August Thoughts (via Song Lyrics and Book Quotes)

 

Can’t believe I let the summer slip away again

Like watermelon juice dripping down my chin

It might be light enough for one last swim

If we hurry on down to the shore

A fool would ask for more

A fool would ask for more

~from “August” by Mark Erelli

 

Summer is winding down here in southern England. The chilly nights and mornings and the huge ripe blackberries tell us autumn will be here soon. Did I make enough of the summer? Or did I so ardently escape the heat, here and in America, that I didn’t let myself enjoy it?

We didn’t end up making a summer pudding this year. It’s an old-fashioned, grown-up dessert made of almost nothing but white bread and fresh berries, but if you want to taste July in a bowl this is it. Sweetness from strawberries and raspberries; only just palatable sharpness from currants; smoothness from a generous pouring of cream. As my husband says each year, who knows how many more annual summer puddings we’ll get? Food traditions are as important a way of marking the passing of time and the seasons’ gifts as anything else.

~

I’ve had “August” by Mark Erelli, a New England folk singer/songwriter we discovered through The Darwin Song Project, in my head for weeks and weeks. It presents scenes from a languid summer evening that appeal to my nostalgia for my American childhood. More than that, though, its recurring line – “A fool would ask for more” – encourages me to be grateful for what I have and to appreciate these ordinary, fleeting moments.

“You’re one of those people who wants everything but what they have.” So Ruth, dying of breast cancer, skewers her best friend Ann, the narrator of Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg. That line stung a little, because I fear it’s true of me. When I’m in America I’m silently contemptuous of the lavish lifestyle and the can-do attitude; as soon as I’m back in England I stew in my cluttered house and my shabby little life. I envy friends with design magazine-worthy homes (but I don’t want the hassle of owning a house), sweet kids (but I don’t want to have children), stable careers (but I don’t want a regular job), and comfortable habits not needled by environmental and ethical dilemmas (but once you know you can’t go back).

~

My five-year freelancing anniversary passed quietly at the end of July. Being a freelancer has all the perks you’d expect – no boss or co-workers, at least not in the traditional sense; no commute; flexibility; variety – but also some downsides you might not realize. In my case, it means I virtually never leave my house, and I’m sedentary and sitting most of the time. I don’t get vacation time or sick pay, I have to muddle through my taxes in two countries, and I put hours and hours of work into assignments that pay insultingly little.

When asked recently for advice about freelance writing, I warned that it is extremely difficult to make money from writing about books – so if you want to do it, be sure you’re just doing it for the love of books, and secure another source of income. For me that’s proofreading science journal articles. It’s something I’m good at and find just challenging enough to keep me stimulated, but if I’m honest I don’t really care about this work. It’s just a paycheck.

To put it simply, I’m bored. Some of my writing gigs have spanned the full five years, and I’m still doing exactly the same things. I’ve had a couple small pay rises, but I’m not earning significantly more than I was in 2013, even though I was recently named an associate editor at one of the magazines (an honorary title, alas). I feel restless and like I’m just waiting for the smallest signal to tell me I can drop everything. It would be a relief to let it all go. Julia Cameron captures this feeling in The Artist’s Way: “Restive in our lives, we yearn for more, we wish, we chafe. … We want to do something but we think it needs to be the right something, by which we mean something important.”

So really what I should be doing is aiming higher. I’m now a member of the National Book Critics Circle and have access to a document listing the pay rates for big-name venues, places that pay hundreds of dollars for book reviews and $1+/word for literary articles. But it often takes me months to get up the courage to pitch to a new publication, if I ever do it at all.

In Help Me! (out on September 6th), freelance journalist Marianne Power took on a different self-help book each month for a year to see if she could change her life for the better. One particularly rough month was all about Rejection Therapy. “I should have been constantly sending ideas to different publications but I didn’t. … I didn’t want to get rejected because I would take that as a confirmation of all the insecurities I had in my head – that I was a rubbish writer, that I had been lucky to get even this far, that I would never work again.”

That passage certainly resonated for me. No matter how many hundreds of reviews I write, I still barely trust myself to write another successful one. Temporary triumphs fade fast. Getting a pitch accepted at Literary Hub had been one of the highlights of my year, but pretty much as soon as the article was published on the website I felt deflated. It was a flash in the pan; a few comments and retweets and then it was forgotten before you know it.

