Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Freelance Ne'er-do-well

It's never too late.

I’ve been a paid writer for 33 years. But I'm on my third attempt at becoming a novelist. It might be working this time.

When you’re the child of Depression-era New Englanders, willfully leaving the paid workforce is the eighth deadly sin. I feel even uneasier about this because of how hard it was to land my first writing job in 1974, the early feminist era. (For example, an advertising executive told me in a job interview back then that the best way to become a copywriter was to start as a secretary. “Yeah,” said Idiot Girl. “I noticed all the male secretaries on my way in.” End of interview.)

That’s why, every time I quit a perfectly good writing job for no good reason, I always tell everyone I’m “going freelance.” This sounds much more dashing and grown-up than the truth: “I’m going to sit and stare at a keyboard, and after an hour or two of that I’m going to eat cookies. Then I’ll take a nap. After several months, I’ll panic and look for paying work.”

The two times before this one, when I was in my 30s, I panicked almost immediately. Both times I actually did end up freelancing. But instead of fantasy freelancing — writing for impressive national magazines while turning out fiction on the side—the first time I wrote employee newsletters for corporations (by my low standards, fairly lucrative) and the second time I wrote for tiny local newspapers in Maine (not lucrative by anyone’s standards, but a real hoot).

The second attempt involved moving to Downeast Maine just when hippies and yippies (my generation) had been replaced in the popular imagination by “young urban professionals,” known as yuppies. My partner, Rob, and I decided we were orfans—“older, rural freelance ne’er-do-wells.” One of my new friends in Maine made us T-shirts saying that, so we felt like a trend.

In 1984, just after Rob and I moved to Maine and just before I panicked, I managed to write a dreadful, 60-page kids' fantasy called Medford and the Goatman. Thrilled to have actually finished something, I “copyrighted” it by mailing it to myself—the local postmaster cheerfully stamping the date all over the envelope—then stuck it in a desk drawer and forgot about it.

(Sociology note: The postmaster was a woman. There’s no such thing as a postmistress, at least not in Maine. They’re called postmasters, male or female. Same with selectmen. One time, a rogue typesetter at my tiny local newspaper took it upon himself to change “selectman” to “selectwoman” where applicable, ignoring the stated preferences of the town officials themselves. The community thought we were idiots—well, they already knew that, but this confirmed it. The typesetter got fired.)

I ended up working full time as managing editor for one of the tiny local newspapers, and later as arts editor for the much larger county weekly. I was perfectly content, without even a nudge of a thought about that envelope in the desk drawer. Then, out of the blue, in the spring of 2003 I decided to take a dialogue workshop offered by Cynthia Thayer, a novelist who lives in the same county I do. I had a great time, and was shocked to find that I wasn’t as rusty as I’d expected to be.

Two months later, with no cooperation from my brain, I heard my mouth giving the county newspaper three months’ notice. I was going freelance, I told everyone. And I would write a kids’ book.

Imagine my surprise when I actually did write a book, with characters and a plot and everything. It was a brand new version of Medford and the Goatman, four times as long and at least twice as readable.

Even more shocking, local summer residents Genie and Bill Henderson liked the book (he’s the founder of the Pushcart Prize and they’re both published authors) and sent it to Kate Schafer, a colleague of Bill’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit. Kate took me on, and eventually sold Medford and the Goatman to the patient and inspired Kathy Dawson at Harcourt.

Three re-writes later, Medford is called The Unnameables and scheduled for publication October 1, targeted for ages 10 and older. I’ve written another, smaller book for younger kids, which is seasoning in a drawer at the moment, and am about a chapter away from finishing the rough draft of a third book for the same age group as The Unnameables.

I can’t believe I keep finishing books. I can’t believe one of them is getting published. No T-shirt could capture this experience.

I never felt younger. In fact, I have a zit forming.

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