A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Michelle Goodman's My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire

In the dead of winter, 2009, a freelance copywriter-friend of mine, MK, called me up and jovially announced "I want to hire you."  I was a bit taken aback.  No one had ever shoved work at me before and so Murphy's Law started bouncing around in my head.  Besides, we'd worked together in a non-professional capacity a few weeks earlier doing a theatre project for the ManiACTs and I was certain he hadn't forgotten how I misspelled the troupe's name in the playbill ("ManiACTs" not "ManiACTS" ­– Get it?) and there had to be a Catch.  Turns out there wasn't and we've been working together, off and on, ever since.

It never occurred to me that I was freelancing until I applied to the bookstore where I work now and my manager mentioned, "So, you've been moonlighting?"  The bookstore was part of my Plan.  I would work there until I attained the right State of Mind (ie disgust with the Real World) and then go to grad school.  Well, this is the dead season and I have a long time to wait, so I decided to explore other means of self-fulfillment when, conveniently, Mark (darling angel that he is) recommended this book to me.

Before I read it, I actually picked up Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer first and so that will color my review.   Also, a Disclaimer: I have yet to begin a freelance career and I can count the number of jobs I've done on one hand.  With any luck, I'll be able to come back to this in a few years with a Voice of Experience, but for now I'm going to have to go with gut instinct and my thoughts on the quality of writing.

First, if you're better at picking up subtleties than I am, you've probably figured out that this book's primary audience is women.  It took me until I saw the Publisher's Note on the last printed page, advertising "Selected titles from Seal Press – For more than thirty years, Seal Press has published groundbreaking books.  By Women.  For Women."  Well, that explains some of the inclusive statements that threw me off ("We, as women…"), but I think this is also testament to Goodman's skill as a considerate writer.  An idiot-man, like myself, can read this book and, besides the occasional head-scratching, feel welcome.

And that deserves commendation.  I enjoyed reading this book.  Yes, I'm naturally skeptical of self-help books – which is ironic, since that's primarily what I review here… so, hopefully that will make me a better critic – and so my critical distance is that much more exaggerated, but I still had fun.  I compare this favorably with Bowerman's book – which I will someday review – because Goodman is a writer who fell into marketing and Bowerman is a marketer who fell into writing.  Essentially, when I was reading The Well-Fed Writer I kept thinking, "That was a good pitch.  I'm on to you." but when I read My So-Called Freelance Life I found myself thinking, "That was very intriguing, well-articulated advice.  I should… oh, you're good."

In summary of the writing itself, at the very least you won't feel like you've wasted your time reading this book.  Goodman is a very good writer.  There are other, more practical aspects of the book that I will now address, though I am less Qualified to critique them.  In the near future, I hope to put them into practice and see how her advice holds up in the Real World.  For now, it shouldn't hurt to explore the ideas and give first impressions.

The book is divided into three parts which are subdivided into chapters and further divided into 2-3 paragraph snippets addressing ultra-specific topics.  It's a clever way to write a book and especially appealing to those of us with frail attention spans and a love of the Almighty Hyperlink.  This is, I assume, the usual way to write a self-help book, but it's new to me.  The first chapter is fluff, essentially.  She lays out a basic argument for why one Can and Should go freelance if one has the Desire to do so.  Don't get me wrong, she gives a fine pep talk.  But, if you're hoping for solid, applicable advice you won't find it in the first bit.  Chapter Two, "Forget Fuzzy Math," is an incredibly relevant set of instructions on how one should go about evaluating one's finances.  The following chapter discusses the merits of working at home against the benefits of renting an office which, while probably good to consider for reasons of mental health, does not seem immediately useful to beginners.

Actually, this "Relevant, Food-for-thought, Relevant, Fluff" pattern continues through the book.  Some chapters go in-depth discussing specific issues in freelance Living – like how not to go crazy when you never leave the house – while others explain how and where to seek legal and financial advice, complete with several general references.  It's a clever tactic.  She is able to inundate you with relatively boring facts about red tape and everyday obstacles while entertaining you with anecdotes about weird shit a freelancer will encounter.

The second and third parts of the book cover, basically, Business Etiquette.  As a recent English grad who has never had a salaried job and precious little experience with Corporate America, I found these chapters to be quite enlightening.  Little Things like "Thank You" notes appear to go a long way.  Details such as timing and how to approach clients are beyond the scope of my education (institutional or otherwise) and Goodman walked me through it with good humored patience.

I'm reluctant to go much farther with this review since, again, a book like this has to be tested, not just critiqued.  There are a few points, though, to Goodman's credit, that I should say.  First, I was just toying with the idea of going freelance before I read this book and now I'm taking timid but serious steps to achieve the pipe dream.  Second, I feel that she informed me well enough and gave me enough references and resources to do just that.  All the questions she left me with do not seem as unanswerable as they once were.  Last, I don't feel like I'll be successful because I read this book, but I do have a feeling that I now have a fighting chance.  So she brainwashed me pretty well.

In conclusion, if nothing else, it's a damn good self-help book since I'm taking the advice and considering buying it rather than just checking it out from the library.

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