Freelance. This past week, I said this word in one of my college classes, and students had never heard it. They were asking about my “other job” as a writer, and I told them I worked as a freelance writer. “A what kind of writer?” they asked.
Freelance. I suspect a lot of people work freelance. They run their own schedules, generate their own work, and cobble together a career and an income. In a way, I’m a freelance professor, I told my students. I’m an adjunct and can take or leave the classes I’m offered as my schedule and whim permit. Every class is taught on a contractual basis. I get paid by the credit hour. Freelance teaching, I think I could call it.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 1982. It's hard to think more than thirty years have passed since I took the leap into self-employment as a writer. I remember visiting the local library in Deltona, Florida where I lived when I launched my writing career. There was a huge collection of books in the nonfiction section of the library devoted exclusively to freelance writing. There were probably 150 books on the subject. I was astonished and asked the librarian about them. "It's a popular career here," she said. Deltona was largely a retirement community in those days, and lots of folks try their hand at writing when they retire.
I checked out the books on freelance writing eight at a time—the limit per subject per checkout. I read them cover to cover, took notes, and tried to apply the advice they gave. It worked. I was published within the year. The first thing I sold was an article on lighthouses to The Compass, the magazine of Mobil Oil Company. It’s out of circulation now—a victim of budget squeezing and the Internet—but it was a classy publication and a wonderful career starter for me. I eventually sold about twenty articles to it.
Hundreds of articles and eighteen books later, I’m still happily freelancing. I’ve done a little freelance editing and freelance exhibit design and scriptwriting too. I think I'll always be a freelance worker. I did a stint as a public school teacher for a few years, but I like freelance work better, including the freelance teaching I now do at a community college. Freelancing allows me to take contracts and assignments based on what I know I do best.
Talking with my students reminded me of the origin of the word freelance. It goes back to medieval days when rich landowners had small armies to protect their castles and lands. Sometimes, those wealthy dukes and barons, even princes and kings, needed more soldiers to fight for them. The mercenaries they hired—paid for their services--called themselves freelancers, because anyone was free to hire their lances; they fought for pay. I think it’s rather fascinating that the word survives today to describe anyone working for himself or herself. I suppose "taking a stab at" various kinds of work is a good metaphor for the freelance life. (Confession: I secretly wish I had a lance hanging on my office wall!)
National Freelance Day is November 21st. Perhaps I should wait to post this, until November. But it’s too much on my mind to wait, too interesting. It made for a teachable moment in class this week. I'll be sure to celebrate in November.
Freelance writing, freelance teaching, freelance editing, freelance scriptwriting…It’s a good life!