Freelance = Perpetual Job Search & Training
Updated: Sep 21, 2018
INTRO: MARY-MARGARET NETWORK BLOG POST #3 This third post in my series was published 9/4/09. See the intro to post #1 for the what and why of this whole naive memoir.
FREELANCE = PERPETUAL JOB SEARCH & TRAINING As a teenager, I learned some useful basics about finding work. My mom told me, "Treat looking for a job as if it were your job." She also said, "Knock on every door and introduce yourself, even if there's no Help Wanted sign." And I actually found my first job by filling in for a vacationing friend, which was a successful case of "who you know."
Flash forward to 1996, and to me seeking a career as a writer for new media, specifically the gaming industry. "Career" still meant "job" at the time. I expected to build experience and a track record by taking whatever came along until finding the sweet spot and staying there. That was the old model. But at some point, I came to accept a professional life of availability for "paying gigs." And I came to see freelancing as perpetual job training. Here's how.
Knocking on Doors When I first discovered the Web, I was still cold-calling every business listed under "New Media" in the yellow pages -- until I discovered a new online community called craigslist. Cold calling or cold emailing was essentially targeted spamming; rather than wait for job openings, I pitched to companies that seemed to need someone like me. (I no longer recommend this method. It was never easy, and the drift toward job specialization has made it even less possible.) I spoke with important men much younger than I was, trying to roll with their jargon, acutely aware how unqualified I was. Clearly I needed to educate myself. I went to San Francisco for classes at Media Alliance, BAVC, and MentorNet. I learned some basics about Mac use, HTML, and game design. None of this made me an expert in anything, but now I (sort of) understood what the important young men were talking about.
Next came the internships. The first was for a game developer, now long gone, that created kids' titles. I spent my unpaid mornings learning to surf the web, collecting but not reading articles on VRML. When somebody joked, "Right now, you are our VRML expert," I glimpsed the perpetual learning curve. Individuals, companies -- everyone was still figuring it out. My second internship was for a startup channel featuring online music videos and tech education. While doing their web research, I pitched an interface design that went nowhere, and I invited numerous musical acquaintances, none of whom were interested. Before it all fell apart, I felt the warm glow of creative teamwork for a team that valued my enthusiasm if not my actual input.
I Can Do This There were some cool paying projects in the early days, even as I tried to find my place as a writer in the digital age. Tim Barber and David Bliss of CircumStance Design (now the principals at Odopod) hired me to write a few fictional, pseudo-corporate collateral pieces for a project by trend futurist Faith Popcorn. Robin Raj of Digital Artists and Writers Group (now creative director at Citizen Group) gave me a free hand in developing characters and stories illustrating the appeal and potential of a new MasterCard product. While I certainly couldn't support myself with isolated gigs like these, they showed me that people out there valued creative writing, and that marketing didn't have to be soulless, humorless or even all that obvious.
Through many rounds of persistent check-ins with people willing to talk to me (but almost never hire me), I got some casual mentoring. One standout contact was gaming and social media pioneer Rob Fulop, who was both generous and bracingly honest. He suggested that I frame my search by imagining my dream project and looking at the realities of making it happen. (I'll discuss this more in a future article.) He was also one of the first people who made it clear to me that writers need to keep expanding their technical skills to stay attractive for potential employers.
These days I'm still a freelancer and the perpetual learning curve is still in place. But those teenage lessons are still in effect, too: you have to ask for the project, job, or career you want. If you don't get it this time, you didn't ask the right person at the right moment. Be patient and keep asking. Persistence is valuable.
Next time I'll talk more about what it takes to make the cut when pitching your creative writing services.