Homeless and Writing or “Do You Want Fries With That?”

I am finding myself struggling once again to pay rent in expensive LA and this time, it may be game over. My previous post, What Would You Sacrifice For Your Career explored how much you give up as a writer, and I am finding that I am woefully unprepared to couch surf here. Many friends have left the area, and trying to frantically work to make some money so I can leave has become exhausting.

I find myself looking around at things I’ve collected over the years, books, beautiful objects, clothes, jewelry. When did they start to become a burden? When did apartment dwelling happen so I could have a place to store all my stuff? A quiet place to write, yes, but a storage locker? No.

People keep urging me, “Go apply to McDonald’s so you can pay the rent.” Are you kidding? Rents for a tiny studio are so high, I could work an 80 hour week there (if they would hire me) and still be behind on rent. I am exhausted and tired of trying to hang on.

This is the irony of my life, landing a decent paying writing job too late with nowhere to write for it. I do not know where I will land next, but I know I won’t be bringing too much stuff with me. The detritus of living (and I have cleaned out on a regular basis) becomes overwhelming when you have to move.

The job interviews are starting to happen, just a little too late. People keep telling me to “Hang in there.” I just wish I knew where “there” was. Hanging on, hanging around?  Ok, universe, I get it. This is what it’s like to be lambasted by the economy, discouraged and exhausted. I’ve gotten this far on my career path, only to give up the writing for a paycheck that I supposedly can count on? Seems a bitter pill to swallow as so many have done in the last few years in this country…

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How “Going Greek” Can Get You a Job

When I was studying for an undergraduate degree at Cornell, housing was not guaranteed beyond freshman year. After that, you signed up for a housing lottery and if your number was in the right range, you were offered dorm housing. So, many people joined sororities and fraternities as one way to secure upperclassmen housing.

However, going Greek has other benefits that last beyond the college years. Networking is a great way to find out about jobs open in your field, and these organizations can help get you started. Clients ask me all the time if they should network with others even if they have not kept in touch — it kind of looks like you are just using friends to get a job. But you should still consider contacting them anyways. Pretty much everyone now knows what a tough job market this is, and you can always offer to act as a contact or liaison yourself as part of the networking process. Don’t forget to extend your networking beyond the people in your particular Greek chapter. Google the national headquarters of your sorority or fraternity to find members around the country and around the world even.

Even if you did not “go Greek” in college, there are other ways to network. Check with your alumni office for a list of people willing to talk with you. National professional associations are another great way to find networking contacts. There are also national military alumni associations, hobby associations and Mastermind groups where members brainstorm ideas on how to move ahead in a career. Religious societies may also give you access to contacts who can help you.

Some of these organizations will have fees or dues, while others will not. It is a good idea if you have the extra money to sign up before you actually need the contacts, as down the road, you may not have the extra cash when you need to network for a job.

Blogging: Protecting Privacy

I’m sure we have all read a least one book that has a disclaimer in it that goes something like this: “All characters herein are purely fictional and are not meant to represent any one real person living or deceased.” It’s the CYA clause so an author does not get sued for defamation of character or whatever.

But what about blogging or writing non-fiction? I face this issue more often than I would like in trying to put career info out there to the masses. The student who sent a chocolate resume through the mail to be different and it melted. The actor who also moonlighted as a nurse. These are people who have shown up in my blogs, and there are many more out there in previous career blogs I’ve written with other career counselors.

It raises the question: How much do you anonymize in your blogs? Obviously, you do it enough that it does not reveal the identity of the person to whom you are referring, especially if the info shows the person, albeit unintentionally, in a negative light. But in my career dealings with students or career development clients, it is hard to steer away from. After all, telling and hearing stories is one powerful way in which we learn. We learn from others’ experiences.

I often self-disclose when counseling or advising students or clients, but there’s also a limit on how much of that I want to do myself. I do not want to come across looking like an idiot, but sometimes it is easier to illustrate how to learn from mistakes when they are my own. And there are also times when it does come across as bragging or tooting my own horn: for example, telling my struggling Stanford engineering advisees how I thought I would never make it through Cornell, but I did and they can make it through Stanford too. Focusing more on strategies for surviving college helps, but self-disclosure and how much to tell can be a tricky thing. Sometimes it blows up it my face: “Yes, but that was Cornell, and this is Stanford!” Or, “OK, so you know what it’s like then to have to read 500 pages every other night for one class while preparing for four other classes.”

