Tag Archives: freelancing

Deconstructing the Zillion-Dollar Investment That Still Hasn’t Yielded Any Damn Returns…

Recently, while I was en route to meet up with some old coworkers circa 34th and 8th, I ran into a classmate from junior high who I haven’t seen since — oh, I don’t know — 1994? And as soon as we established we were who we thought we were, she said, “Lisa! This is so weird! I was just thinking about writing you because I’m thinking about applying to journalism school…”

Sooo…long story short, I sent her the longest email ever. Which — slightly doctored — seemed like an okay blog post, too.

Et, voila.

Here it goes: The jury is still out on whether I think Columbia was worthwhile. It was certainly a good experience at the time and I met really wonderful people and made really wonderful contacts…and it’s super-quick and definitely gives you some street cred and/or a name to drop at cocktail parties…and — keep in mind that I graduated at quite possibly the single worst time ever…and *that* has definitely played into my experiences post-Columbia. But, then again, after Martha let me slip through her fingers, I was networking like a fiend, trying to drum up freelance contacts and/or a full-time job…and I met a guy who had graduated from Columbia a few years before me…and he said you have to look at it like an investment and, understandably, you can’t expect an ROI immediately. Which makes sense. But it’s not always comforting.

If I could do it again, I’d definitely do the new media program — or whatever they’re calling it now. Prior to grad school, I was a financial journalist…but only because I majored in English and wanted a writing job…and there are TONS of financial writing jobs here. (In fact, a LOT of my classmates ended up at Reuters and Bloomberg and Dow Jones…even though they’re not necessarily interested in writing about finance at all — but they need paychecks and health insurance…and this week I got not one but TWO panicked emails from friends in that situation…and had to send them peppy responses about how it’s all going to work out for us someday and that these are just the lean times…and, I mean, I hope I’m right…but I know how they feel — I, too, have my panicky moments and sort of depend on them for the same advice when *I* freak out…)

So, anyway, I went to Columbia because four years went by really fast and all of a sudden, I had backed myself into this niche and even though I told myself I wasn’t going to make a career out of venture capital or mutual funds — and I really feel that I am woefully inadequate to cover these topics as I am HORRIBLE with money — by ’06, it was all anyone trusted me to cover (…if they actually trusted me at all. Which is a whole other can o’ worms…). I really had no clips about anything else. And…a lot of people I worked with at Dow Jones had gone to Columbia, so I finally decided it was worth my while to go, too, so I could prove that I had basic reporting skills and that I *could* write about other things and I wanted to make the leap from financial reporting to Martha. (I really like baking…) And more than one person I worked with at Dow Jones didn’t actually want to be there…which didn’t seem that bad for poor Master’s-Degree-less Lisa…but I sort of looked at the Columbia grads who ended up there with pity, thinking that things would be different for me if *I* went through the program…

So…I hustled. I really did. And — I don’t know about you, but…when I graduated from college, I just sort of expected someone to give me a good job because I worked really hard in college. And, you know, if I had studied business or engineering or something, maybe that would have been the case. But, other than maybe teaching, there just isn’t a really clearly defined career path for English majors. And so I really struggled to find my way. And eventually I did…but I was determined not to let the same post-graduation slump hit after Columbia.

And, like I said — it worked…for awhile. I interned at Good Housekeeping while I was a student and I got a gig with Martha after graduation. But…then she let me go…which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the worst thing ever as I wasn’t enormously happy there…and, between the two gigs, I learned magazine journalism isn’t really what I want to do anyway. Which sort of ushered in another existential crisis — like, “I thought I knew what I wanted to do! And now here I am practically 30 and I was totally wrong!” And, I mean, I’m working on a book now and freelancing and whatnot…so it’s not exactly tragic…but…like I said, if I could go back in time, I’d do the new media program. I tried to sort of couch things while I was there and take the new media elective…but I got the fill-in teacher on Saturday…and the class was AWFUL and we learned NOTHING. The guy knew his stuff…he was just really bad at explaining it…and, to make up for it, he just had us create WordPress blogs…and said we could do as much or as little with them as we wanted. So…none of us really learned any valuable Web skills. So. That’s point #1.