I didn’t think I was a flighty person who needed a lot of novelty in my life. But Beryl Markham – lion hunter, horse trainer, aviatrix – has been reminding me that even if you have a good life that many would admire, even if you’d be a fool to ask for more, sometimes you still need a change. Here’s a passage from the formidable adventurer’s West with the Night: “I wonder if I should have a change – a year in Europe this time – something new, something better, perhaps. A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. … it is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”

My 35th birthday is coming up this autumn. It feels like time for a rethink. What do I want every tomorrow to look like? It’s all too easy to stick with what feels like a sure thing instead of launching into something new.

 

How do you ensure you’re appreciating your life but also challenging yourself with new things?

36 thoughts on “August Thoughts (via Song Lyrics and Book Quotes)

  1. Congrats on your 5-year achievement. Wow–all of this really resonates with me, as I’m also a freelancer. Here in the U.S., I find my writing for universities (school/college magazines) the most rewarding. My struggle is that this work takes away from my own creative work, which pays me nothing (but enjoyment). It’s always a juggling act–this whole work/life thing. And self-doubt is always lurking–I get that. I usually go into projects thinking, fake it ’til I make it! Sounds like a smart move joining the National Book Critics Circle. Freelancers of all kinds need to ask for more–there are so many who work for almost nothing–and know we’re worth ever penny. I’ll be following to see where your new year takes you!

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    1. I don’t think I realized you were a freelancer; I thought you were working on your writing projects full time (I should have known that’s not generally financially feasible in this world!). College magazines sounds like an interesting area to get into. You’re right: whatever the undertaking is, there’s going to be a feeling of impostor syndrome for at least a while until you can convince yourself you really can do this. I still fight that with nearly every new publication.

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  2. Did you see a tweet doing the rounds inviting female freelancers to a get together in London recently? I wish I could give you the details but I failed to make a note of them. A little careful googling might turn it up. Freelancing can be a lonely old game – no validation, late payments and insecurity are all part of it but the independence and freedom can compensate. It sounds as though you may be at a turning point, though.

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    1. I belong to several freelancer groups on Facebook, two of them exclusively for women. They are a good source of moral support. I’m sure meeting up in person would be good for me, though I tend to shy away from social situations where I don’t know anyone. My introversion feeds on itself…

      I stayed in my library job for 5.5 years (which was much too long in the end), so clearly this is about my maximum tolerance for doing the same kind of work. I envy/marvel at people who do the same job for decades.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is so admirably honest. For what it’s worth, I’m hugely impressed by/envious of your freelancing; from where I’m standing, it looks like you’ve made a success of it. I haven’t got any good advice for how to challenge yourself, though. Mostly that’s because my life has been so unstable since I left university – I haven’t lived in the same place or had the same job for more than eighteen months at a time in over five years. I do think that within the next two years, I’m going to need to start thinking again about future planning, although I’ve been letting things go the way they will for a while.

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    1. I did eventually manage to get myself up to an entry-level wage comparable to what I’d been earning in London, but it took a couple years. I can sympathize with your sense of unrootedness in that I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 2.5 years since I moved to England. For years we became known as the people who were always moving, every six months or a year, because a job contract ended or a landlord decided to sell the property, etc. And that didn’t fit in with my vision of myself. I think it’s contributed to me feeling unsettled and unlike a grown-up.

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      1. It can be so difficult to recreate a version of adulthood that doesn’t match the version one grew up with. I think quite a few of us are still grappling with that.

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    1. We do have loads of currants in the freezer, so if we bought some strawberries and/or raspberries and maybe substituted in some of our bounteous blackberries, it could still be done. Have you ever made an Autumn pudding? We did that one year. Mostly apple and blackberry, but a similar construction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I quite agree. I’d be tempted to break with tradition and substitute in some of the many, many blackberries and gooseberries we have in the freezer. But I suppose I shouldn’t mess with a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Dang, that’s quite the question you’ve posed at the end of this post. I can’t answer it. Like Elle, I’ve watched you publishe articles and reviews in increasingly prestigious places and thought that your got it figured out. I gave up after just a few published reviews, because the pay and the engagement (or honestly, attention) each one yields its so low. But I never really committed either.

