The Freelancer
Life working in your pajamas is great...except when it isn't
By Chris Rodell
September 2005

The lies usually commence on a plush fairway or at a weekday baseball game when the rest of the responsible, adult world is robotically toiling at their wage-earning jobs. Chatty strangers will find out how I earn my living and I’ll feel forced to fib.

"Yep," I’ll say, "I’m the luckiest man in the world."

"So you’re telling me you get paid to travel around the world to play golf, meet celebrities, or write about what it’s like to stay in the best hotels, eat at the best places -- and it’s all free or someone else is paying for it?"

"Sometimes I pinch myself."

"And you work out of your house with your wife and 4-year-old daughter? If you want to stop working and just go outside and roll around in the grass with your daughter and your dog, you just do it?"

"Can you believe it?"

"Man, you are the luckiest guy in the world!"

Oh, you betcha.

We are born free and spend the rest of our lives constructing prisons around ourselves. The prison I’ve constructed for myself is palatial. In the past six months, I’ve been sent to Las Vegas to write about what it’s like to live for a week like a high roller. I stayed in the poshest suites, dined at the finest restaurants and sat front row for Cirque du Soleil.

The general manager at The New York Palace -- known him for years -- expressed his disappointment that I stayed at the new Mandarin-Oriental Hotel instead of his five-diamond digs. He insisted I come back to him on my bi-yearly visit to the Big Apple.

I’ve played golf for free at the finest clubs in America from tee to shining tee. When it’s time for goodbyes, the friendly pros always slap me on the back, tell me I’m welcome anytime, "And, hey, grab yourself a spiffy shirt on your way out."

The only problem with such a palatial prison is there is absolutely no security. There are no guards, no wires, no walls. My business cards say "Palm Features," a name that’s meant to connote swaying tropical idylls. The secret behind the name of my freelance writing endeavor is that my one palm is always out for freebies while the other’s restlessly reaching for delinquent paychecks from deadbeat publishers.

I’m a man who’ll never know what it’s like to be fired, but I’m doomed to wake up every single morning unemployed. At 42, the dichotomy has left me dizzy.

As a full-time freelance writer, I rejoice in a life that is fulfilling beyond measure. I get to meet and embrace some of the most fascinating people on the planet and the experience enriches me more than any paycheck ever could.

And therein lies the crux of the problem: I would do what I do for free, if only the world would let me get away with it. But it won’t. It insists I engage in the tawdry practice of earning wages.

I look at my writer’s life and think I’m living it exactly the way I was intended to. In fact, when I take inventory, it amazes me that a man bestowed with so much god-given laziness has achieved anything but a really nice tan.

I envy my many successful friends for their boats, their gaudy homes, their health benefits and their traditional corporate lives. But I know that working in an office to earn any of that would kill me as surely as perpetual darkness kills a flower.

I write for some of the most prestigious magazines in America and appear to be successful, in the conventional sense, so much so that I’m a frequent guest at the journalism classes at Greater Latrobe High School near where I live. I sprinkle my stories with titillating profanity and racy anecdotes so the kids’ll think I’m cool.

And, man, it works. It’s taken more than 24 years since I graduated, but I’m finally popular in high school.

I try to be honest. I tell them I’m always broke. I tell them the true story of how my fed-up accountant fired me in April. In the past 14 years, he’s seen my income dwindle to nearly what it was when I worked steamy summers in the kitchens at Pizza Hut. He sees no future in the business of me and is ethically fatigued from trying to justify things like hefty bar tabs as story research.

No one listens to that part. They tell me they hope they can grow up to be just like me.

"Then never, ever grow up," I truthfully advise.

I never have an okay day. My professional elevator only stops at two floors: despair and euphoria. An editor will call me for a 2,500-word assignment that pays $1.50 a word. I am overjoyed. It’s a big job. Then I am instantly crestfallen because I realize I’ll have to write it.

I type the first $1.50 word and pause to stare at it. It’s "The." I realize I’ve just typed a draft beer. I calculate a sentence equals a steak dinner, a party a paragraph. You see, besides being lazy, I’m easily distracted, another career killer for duties that require discipline.

I used to get distracted for hours at a time when the dog came in and dropped a tennis ball at my feet. Now I have a 4-year-old daughter who thinks nothing of marching into my office armed with Barbies to say, "Daddy let’s play," an invitation -- deadlines be damned -- I will never refuse. I blame Josie and the Barbies for the precipitous decline in my income, and will remind her of that when she’s old enough to bitch about having a father too poor to buy her nice things.

My darling wife tolerates my tempestuous mood swings and constant fretting over unfulfilled potential. I resent the two people I love the most because I’m convinced that without them I’d have already authored shelves of bestsellers and would be prominent enough to snag a sporty supermodel or two before all my hair falls out.

I spend my every waking moment trying to brainstorm a "Eureka!" idea so original it will liberate me from my labors, or darkly convincing myself that I am a complete failure who’s squandered his gifts so completely that he is unworthy any decent inspiration.

So if you see me at a Pirate game looking serene, appearing calm, recognize the lie. My face is a mask concealing a seething cauldron of self-doubt and innocent hope that the next time someone assures me I’m the luckiest man alive, I’ll believe it, too.

Yes, even during those simple summer diversions, my mind is restlessly grappling with the universal questions that matter most: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Should I get nachos or peanuts?

Damn, I am so easily distracted.

My all-consuming self-absorption was hammered home with explosive clarity recently when our neighbors came over for a round of back-porch refreshments. Tim had never seen inside the house so I gave him a quick looksee, which concluded down in the dank, dark basement office where I work. Through Tim’s eyes, it must have looked pretty cushy. There is a wall of CDs, a wall of books, a little bench to tie flyfishing lures, and my desk with its sleek flat-screen iMac. But to me, it’s a prison. As we entered, I began to vent.

"Just setting foot in here makes my stomach tighten up," I fumed. "It’s so claustrophobic. That foot stool-sized stack of papers is all rejection letters. I should probably set fire to them, but I’m hoping someday they’ll instill some sort of grim inspiration instead of self-loathing. Most days I feel electronically tethered to that computer terminal. I assure myself that if I only work harder, good things will happen. But they never do. At least five times a day I’ll become convinced I’m losing my mind and will dash up the stairs and stand out on the porch to get a breath of air until the panics pass. I daydream about what it would be like if I’d have gone to law school, worked in crayon factory, scooped ice cream. Anything, but this."

I stopped blathering long enough to glance at Tim. His pale face was splashed with blue-collar bewilderment over my bitching.

That’s when it dawned on me: Yes, Tim mines coal for a living. He goes deep into the ground to liberate the resources I need to power the stereo that plays the songs I listen to while I write and send my silly stories around the world.

We haven’t spoken since, but we did share an awkward wave the other day. He was coming home from the coal pits when he saw me loading my golf clubs into the trunk for a free round at a nearby resort.

I’d had another tough week and felt entitled to go blow off some steam.

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