On a Writer’s Responsibility: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 9 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-8 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Whatever deadlines you’re given, respect them…authors are notorious for missing their deadlines…The worst thing you can do is let a deadline pass by in complete silence or avoid contact with your editor.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 129)

Dear Reader,

It. Is. Confession. Time. I have never, ever told this story in public, and I have never actually even told it out loud, I don’t think. It is the most mortifying thing to ever happen to me, and I did it to myself. I have zero excuses for it, but I lived to tell the tale so you don’t ever–ever–do something this stupid, this disrespectful, to anyone else.(Also, I should say that Friedman is specifically talking about working with book editors; this post is about working with a magazine editor, but it still applies.)*

It was 1999. I was 25. It was my first foray into freelancing, both writing and editing, and I had landed an absolute dream: a part-time editing job with a very well-respected trade publication, in a field I really cared about. The hourly rate was good, the hours were 20 hours a week, exactly what a young freelance writer needed to get her legs under her, and I had a lovely office to go to, with a cohort of people whose faces I still remember today.

I did a good enough job that when my contract ended, and the in-house editing team needed someone else to continue editing a specific section for the publication, they asked me. I said yes. I left the office feeling pretty good about myself.

And then the wheels fell off the goddamn wagon. I can’t really remember what my life circumstances were. I’m sure they were what any 20-something-living-in-New-York’s were: random parties accompanied by random hookups, probably a breakup somewhere in there, parental units 3,000 miles away wanting to know what the frick this “freelancing” was anyway, and where was the husband that would save me from my peripatetic “career,” whatever. I am sure I felt “overwhelmed” and like I warranted some “self care.”**

Whatever the hell it was, I then proceeded to do this:

I blew it off.

But Yi Shun, you say, gently, because I maybe look like I am about to throw up recounting this thing to you, Yi Shun, what do you mean you blew it off?

I mean exactly that. I full-on ghosted the assignment, ignored the deadline, did half the work, whatever.

It was awful. Every time I walked in from whatever it was I was doing (not editing, obviously), I avoided looking my answering machine in its little red blinking eye. I knew it would be my editor, with his gentle voice, asking to speak to me. And I can still picture him to this day: gentle voice, sad, downward-at-the-corners eyes, deeply understanding. If I had had my head screwed on straight, I’d have gone into the office, talked to him, told him I was unfit for the gig and to hire someone else.

If I could go back, I’d tell 25-year-old me this.

To this day, every time I see his last name (it’s not an uncommon one), I flinch a little.

I can’t remember exactly how we ended the relationship. I’m sure it ended badly for me. I don’t remember how I felt. I don’t remember if I actually completed the assignment, no matter how late it was.

Worse, although I never made this particular mistake again, I made a mistake similar to it later: I took an assignment I knew I wasn’t ready to take. That ended badly, too.

Since then, though, I haven’t done anything like either of these two circumstances. I’ve worked hard to overcome that memory of myself, although the experience of writing this has proven I’m not quite over it. The experience has also shaped who I am. If anything, I’m an overcommunicator now: if a thing *smells* like it’s going to be late, even, I ping my editor. And I expect the same of both my clients and the people I manage: if it *looks* like it’s going to be late/go off the rails, I want you to tell me.

This experience has also likely shaped me in a positive fashion, although I wish I’d learned this lesson in a way that didn’t come at the expense of someone else. The lesson I learned is this: Whatever it is, it is fixable. Whatever it is, we can make it work. Whatever it is, it will be okay.

I also learned this: If you feel like you can’t do something, it’s okay to pass it on to someone else. Spread the love. I do this a lot now, too.

I guess I’m okay, in the end. I do still wonder, every once in a while, what my career would look like now if I had done the right thing back then. But you could say that of a lot of choices I made in that early part of my working life. I think immaturity had something to do with it. But I’m glad I’m here to tell you about it. I’m glad that I can share this story with you now. I’m glad you are there to read my work, even though I was young and stupid and dangerous.