#2: I haven’t been astonishingly impressed with Career Services — either as a student or a grad. In my first meeting, the lady looked at my resume and said, “Oh, great! You have financial reporting experience! It will be easy for you to get a job after graduation…” and I said, “Well, that’s the thing — I don’t want to write about finance anymore. That’s the whole reason I’m here…” and she said, “Oh…” and I think she knew someone at Food & Wine…but that went nowhere. And, I mean, it could very well be because I had these weird, stringent demands at the time — Food! I want to write about food! — and, really, a lot of my classmates have gone on to successful careers at the Miami Herald and CBS and the Huffington Post…but…I found the gig at Good Housekeeping on my own. I found the gig at Martha on my own. Take from that what you will…

The Career Services department sends out emails about jobs from time to time…but I haven’t found those to be enormously helpful either. We got one once about an entry-level position at the New York Times Syndicate. And it said it was very clerical but that it was a great position for someone who eventually wanted to go on to editing and that two grads from ’07 had taken similar positions and were quickly promoted to editors. I sent in my letter and got called in for an interview…and the first words out of the editor’s mouth were, “Did anyone tell you how crappy this job is?” and I tried to be upbeat and mentioned what Career Services had said about the two grads from ’07 getting promoted and she said, “That was a fluke. I had to fire one guy and another joined the Army…your ascent would be profoundly slower.” And then she told me that the job entailed an hour and a half a day of sorting mail…and cleaning the managing editor’s office. So. I didn’t get the job…but wasn’t really upset about it…and then about a month later, Career Services sent out another email about this SAME position saying the SAME things about how it was great for a future editor and that two grads from ’07 quickly scaled the editorial ladder…so I sent a reply to some of my classmates and said, “Don’t be fooled! This is the mail-sorting, office-cleaning gig!” and one of them jokingly responded, “How do we know you’re not just saying that to keep this job for yourself?”

So. I don’t have to tell you that it’s tough out there…but…I really feel like I’ve been on my own as far as finding jobs are concerned. But, then again, a friend got a gig at a Spanish language newspaper thanks to Career Services and she just loves the guy who works there. And…in Career Services’ defense, they *do* tell you how much easier it is to find jobs if you leave New York. So that may be part of my problem, too.

And…I’m a Libra — the scales. So I’m notoriously bad with decision-making and can often see both sides of an issue. Case in point: Sometimes I feel like maybe I would have been better off just quitting my job and hustling to become a freelancer. Because…in the end, that’s what happened…and I wouldn’t be up to my eyeballs in debt for the rest of my life. But…on the other hand, I really, REALLY hated writing about venture capital and mutual funds…and…I fill in for this marketing publication every now and again…which really just means I write about brands that have promotions on Facebook or Twitter…and I just wrote about beer…and, as I was writing it, I had an epiphany that I really was much happier writing about beer than I ever was writing about, say, XBRL or 22c-2. And I realized that I would probably be profoundly unhappy if I had stayed in financial reporting and I would totally regret not taking a chance and seeing what happened. And…I suppose there’s still hope for my career. Who knows what the future will bring…but, at the same time, I haven’t dreamed of writing about Facebook campaigns ever since I was a little girl…so…it’s not like what I’m doing now is truly fulfilling. It definitely sucks less than what I was doing before…but, then again, I didn’t go to Columbia to get a job that sucks less.

But…then again (again), I wouldn’t have worked at Good Housekeeping or Martha (or written for HuffPo) without Columbia.

And I think your experience there is really strongly influenced by your RW1 instructor/class. I got really lucky — I had Dale Maharidge and he was/is wonderful and has been a great resource post-graduation. (I also took a literary journalism class with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt…and he is totally amazing and I love him…and he’s been really helpful with this book I’m trying to get published…) And…I was really lucky because my RW1 class got along really well…and we’re all still (pretty) good friends now. But…I heard horror stories about some RW1 classes…and so I can imagine if you don’t like your instructor, it would really profoundly influence your experience…and you’re only there for ten months! But…there’s not much you can do about that — it’s just sort of the luck of the draw.

And, I mean, really — the experience is what you make of it. There were people who really worked hard to get a lot out of it and endear themselves to the community and who were super-involved…and there were others that, well, didn’t. But…even some of the ones who did everything “right” while they were there still ended up scrambling after graduation…

I assume you’re looking at starting in the fall of 2011? So…you’d be graduating into a totally different environment than the one I found…and I really don’t know much at all about CUNY’s program. I sort of put all my eggs in one basket…as I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in New York and I figured that if I didn’t get in to Columbia, it would be a sign that I was supposed to move on to a different city.

