lives.
There’s another danger that we as a culture fail to address. Maybe this is because “Protestant Work Ethic” or maybe we just don’t like to talk about things that are unpleasant, but we’re talking about this today.
We’ve visited the concept of work/life balance when you’re freelancing more than once, but that was before I knew that karoshi was a thing. I read the linked article above and I see myself in a lot of it. Of course, it’s not corporate culture forcing me to work all the time, it’s trying to stay ahead of the bills and the ever growing pile of work.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that so many businesses trust me with their words. That they want *MY* voice to be the one that represents them is truly humbling. But I also feel like I could, at any given moment, start dancing on that line between overwork and karoshi.
Let’s look at the cases highlighted in the The Guardian:
Miwa Sado, 31. Death by heart failure. In the month leading up to her death, she logged 159 overtime hours and only took off two days. Breaking that down, she worked four 80-hour weeks, with only two days to recuperate.
Matsuri Takahashi, 24. Death by suicide. For months before her death, Matsuri regularly put in 100 or more hours of overtime. She tried to vent some of the stress from it by posting on social media in the weeks before her death. Her messages got dark weeks before her death, saying things like “I want to die” and “I’m physically and mentally shattered.”
And though Japan is working on changing the circumstances that cause karoshi, this will remain a problem among freelancers. Freelancers aren’t driven by corporate culture because it’s really a corporate culture of one (or maybe a few if you’re part of a team), we’re driven by a mix of fear, greed and desire.
The Three Deadly Sins of Freelancing
If you want to get to the bottom of your overwork problem, there’s almost always a root in at least one of the three deadly sins of freelancing. Trust me on this. Fear, Greed and Desire are great until they aren’t. They’re awesome until you approach karoshi.
Sin The First: Fear. No matter where you are in your freelancing career, Fear will still be a driving force. You remember the lean times and fuck all if you’re gonna go back to living on Ramen and mushrooms from your bath mat. Fear can be used for motivation and often is, but when it turns into a sneaky anxiety spiral, you’ll trip your fight or flight reaction. Do you freeze? Do you go like mad and act like a person possessed? DO YOU GIVE YOURSELF A HEART ATTACK? Karoshi.
Sin The Second: Greed. I will be the first person to tell you that greed is one of my strongest motivator. Oh man, so much. I want to not only take in more work year over year, but to spend more money year over year. We can’t all be perfect. White chocolate Twix don’t grow on trees, you know. Greed will getcha, though. Every so often you’ll have several of your projects converge and the result is that you wish you were dead. It’s juggling client requests without making excuses for not being done on time. It’s when you can’t go on, but you must. That’s karoshi waiting to happen right there.
Sin The Third: Desire. Desire and greed might sound like the same thing, but they’re not, ok? Desire is more about accomplishing things, where greed is about amounting riches and objects. For me, Desire is really about a longing for approval. Clients like what I write, I get that little buzz. Clients don’t like my work and I turn into a quivering pile of snot. No joke. I desire your approval, so please approve of me. Because freelancing is so much a hamster wheel, long time clients often won’t comment on content because it meets their expectations, which just makes people like me run harder on that little wheel to make them love us again. Karoshi, my friends.
If you find yourself practicing one or more of these Deadly Sins, you have time to change. You can change your trajectory, but it all starts by recognizing what’s up.
Elvis Won’t Be the Only One Who Died on His Throne
I used to think the worst place to be found dead would be perched on the toilet, but nowadays, I think I’d rather be found dead there than at my desk.
First, my desk is always severely cluttered, so God knows if you could even get me out of the house without tangling in a shitload of cords. Secondly, dying in the bathroom means that I at least managed to get up and walk around a bit.
Karoshi. It’s for real. It’s killing writers, don’t let it get you. I like you. You read my ish and don’t complain when I use phrases like “hairy box turtle whore” and “moist jelly bean.”