I think, oftentimes, that if you have a really valid point to make and a powerful story that goes along with it, getting permission from the person involved in the story makes sense, especially if no names are named and I protect that person’s identity. But this is still an issue with which I constantly struggle as I learn to be a better writer and counselor.

What Would You Sacrifice For Your Career?

I have thought about this a lot lately. After all, LA is home to many broken dreams and failed entertainment careers. I’m on Year 3 of a freelancing career, and it hasn’t been without sacrifices. I’ve met many people out here in CA who have given up a lot to pursue their dream careers, including one woman who became a nurse so she could take the swing shifts, the shifts no one else wanted to save up a lot of money so she could pursue acting auditions. Her life switches back and forth between taking care of people and acting. I’m not sure that I can change gears like that all of the time with good results. And giving up certain things takes a toll. For example:

Life style: Delayed gratification is hard. Really hard. You have to be able to prioritize between what you want and what you need. I’ve seen Hollywood people living in tiny cell-like places way beyond their 20 something years. I know I do not want to rent forever, that’s for sure. And it sucks to have to forego decent food and fun LA activities to pay the bills. Yes, I know we all have to do some of that, but it certainly gets old after awhile. I also never thought I would be pulling all-nighters to make deadlines going into my 50s. That gets old, too.

Finances: I’ve learned not to sneer at a regular paycheck. Computer glitches can result in no paycheck or a delayed paycheck, and how many of us actually plan ahead for this? Budgetary havoc should not become a way of life, but it often does, unfortunately.

Relationships: Friendships and partnerships can often go down the drain because of career and financial pressures. I like not having co-workers because it makes it easier to stick to a diabetic diet without co-workers tempting me with “treats.” However, freelancing can and does sometimes get in the way of maintaining friendships and relationships, causing anger, jealousy and exasperation over frequent schedule changes.

Health: This is a tough one. Many of us pursuing creative careers have little or no health insurance. We often pursue our career goals at the expense of our health, not going to the doctor, skipping needed meds, and generally living an unhealthy lifestyle.

So, when do you throw in the towel? As a good producer friend said to me today, “Sacrifice for your career is all well and good, as long as you do not let it go on for years.” She’s right. But I’m not ready to go back to 9 to 5 just yet. Give me another year, and I’ll see. It is starting to get a little easier…

Underemployment and Demanding Companies

In my last post, I mentioned that I am trying to diversify my freelance client base. That is just one strategy. I landed a pretty good writing contract, but need to find another revenue stream until I can build up some savings. So I am looking for other jobs as well, and this is what I am finding in LA county:

*It is still an employers’ market and they can be as demanding as they want to be.

*Many employers are insisting that employees live within a certain distance — about 15 miles from the job site to mitigate lateness problems with traffic. Kind of difficult to do if the job is in an expensive to live place such as Glendale or Pasadena.

*Employees may have to use their own car with no reimbursement for gas or mileage, and use of public transportation such as light rail or the bus system will just not do.

*Potential employees are subject to an inordinate number of interviews for one position (I did 6 interviews awhile back for one company, and they ended up not hiring anyone — an expensive process for both sides, especially when parking at a downtown high-rise can cost more than $25 per hour.)

*More employers are refusing to start benefits such as medical insurance until after the employee has passed the 90 day probation period.

*Salary information is nonexistent in the first stages of applying, with many jobs not listing a salary or “DOE” dependent upon experience.

*Payment at an hourly rate does not guarantee you will not have to work unpaid overtime, although this is illegal.

Given all of these demands, I’m inclined to tell potential employees to have a few of their own. I think everyone has a right to ask about pay up front, although this used to be a no-no. Why go through several interviews to find out the job pays $11 per hour full-time when you cannot live on that?

Potential employees also have the right to meet the immediate supervisor. One ploy companies use to mitigate the damage difficult supervisors can do in the interview process is to leave them out of it and not give them any say on who gets hired. This is a problem because this supervisor can make your life a living hell as revenge for having no say in hiring you. And you are not even warned up front because you have not met this person before you start the new job.