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    1. It’s almost best to think of the reviewing as a hobby, because the money adds up very slowly. I still don’t feel like I’ve ‘cracked’ it. In some of my Facebook groups I see others who are in their mid-20s and have landed reviews with NPR, Washington Post and the NY Times Book Review. A big part of it is just them being persistent go-getter types; they don’t necessarily write any better than I do.

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  5. Rebecca, I think your post here exhibits a great deal of wisdom, and let me offer congratulations as well on your five year anniversary in freelancing! Your honest introspection gives me pause. Combine honesty, wisdom and your obvious talents together and you will surely arrive closer to knowing what changes are coming your way, if any. This is a most excellent read/post. I really like how you constructed it. I’ve always appreciated work that raises the issues involved in the life of the solitary professions – and you’ve done that here beautifully! Thanks and best wishes.

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      1. Absolutely, Rebecca, the poet’s life has its loneliness aspect, and before becoming a poet, I was a visual artist. Not gregarious by nature, had to learn how to be “outgoing” as part of being a teacher and now, dealing with the “marketing/business” part of writing, etc…which I’m definitely not a natural fit for. Few good good friends, but many nice acquaintances through a thriving poetry/arts community here in Western NY.

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  6. Great post and it resonated with me. I freelanced (technical writing and paid blogging) for nearly ten years. It suited my circumstances in the beginning but then I was really lonely. When I told a colleague who I often worked on projects with that I was looking forward to a meeting, she said, “You’re not doing this right. Freelancers should love bring at home in their pjs!”

    And so I went to see a career counsellor and rethought everything. I’ve now had a complete career change (close to finishing my study), blogging is just for fun, and I feel totally re-energised. Sometimes you need some big changes rather than little tweaks to switch your outlook.

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    1. I would love to have work that required me to travel to London or further afield — not that often, maybe just once a week or even every other week, but just something that broke up the monotony of my days at home and made me feel like my time and presence were valued. In some ways I think I’m well suited to this lifestyle, but then in others I’m definitely not. I don’t have the gumption to pitch ideas very often, and I don’t have a friend network that supports me in the absence of colleagues. My mother did actually suggest a life coach! I told her it would be highway robbery, for one thing, and I also don’t trust some random to advise me. A counsellor would be different, though.

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  7. This felt familiar to me as well – I’m not a freelancer but, having done a PhD and then worked in academia for almost four years now (in jobs that have required me to spend a lot of time either on my own, or only having regular contact with students rather than colleagues), I’m used to trying to manage my own time alone. It can be difficult and isolating, although like you, I’m also grateful for the freedom it gives me and I know I’d be no good at a job with standard office hours.

    I don’t know how to answer your question because I feel like I fall on the other side of the equation, which is just as bad – I’m always trying to do too many new things at once and burning out! I think sometimes we need to recognise how far we’ve come rather than telling ourselves we ought to have travelled farther.

    I love the summer pudding picture – my grandma used to make delicious summer pudding.

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    1. That’s interesting to hear. I think the academic experience must vary widely; my husband is a teaching associate and PhD student and during term time sees a lot of both students and fellow faculty. That helps him to feel valued. He teaches undergrads and Master’s students but most enjoys the smaller groups.

      My natural pessimism is a real roadblock sometimes…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it depends on the department – this was the case for me when I worked at Durham last year and it was really nice. I loved small group seminar teaching.

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  8. Well done on the five years from me as well. I can’t offer any really useful advice – I’m trying to work out how to get out of my own rut. But I hope that inspiration strikes, and that more people discover what great stuff you write.

