Over the past decade or so, I’ve watched my fellow members of SciLance grow. I’ve seen them go from being rejected at niche publications, to becoming regular contributors to national titles, and on to award after award. But as I cheered their successes, I had twinges of jealousy spiced with guilt. Shouldn’t I be doing that too, or at least trying?
With a staff job that kept me tied to specialized audiences, it’s a question I could avoid. Until now.
When I learned that my latest position at Nature (my fifth) was set to end, I emailed a collection of friends well-versed in ‘self-work’, the thoughtful pursuit of goal-setting, self-analysis and self-realization. I live in San Francisco, where self-empowerment is a popular pastime, but SciLancers engage as well, see ‘Ready, Set, Goal’ by Anne Sasso (bio). I wasn’t interested in figuring out who I was, I told my friends, I wanted to figure out my approach to my work. What books should I read?
The most enthusiastic recommendation came for Art and Fear, by Ted Overland and David Bayles. First published in 1993 and now past its 12th printing, the 122-page book is for people who make “ordinary art.” That is, those who will never be Mozart, but who do need to create and hope to make a living doing so. (This book seems to garnish the same span of enthusiasm and criticisism in the art world as Who Moved My Cheese? did in the business world.)
Art and Fear is guide to help you manage fears of underwhelming yourself and others. There is nice advice about producing art that is your own and not worrying overly much about how it compares to others. (I protect myself from that with the knowledge that the vast hordes of more talented, productive journalists are actually from other planets.) But the most useful nugget for me was this: Each piece of art you make should help prepare you to make your next one.
In other words, don’t worry too much if you think what you are working on right now doesn’t meet your expectations. And don’t get bogged down producing safe pieces that you know will gain praise and sales without expanding your skills. (Granted, sometimes the way one piece of art will help you complete your next one is by paying the rent.)
When freelance writers go after assignments, we often think in terms of the prestige of getting a byline in a new publication or the money a job will bring in. In the best circumstances, we’ve fallen in love with a story and will let us take it wherever it goes. But we need to be ready to handle those stories when they come. In the meantime, we need to pay the bills and feel like we’re not toiling away without purpose.
It’s a simple question: will this project teach me what I need for another project? But it gives work purpose. It cuts away less useful, more judgmental questions. “Is the pay good?” “Is this a step up?” It lets you answer for the short-term or the long, but doesn’t invite useless rumination. The question makes me think about the skills I have and need to gain. It gives me some comfort stepping into the unknown.