So, in short — if you go, I’d highly recommend the new media program (even though the first thing Sree Sreenivasan said to me was, “You have a weather girl name.”) and remember that it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to be in journalism now…and you may end up having to take a job that you don’t want after graduation in order to make ends meet…which may be totally obvious…but…I thought I had such a leg up on all those kiddos who came to Columbia right after graduating from college — I felt like I had a much better idea of what it was I wanted from the program and, noble as their aspirations might have been, I couldn’t help thinking whenever they spoke of becoming the next Susan Orlean or John McPhee that they were perhaps being a bit idealistic…and that’s not to say that it won’t ever happen…it’s just highly unlikely right after graduation. And yet I still ended up getting a HUGE reality check after graduation, too.

And it’s a TON of money. And, nearly two years out, I’m still not quite sure if it was money well spent. Although, then again, if I get a book deal and become the next Julie Powell, I will totally be singing a different tune. That’s the other thing — you have to remember what it is that you really want and even if you *do* get stuck writing about the price of corn (as one of my classmates does), I think you have to have the chutzpah to keep working on projects on the side — which is also not easy to do when you have a job you hate and come home and just want to watch Mad Men and eat Cadbury mini eggs — or you’ll get really super-depressed.

But, then again, even though I have to write about social media campaigns and dispense financial advice to savvy urban 20-something ladies and I fake-gamble three mornings a week to make ends meet, I’m not writing about mutual funds anymore…and I *did* break out of the financial niche…which may have been impossible otherwise.

I know this is WAY MORE than you wanted to hear…but…the “Was going to Columbia a good idea?”-question has been in the back of my mind for about 18 months now…and I feel like most of my classmates are on the fence about it, too. For whatever that’s worth.

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My Fancy-Shuffling, Fake-OTBing, Hair-Scam-Avoiding, 33-Cent-Cheese-Meltdown-Witnessing, Old-Lady-Cursing Wednesday

Remember those commercials during the Olympics with the snowboarder that snowboarded right off into space while Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” played? Well…I wouldn’t call today a perfect day per se…but it was sort of strangely nice and/or memorable for a lot of little reasons:

1. I fake-gamble part-time to support myself now (…I had lunch with a friend from Martha last weekend and she said I should start a blog to debunk the myths of the New York freelance writer’s lifestyle — which sounds so glamorous! — but actually involves a lot of slapstick antics to make ends meet…) and I’ve felt that I can’t emerge from this experience without the ability to shuffle cards in a fancy way. I’ve always wanted to learn some card tricks…and I spend 18 hours a week with 416 cards now, so mastering the Fancy Shuffle (…which I Googled! And learned is called the Bridge Shuffle! And, I gotta hand it to SuperCardKid — he explains it really well…) seemed like a totally reasonable goal. And…it’s a very high-tech table that we play on and sometimes it dies and we have downtime…which is what happened today. So…I decided today was the day I was going to crack the Fancy Shuffle…and I did! I mean, I’m a long way from impressing anyone…but I at least figured out how to shift my hands to make the cards fall back in on one another after I’ve shuffled them. (Before long, people will totally be coming to my apartment for Poker Night…)

2. Some of my comrades at the fake-gambling place like to really gamble…and, like I said, we were twiddling our thumbs this PM…and one of them had one of those OTB horse guides? And we were looking at the horse names and I saw one called “Im a Mosaic Rockstar” and said, “That’s it. That’s the horse I would bet on…” and — guess what — the horse I picked totally WON. So…the real gambler then asked what horses I liked in the next race…and three names popped out at me, but I only remember two: Downtown Hottie and Lady Gracenote. And I believe my fellow fake-gambler actually *put* $6 on these choices. And part of me would really be thrilled if it turned out that I have a hidden talent for picking good horse names…but he didn’t say anything like, “Oh, man, Lisa! You hit the trifecta!” (or whatever…) so I’m assuming Im a Mosaic Rockstar was my one-time hit. (Still a little thrilling though…)

3. People stop me for directions a lot. And…today, while I was on my lunchtime constitutional, a woman stopped me and said, “Excuse me?” and I stopped because I assumed she needed help figuring out where to go…but then she said, “Where do you get your hair done?” and *that* is totally a scam, isn’t it? I’ve had people stop me before and ask that very same question and it turns out that they want money or personal information or something…(although maybe I’m wrong? I Googled various street-salon-scam term combinations and came up empty-handed…which maybe means she was legitimately wondering where I get my hair done…but…I doubt it. I had my luxurious brown locks pulled back in a ponytail today…and it may have been a nice ponytail…but it wasn’t anything that was going to stop traffic). And…as soon as I discovered that she was not a poor lost soul but rather thought she could sucker me into some hair scam, I was sorry I stopped…but instead of having a normal reaction, like, “I’m sorry — I have to go…” I pulled a Lisa and ended up blurting out, “I have to go!” with wild eyes and, long story short, if she *did* just want the name of a hairdresser, I’ll bet she thought I was a real weirdo.