We’re almost at the end of this post. It has been the hardest 1000 words for me to write in a very long time. I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve told you. I see my editor at this trade publication is still working in this industry, and when I’m done here I may write to him and point him to this post and tell him how sorry I am, and how glad I am that he is doing the work he does now. He was nice. When someone does something stupid to make me angry and I have to remind myself to be nice, I channel this editor. And that will kick off the list of takeaways I have for you this time:

  1. Be nice. Niceness is underrated. Not everyone will remember you for it, but some people will, and in some cases it will change their lives.
  2. Be prepared to take a hard look at yourself. Whatever work you are being approached to do, be honest about your skillset and your capabilities and time commitments, even if it means losing the assignment.
  3. Be ready to pass the work onto someone else if you can’t complete it. Build a bank of people you trust whom you’re ready to pass the work onto. Offer your managers/editors a chance to get to know another great editor or writer.
  4. If you have to push back a deadline, communicate that. Give your editor plenty of time to act on this new deadline.
  5. Bonus lifeskill: Be considerate. I know, this sounds like People 101, but remember that every action you take is likely going to affect someone else. I don’t even want to know what knock-on effect my f*ckwittery had. I know it probably made some people’s lives harder.

Okay. That’s it for now. I am going to go open a box of Cheez-Its and inhale it. Thanks for reading. On Friday, come back for a peek into my freelancer’s brain, as we explore part of Friedman’s Chapter 17, “Traditional Freelance Writing.”

*Just to give you an idea of how awful this is, I have taken many breaks between the writing of this post’s title, and completing the post, and it will have been an hour since I wrote this first paragraph. Loathing. I am loathing this task. You want to never feel like this. So don’t do anything even remotely approaching this thing I am about to tell you/have told you about.

**More likely I was just arrogant.

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4 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

4 Responses to On a Writer’s Responsibility: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_
  1. Jamie says:

    You are very generous to share this story. I can imagine how much it sucked to put the words down and relive that moment of mortification and remorse, but I can also imagine how much your retelling and follow-up advice will help other writers … and hopefully keep them from making the same mistake.

    I feel fortunate that I spent years as a project manager before transitioning into my life as a freelance writer. As a PM, I was not only responsible for all my own deadlines and details, I was also in charge of everyone else’s. I had to manage project schedules and staff allocations and budget burn rates and all that. Possibly even more important, I was the Queen of Meeting Notes and Follow-up. This was all in the days before handy project management software platforms like Basecamp and Asana and Trello, so I LIVED in email. My main responsibility was all about constant communication – updates, follow ups, confirmation, next steps, heads up, etc.

    All of this trained me to be overly communicative with my writing clients. I bring my project management skills with me – sending call summaries and meeting notes and detailed plans for next steps and possible road blocks. My clients love it, and it keeps me honest.

    It still sucks when I have to push out a deliverable (as is sometimes the case), but at least I don’t get too hung up on opening my mouth about it. My PM experience taught me that ignoring a problem never makes it go away. In fact, hesitating to deal with it head on usually results in it mutating into a seriously awful monster that is out for blood. Not good. Better to tame that beastie before it gets out of hand. 😉

    • Yi Shun Lai says:

      Jamie,
      YES! That is such a valid point to make. If nothing, curb the beast before it goes completely bat-poop insane and eats everything in your life. And your future. 🙂
      This is part of the reason I love working with writers and managers who have spent time in worlds outside of the creative fields…sometimes I feel our field needs to learn from others.
      Thank you, as always, for reading and for commenting.

  2. Though I haven’t missed deadlines or ignored phone calls, I recognize what you felt: shame. I’ve felt it for other things, and I’ve done the same avoiding, and the years haven’t healed that awful feeling.

    Did you write to him? I wonder if you were able to make amends. I wonder if I’ll be able to do it, too.

    • Yi Shun Lai says:

      I wrote to him, Petrea! I did feel better after writing, although I was on pins and needles until he wrote back. He wished me all best and said it was nice of me to write–and didn’t address the Very Bad Thing at all. 🙂 Oh well. I’ll take it. There seem to be no ill feelings on his end at all, which is very nice.

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