My Freelance River Dance

Working as a full-time freelance writer is a negotiation between effort and luck.

Throughout the years, I’ve wondered if our neighbors think my husband and I are running a scam out of our house, since it’s clear that neither of us leaves for work in the morning. We go for runs, head to the gym, and work in the yard instead. Do they think we sell figurines on eBay? That we’re running an illicit business on the dark web? That we’re heirs to some small fortune and don’t have to work?

Illustration by Julia Yellow

The truth is we are running a bit of a scam. Seventeen years ago, I found the loophole to avoid working for someone else and became a full-time freelance writer. Then I pulled my husband in as an accomplice, and he became a stay-at-home dad. A few years ago, he started doing some part-time work from home—so technically he has an employer, but it’s a bit loosey-goosey. As for me, I am all on my own, working each day in my dream home office we added a few years ago.

The result of this independent lifestyle is that we’re home most of the time. Many of the typical woes that befall young families, where both parents are juggling tough work schedules, do not befall us. Cable guy needs to come between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.? We’re here. Package needs to be signed for? Yep, we’re here. Kids have early release from school? Sigh, but we’re here. That life is a bit more convenient and that I’ve made a living as a freelance writer when I see others struggling in the gig economy seems charmed to the point of being unfair.

It isn’t always charmed though. Summer is a particular kind of terrible. Really, any time the kids are here and I’m trying to work—even if I’m not the one responsible for them—is extremely distracting. Their mere presence makes “flow” impossible. And my husband is strikingly loud in all he does, whether it’s sneezing, walking down the steps, or shouting “Think!” when he’s trying to remember something. We have seasons where our arrangement is easy and seasons where it’s a challenge. Still, it works, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why it works.

I certainly followed no formula in building this freestyle work life. At best, I have an unformula, which is to say I have a collection of random things that worked for one person, one time. It isn’t proven by anyone but me, and it’s recommended by no one. Nonetheless, here it is.

Be a river. In my family, everyone gets a gesture that summarizes them. For example, we use a “swoop in” gesture for my sister Laura, because she likes to swoop in and solve problems. My sister Nancy gets a gesture we roughly call “assigning everything to a box,” because she has a “this goes here and this goes there and that’s how it is” vibe. My gesture is “meandering river,” because, well, that’s what I am. A river follows its own path but doesn’t make a big fuss about it, the way oceans do with their crashing waves and angry hurricanes.

A river plays the long game, quietly carving the Grand Canyon while everyone is looking somewhere else. It doesn’t need the moon to pull its tides. It just goes where it goes. If there is one key thing I know about working for yourself at home, it’s this: You can’t be a person who waits for instructions. River qualities are essential.

Think differently about risk. I supported myself first, and then I started supporting our family in 2008, when my husband quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad after our first child was born (our kids are now 11 and 9). We’ve had prosperous years and lean years, including the near-collapse of my business in 2010 when the magazine industry was imploding. I’ll never forget trying to hide the sound of my sobs in January 2011 when I called my financial guy to pull money out of our backup-backup savings account. I’ve had to invest heavily in relationships, grit my teeth through projects, meet insane deadlines, and reinvent myself as a writer multiple times. But I could never have imagined putting any of it in someone else’s hands.

People will often say to me something about how risky it seems to support a family by being a freelancer. I always reply that I was laid off from the only two “real” jobs I had. So to me, it seems far less risky to work for myself than to work for someone else.

People tend to see the expected path as less risky, which is odd because it isn’t. In fact, I’m actually not much of a risk taker. Our financial investments are rather conservative, I’m probably over-insured, and I think gambling is a complete waste of money. Being in charge of my own work—and getting to charge what I want for it—seems the least risky option.

Find a weirdo to hitch yourself to. If you’re going to attach yourself romantically to someone for the long haul, pick a person who is generally uninterested in how most people do relationships and run households. I was raised with a very traditional division of labor, so I’m not sure I knew to look for an outlier, and it was a stroke of luck that I found one. I’ve never figured out the right way to talk about the arrangement my husband and I have—how we reversed roles, how he changed far more diapers than I ever did and knows where everything is in Kroger, how I essentially get to act like a man in many ways, how our different role choices have illuminated a gender and labor structure that’s supposed to stay hidden—without either (a) coming off as smug and entitled or (b) making the mistake of using my personal experience to think I’ve solved something.

I mention that we built a different household structure only because it’s an absolute must for our lifestyle. If you’re going to have an arrangement where everyone is home, the home can’t be place of resentment about who is and isn’t scrubbing the toilet. (To be clear, my husband and I have had plenty of resentment of each other, just not for household things.)

Own up to your luck. When I announced that I was going to become a full-time freelance writer, my sister Laura (the swooper) started putting me in touch with a series of people. One of them was Pat Crowley, a local journalist who knew his way around the freelance world. He met with me and gave me about six solid story ideas—things he didn’t have time to pursue because he’d moved on—and a contact at a local publication. I pitched them all, and the editor assigned them all.

That was basically the beginning of my identity as a freelance writer. I’d been doing some freelancing on the side in the two years before I went full-time, but I didn’t understand until I met Crowley how a person had to be a curiosity machine to make it as a freelancer, always looking and always pitching. It was luck that my sister knew him, luck that he agreed to meet with me, and luck that I learned the most important lesson on day one instead of toiling cluelessly for years.

A few years later, I pitched a piece about a gorgeous local garden to Better Homes and Gardens. I randomly chose an editor off the masthead, Elvin McDonald, and used the e-mail formula I knew for Meredith Corporation. Not only did it find him, he happened to be looking for gardens from Cincinnati right that minute. McDonald was something like a grand duke at the magazine (which I didn’t know at the time), but he took a chance on a total unknown writer and assigned me that story. Within a year, he’d introduced me to a bunch of other editors. A few years later, he hosted a dinner party for me when I traveled to Des Moines. He has since retired, but I was able to take the next giant step in my career because our paths crossed at that exact moment, when he was in the mood to hear from a newbie and I had something of actual value to offer.

I recently listened to Hasan Minhaj, comedian and creator of the Netflix show Patriot Act, on Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert. Minhaj talks about how, when it comes to success, we tend to get the percentage wrong about what’s of our own making and what are forces of luck and timing. We ascribe like 90 percent to effort and 10 percent to unknown forces, but he thinks it’s closer to the opposite. He traces his own key moments of random favor—the first of which was that his mother figured out how to bring the family to the U.S., and specifically that they moved to Davis, California. He talks about his cousins back in India, who he says work harder and are better looking than him but have nothing in their favor to make a Netflix show attainable.

I don’t believe our fate is determined for us as part of a grand plan, but I do think we have a large blind spot around how we become successful. Whatever that silent and random aid is—the great unconscious, the multiverse of possibilities, the under-structure of chance—I know that I’ve drawn from its well at so many key points to make this scam stay afloat.

I also know that there’s another woman out there who is a river, who thinks about risk the way I do, and who found herself an amazing weirdo but who won’t be able to make the scam happen—not because of a lack of ability or perseverance but because a few things don’t line up quite right. This is the real flaw in my unformula, the deepest point of my blind spot, and though I’m a good writer, I cannot write it away.

Mostly, we’re here to sign for packages on a random Wednesday at 10 a.m. by the grace of things I cannot know.

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