I’m sure it was just another ordinary November afternoon in 2005, but an email from my friend Kendall Powell proved a turning point in my career. It was an email invitation to join her “private virtual water cooler with freelance friends.” It would be a way, she said, we could vent our struggles, get/give advice, and satisfy some social cravings—in a private setting with other trusted, dedicated freelancers.
Interestingly, I recall having conflicting emotions. I had been freelancing for 3 years. I’d stumbled a few times, but I had steady work—surely a sign that I could hack this gig. I’m almost ashamed to admit my knee-jerk reaction was to wonder if it was in my best interest to share hard-won information with “competitors”?
That feeling was fleeting–and in retrospect, is a symptom of potentially toxic dynamics in this field. We are colleagues as well as competitors. I acknowledged that I had been feeling terribly isolated lately. I saw my freelancer friends at conferences, but travel had been curtailed by motherhood. There was little in the way of daily co-worker banter, no sounding boards, and certainly no water cooler commiseration. It didn’t take long for me to realize the invitation felt more like a lifeline than a losing proposition.
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, many of the Native American tribes have a custom called the potlatch—a feast in which wealth is redistributed. It dawned on me that a “tribe” could redistribute the wealth of knowledge we’ve accumulated about freelancer writing. I knew a handful of the 20 or so writers who joined initially and relished in getting to know the rest. We shared our career stories, our challenges, our successes and our frustrations. We started traditions. We came up with rules. Essentially, we formed a tribe.
And here’s the thing. Others can do (and have done) exactly what we did: create a confidential community to nurture our writing careers. They are formal and informal. Vocal and quiet. Large and small. They are important venues–allowing members to, confidentially, air concerns, challenge perspectives, and seek unfettered advice.
The importance of these connections in my daily life now, 8 years later, cannot be overstated. Writing is already an isolating profession. Being a freelance writer living far from hubs like London, New York or Washington, DC, can feel a bit like being in Siberia. But with tribal input, my pitches are better, my rates are higher and my contracts are less Draconian.
That’s why I’m somewhat of a tribal evangelist now. SciLancer Jill Adams (bio) and I put together a panel session at the upcoming NASW meeting called “Going Tribal: Cultivating Community in an Isolating Profession” to discuss how other, particularly newbie freelancers, can form a successful tribe. We’ll discuss how to foster harmonious internal tribal dynamics, the benefits of tribes and the power of interconnected writer tribes supporting one another.
Our panelists are an esteemed bunch including Kendall Powell (bio), Corinna Wu, Erik Vance and Dan Ferber, who have graciously offered to share their customs and insights on how to create forums that works for all. I hope we’ll see you Saturday, November 2 at 11!
Image credit: bcndp on Flickr