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  9. There seem to be a lot of similarities in our situations although I pressed a pause button on it all for about a decade while I focussed on step-mothering (which wasn’t in my plans – I’d intended to focus on my writing throughout my life). In real-life I am not a very good multi-tasker, although I read like a multi-tasker! *grins* It can be very difficult to balance the need to stretch with the need to maintain and nourish; I feel like it’s a daily exercise. I do have specific rituals (some more solid than others) which are designed to keep various parts of life fresh and in motion (not always progressing, but moving, you know?) but I feel like it requires constant work and attention and I wonder if it will ever become ‘natural’ or if, instead, I will change my expectations of what ‘natural’ should be. I found the info you shared about the NBCC membership particularly interesting; I’ve toyed with joining but although it’s a small sum of money, I’ve always redirected it to postage/entry/subscription fees instead. On a related-note, I just finished John McPhee’s Draft No. 4; if you are familiar with his writing or follow TNY ctosely, you might appreciate it more than I did – there is a LOT about specific assignments and projects through his career and different co-workers and of course his focus is non-fiction, which would probably appeal to you more than it did to me. For general writing/creative advice, it was good, but focussed on fundamentals.

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    1. I don’t think I knew anything about your career or life situation, you coy BIP 🙂 I imagine you’re more at the creative writing end?

      I think for now I will try to test the limits of some of my current gigs — see if I can add more responsibilities, or tailor them more to what I want to be doing — rather than drop them altogether. But we’ll see.

      Earlier this year I was given a random $50 bonus on an assignment whose pay rate was already agreed, so I took it as a sign and put it directly towards NBCC dues. I’m not sure it will feel ‘worth it’ and I may not keep it up for many years, but for now I’m enjoying being able to say I’m a member in pitch e-mails and bios. And their spreadsheet of paid venues may well prove very useful.

      I’ve never read any McPhee but would like to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I began completely expecting to focus on creative work and the initial pieces were all fiction but then, as I began to read more and more, my own personal substitute for an MFA, I started into some non-fiction, but more along the personal essays line of things rather than investigative journalism. We should talk. Hee hee. Like I’ll have my people call yours and we can talk about how we have no people. 😀

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    2. Personal essays is an area I’d like to move into a bit more. Two of the pieces I placed this year started off as book reviews but morphed to include more autobiographical material. It’s been fun. (Though I always doubt whether what I have to say about my experience is at all interesting!)

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  10. Thank you for your honesty here. My freelance life stays about the same, but it has variety within it: for example, I’ve proofread some Eastern European bank customer service documents, edited a business article and sorted out a powerpoint for a conference today, and am about to start transcribing a war veteran discussing whether storytelling is a good thing for them. But the work hasn’t changed much in itself and I’m earning about what I have done for a while. However, I like the stability of it all. I love learning new stuff through my job and adore working with my music journalists and ghostwriters. I’m lucky that I love things staying the same.

    I push and challenge myself in other parts of my life, e.g. my progress through endurance and track and field officials’ qualifications. I do quite a lot of volunteering in general as well as running a fair bit, and those keep me socialised just about!

    Good luck sorting out what you want to do. If you ever want to talk about expanding freelance work into the sorts of things I do, I’m always happy to have a chat about it.

    And I always find your reviews and posts very authoritative and respect your views greatly, so I can see you’re an excellent reviewer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m impressed with the variety of work you’ve managed to build up. I’ll have a think about whether there’s anything there that appeals to me.

      Volunteering would certainly be a good thing for me. The Global Educational Trust is opening up a free/by donation bookshop in our local shopping centre soon and I thought about offering to help them sort and arrange books on shelves, and then do some occasional hours at the till. I’ve always felt (selfishly, I know) that volunteering would take away hours from my paid work and time I should be devoting to pitches. But I think it would be beneficial in other ways.

      And a belated thank you for your (and Mr Liz’s) computer advice — I’ve finally had it with my aged laptop and we ordered me a Lenovo desktop to arrive next week. I’m amazed to look back in my e-mails and see that I first asked you for advice nearly two years ago; I managed to stick with this machine for that much longer!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, that’s funny, Mr Liz doesn’t even remember giving you advice!! I think that volunteering sounds like a good fit for you, although I like volunteering wayyyy away from books and editing and all that, myself! I make sure my volunteering is evenings and weekends, and I have worked to make sure my work does not encroach into evenings and weekends, so it works well. It’s very beneficial – mine gets me outside and in the fresh air, too!

        Drop me a line if you want me to go through all the different things I do workwise, and I’m bound to be able to pass things on to you to try out.

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  11. I don’t know that I have any good advice for you, but I can tell you that I completely understand where you’re coming from. Good luck sorting it all through. You’ll figure it out.

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