Just over a year ago, I started my illustrious (ha!) career as a freelance writer. I arrived at my first assignment two hours early, wearing an uncomfortably warm blazer. This was before I learned that in my native North Carolina, most prefer their freelancers dressed more like average folk (generally, nice jeans and a button-down will do). Straightening the aforementioned blazer - forest green, much to my mother’s chagrin - I walk past a larger-than-life Elvis statue and into a small town diner. The owner greeted me warmly, as I looked at her walls lined with framed articles, no doubt written by veterans of the trade.
“Last month this lady came in and filmed us, she is so popular she’s like Oprah in Malaysia!” the owner says. It was at this very moment I decided that mentioning this being my first time out on the job was absolutely not an option.
I certainly can’t claim to be truly experienced yet. The title of seasoned writer is at least a decade down the road. But still, individual experiences have started to stack onto each other, and make me feel a little less green every time I’m out on assignment. During the first three months of all this, whenever I would get ready to walk into an interview I would feel like a little kid lost in a park - that has simmered down to a more mild nervousness. While my decade-down-the-road, seasoned-writer self will look at my current state and probably think, “What a funny child. She had so much to learn,” I’d still like to track my progress, such as it is. So, here are ten things I’ve learned in one year of freelancing!
1. People always have a surprise in them. Every single interview I’ve conducted, there has been something about a person I never would have guessed in a million years. Finding the unusual amongst the usual is one of my favorite parts of an assignment day! Some of my favorite surprises so far: Evelyn (owner of Ye Olde Drugstore) met Elvis when he was still a 19-year-old opening act / Paul Russell, long time clammer from the Outer Banks likes to read Hawthorne / Some cool guys who paint high-end sneakers for a living visit the art museum a couple times a week, and can reference art history at the drop of a hat / Elmo Barnes (one half of a sweet couple that runs a B&B in Beaufort) worked in the Antarctic in his twenties / The retired ladies that run a small NC historical commission make the most potent eggnog in the state, involving three different kinds of hard liquor.
2. A batch of double chocolate cookies will soothe all ills (from being a journalist in a politician’s office, to having perhaps hounded a source a bit too persistently for an appointment). You can check out this magic, all-sins-forgiven recipe here.
3. It’s my job to go in presenting as few barriers as possible. Dressing like a young professional (blazer and all) is perfect for interviewing a museum employee, but would make a lot of business owners uncomfortable, unsure of the city slicker from Raleigh. Even the language I use is different depending on the person (not in the interest of being two-faced, I’m still very much the same person); I want to have an open, collaborative relationship with my sources. If using jargon or pulling my fancy camera out too early will make them close up even a little bit, I need to change my game plan.
4. People are just people, no matter their line of work, upbringing, or culture. As a history major I knew this was true, but going out and interviewing a bunch of humans gave this idea wings. Human nature runs deep and strong; we are all after the same things. Somehow the consistency of humanity is a comforting thing.
5. Unless you are 150% sure that an old house is a community center, knock before just barging in. In fact, even if you are 150% sure, knock just in case. It could actually be the home of a rather scary, very tall man who could get very angry at having a stranger just walk into his house. Theoretically, of course.
(there's still a not-so-theoretical NO TRESPASSING sign up on the front door of the house where this theoretically happened. ahem. moving on.)
6. Ya know, this is what every journalism article on the first page of Google will tell you, but listening well is a skill you have to hone. People have so much going on, so much to say if they are given space to say it. People - quiet ones, hurt ones, busy ones, gruff ones, warm ones, cold ones - people want to be heard.
7. Google is truly a modern wonder, and I am so grateful for it. It’s not the be all, end all of information and research, but it is wonderful to be able to run a quick fact check on myself in the matter of a few keystrokes. Honorable mentions go to dictionary.com for when I have been staring at a word too long and doubt its existence, and The Synonym Finder for providing me with excellent alternative words.
8. Never - never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever EVER leave your recording device out of reach. (this was one of those newbie mistakes with nearly tragic consequences that made sure I would never do it again)
9. Just ask. By far the most pleasant surprise of this last year has been how willing people are to cooperate if I just ask them. From letting me write my first piece with virtually no portfolio to show (thanks Amanda, I love you forever for that!) to professors who will give me an afternoon, to being given hours to listen to ghost stories, or access to people's work places or boats - it’s all been there for the asking. So, be nice and don’t be afraid to ask for what you’d like to do.
10. It’s okay to not have a hundred year plan. After my first big batch of articles last August, I was far from elated. I was thinking, “Oh no.” Freelancing was NOT the plan. It did NOT fit seamlessly into my ideas of the future. I’ve seen photographers work their way up through the ranks, watched them balancing their work, church involvement, and loving on a spouse/family. I had watched other photographers for almost a decade, I knew the strategy. I didn’t even know one other freelancer last August, much less one that had some semblance of balance. I spilled out all of these problems at my father one morning as he was getting ready to go on a run. He stopped tying his shoes for a minute and sat up, unfazed by his daughter who has been over-analyzing all of her twenty-four years.
“Are you good at it?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“Do you like doing it?” he asked.
“Of course, I love it!”
“Then you should go for it. You don’t have to have a hundred year plan to start doing something, you know.”
What a relief. My dad left for his run, and I started thinking about how to do more of this thing that I still love so much. It's been a year of guesswork, trial and lots of error, piecemeal plans, less sleep, and too many commas. And it's been one of my favorite years yet.