Potential employees have the right to see the full job description before being hired. Sorry, but “other duties as assigned” just does not cut it when you’ve been hired to be an accounts manager and you end up doing reception duty.

If the hiring process demands potential hirees to take a personality inventory test, the job posting needs to say so. It also needs to detail what is checked in a background check, including drug testing requirements, driving records and credit history.

I realize that this is still a tough job market, but I am thinking I am not going to let these companies have all the power. Stand up for your rights before you get hired to ensure that the next job experience will not be a miserable one.

Freelancing For Different Clients: Keeping It All Straight

I am trying to diversify my client base, and when writing for three or more clients, I find I have to draw up a “cheat sheet” or spreadsheet to keep the writing rules straight for each one. After all, I can make myself crazy flipping back and forth through writing manuals and style sheets to find which punctuation or spelling rules are preferred for which client.

I put the client’s name on the left side and writing elements across the top. These element rules include: punctuation, spelling, numerals and fractions, measurements, percentages, money, dates, times, addresses and states. For example, one client may want serial commas while another one doesn’t. Numbers under 10 may have to  be spelled out, while 10 and over call for numerals,  unless the number is 10 or more and begins a sentence. See what I mean? It can get quite confusing.

I use another spreadsheet for more complex rules such as word treatment and foreign spellings. For example, some clients want Internet to start with a capital “I”. Other clients decree that picture captions need punctuation. One client insists on “website,” while another wants “web site.” I also list article word limits for each publisher. Screwing up on any of these rules can get me a rewrite or an article rejection, so the time spent setting up a rule spreadsheet is well worth it.

Deadlines are usually listed on my desktop or dashboard for each client, but it is easier to plan the writing week if I compile all of these into one spreadsheet. It is the same for paydays.

While multiple style guides and style sheets can make me crazy, I have found that electronic subscriptions to style guides are not the most useful. The online AP style guide is a nightmare to use, and I have spent too much time looking up punctuation rules. I’ve also gotten stuck when the style guide sites have crashed. Most publishers will choose a certain edition of a style guide for their writing rules, and I try to have a paper copy of that handy. You can annotate it, underline it, and the book does not “crash.”

While I enjoy writing for one client and it is easier, at least having a spreadsheet for more clients keeps me organized and hopefully keeps the money rolling in.

Reminder: Sugar-Free Syrup is Not Dish Soap: Staying Focused

OK, here’s the thing: I just landed a pretty good writing gig, and cannot think of a thing to write. It’s gotten so bad that I can’t stay focused and wound up pouring sugar-free syrup into my dish water instead of dish soap. Trust me, syrup does not do a very good job of cleaning the dishes.

Here are some things that I try when the writer’s block hits:

Do the research for all of the articles first, then write each one.

Read the style sheets from the client. Sometimes, this shakes something loose and removes whatever unconscious obstacle I have to writing. It is also a quickie refresher that prevents articles from being sent back for rewrites.

Write that article intro last. Sometimes the pressure to come up with a catchy lede can unnerve me to the point where I just cannot get started. Writing the rest of the article first reminds me what the topic is about, how the article treats it and why it’s important, all key areas of the intro.

Fake it until you make it — good advice from writing friends. Unfortunately, this approach usually lands me with a bunch of rewrites and/or rejections. So I do some other writing instead, like now, for example. Sometimes writing a blog post primes the pump.

Get up from the computer and do other tasks. Sometimes thinking about what I need to write while doing other tasks helps me organize an article in my head. And sometimes I just end up pouring syrup into the sink because I’m not paying attention. In that case, I go for a walk, and stay on the sidewalk away from cars.

Think of ideas that are opposite of the assigned title. For example, when writing an article on the benefits of macadamia nut flour, I would come up w/ opposite ideas — i.e. the nasty effects of it, the taste, the consistency, the way it screws up recipes calling for flour. So if it has all of these negatives, why would anyone want to use it? Which usually leads to research which leads to organizing that research into a coherent article. Or not. Maybe it leads to abandoning that title.

Know when you are procrastinating. Any task that I’m doing while trying to get back on track is just procrastinating if I’m not making headway on figuring out an article. That is when it is time to sit down again and write. Anything, just write.