4. I’ll just come right out and admit I ended up at a McDonald’s — and I know you’re all judging me now, but I had a good reason…and yet if I was to pull *another* Lisa and explain *how* I ended up at this McDonald’s, it would be very much like my old coworker Paulie said the other night — that my stories are like a John Bonham riff in a Led Zeppelin song — and/or imply that there is something WRONG with going to McDonald’s…and there isn’t. So…we’ll leave it at that. I was there. The End. (Almost…)

I ended up next to this dude who ordered two Filet-o-Fish sandwiches…and then appended his order with, “But I want them to be FRESH. And they need to be HOT.” And the guy behind the counter sort of said, “Sure…okay…” and I thought, “Wow. Yes. Right. I’m sure they’re going to go out of their way to give your Filet-o-Fishes some tender loving care…” And, I mean, I guess I shouldn’t judge either, but…it was a little high-maintenance, no? (And this is coming from ME…which really says something…) There’s a time and place, right? My mom used to (and perhaps still does…I just haven’t seen her order seafood in awhile…) ask if the salmon on the menu was farmed or not (or something)…and I understand that if you’re, you know, coughing up some change at an actual sit-down place, you can make requests like that. But…this was McDonald’s. You sorta get what you get, right? (I confess I actually really think the latest commercial is catchy…) But THEN the guy says, “And I don’t want half a slice of cheese. I want a whole slice of cheese on both of them.” And the guy said, “I’ll have to charge you extra…” and he completely lost his mind — “What are you talking about?? The cheeseburgers have whole slices of cheese! Why can’t I get a whole slice of cheese on my Filet-o-Fishes??” and he asked how much he would be charged and the guy said, “33 cents,” and he had another meltdown — “33 cents?? I have to pay SIXTY-SIX CENTS for WHOLE SLICES OF CHEESE on my Filet-o-Fishes? This is ridiculous! Ridiculous!” and on and on and on and ON. They had to get the manager. I left before I learned the outcome…but, man, oh, man…I did not envy the two guys behind the counter who had to deal with him. Yowza.

5. I had to wait for the A and the F trains this afternoon for a super-long time…and noticed a nice old lady get on the train with me at my A train stop…and, since we had to wait so long, the train was totally crowded…and as we were all sort of finding a spot, this nice little old lady says, “Give me some fucking room!” and THEN we got to Jay Street and a B train showed up on the F track…and she shouts, “This is fucking ridiculous!” and THEN she got on the train, but stood in the doorway as we all tried to hear what was going on with this mystery B train and they tried to close the doors with her still in the doorway and she says, “I can’t fucking believe it!” So. In three fell swoops, Grouchypants sort of debunked some commonly held old lady myths.

And then I came home and everything basically went back to normal. The End. (For real.)

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Freelancers = Cheap Cows?

Okay, I’m probably going to get myself into a lot of trouble for this, but…as I sat in my little Brooklyn studio this morning, ever the diligent worker bee for a number of different outlets, I couldn’t help but think of the age-old adage, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

That’s kind of how I feel about my career these days. And I guess it’s not a *completely* accurate analogy as I’m not writing for free, but, I mean, think about it: The milk is cheaper.

And I’m not sure if it’s a function of the economy and that it’s REALLY that there are TONS of places out there that would love to hire me full-time if only they could (but they just got out of a serious relationship? And are just not in the right place right now? And are incapable/unable to give me what I want/need? Or have had plenty of long-lasting, meaningful relationships with writers who are comfortable with non-exclusivity?)…OR…if it’s really that these places like to get together every once in awhile but are really not looking for anything serious…and are happy to string me along as long as they possibly can until the next poor chump comes along.

And, I mean, who are we kidding? A girl’s gotta pay her rent and a girl’s gotta eat, so…until Nora Ephron turns my book into a screenplay (or Mr. Wonderfulpants falls from the sky), I don’t really have a choice. But it did sort of hit me…in a kind of Carrie Bradshaw-esque voiceover with a closeup of typing across a Mac screen: Are freelancers the trollops of the media industry?

I don’t have a ton of time to expound upon this right this red, hot minute (as noted above — I’m a working girl!), but I feel like the past couple of days have been full of epiphanies and whatnot, so let’s maybe push a giant metaphorical pause button and revisit this after my deadline?

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