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?
Freelance working from home can be a lonely and emotional pursuit. The nervous anticipation of pitching an article idea only to be rejected is tough for me, and even a fairly standard editing process can bring me close to tears. You really have to wonder why someone so sensitive to criticism and intolerant of failure would have chosen this career!
Today I thought I’d pick out a few achievements or words of encouragement that have kept me going through some of the stress and disappointment of recent months.
Polite rejections from newspapers that can’t hire freelancers:
“Dear Rebecca, You are more than qualified. No problem there. But we are operating on such a strict budget that to pay freelancers is just not in the cards. I hope you have better luck with other papers. It’s such a satisfying thing to do – reviewing.” (I quite agree.)
“As much as I would like to work with someone with your depth of knowledge, my freelance budget is fairly restricted right now … I do hope you’re able to find outlets for your work. The world needs more smart critics.”
Kind words from editors I’ve worked with for a long time now:
“Hi Rebecca, I don’t think I tell you often enough what a great job I think you’re doing. It’s always a pleasure to read your reviews!”
“Hi Rebecca, Thanks for yet another well-written, thoughtful review!”
“Thanks, again, for all that you do!” (Simple, but it meant a lot.)
Compliments from an editor I’ve only done a couple reviews for:
(Explaining a delay in putting the review online) “Sorry about that. There’s a possibility it could run on the 10th, but it would require editing it down for size, which I don’t want to do. It is too well written. Not enough fat on it :)”
“You’re a real pro. Thanks for such clean copy.”
Thanks from an author, via a Goodreads message:
“I was so pleased with your insightful and generous review of my new book. Very touched to read it today!”
And, from Goodreads the other day (for what it’s worth!):
“Hello Rebecca, In our community of readers, you stand out in a notable way: You’re one of the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Reading reviews by book lovers like you is one of our favorite things on Goodreads. Thank you for helping other readers find a good (or avoid a not-so-good!) book.”
Of course, you – my blog/Goodreads readers and commenters – are also a big source of reassurance and good cheer. Thank you so much for reading and engaging with my work!
I’ve worked from home as a freelance writer and editor for a smidge over 2.5 years now, and I think the sedentary lifestyle is just starting to catch up with me in terms of my health. Now, it’s not like my previous library assistant job was particularly high-impact, but it at least meant a walk to the local train station, a walk on the other end from the London terminus to my building, daily activity in the form of shelving, errands on foot during my lunch break, and then the commute in reverse.
These days, with the exception of a weekly walk to the grocery store (0.6 mile away), a few strolls up the road to the playing field for some fresh air, and maybe biweekly vacuuming, I’m almost entirely inactive. I’ve never had any lively hobbies apart from walking/gentle hiking, which we only tend to do in earnest on holiday. I don’t have a bike, and I’ve never learned to drive in the UK; my husband takes the car to work most days anyway. Without the rhythms many people have of going out to work, chasing after kids, running errands, and so on, I’m pretty much confined to our flat and spend most of my time sitting down. Of course I could go on YouTube at any time to find aerobics and yoga videos, but do I? No way, José.
Just in the past couple weeks I’ve started noticing twinges in my fingers and thumbs and weakness in my forearm – worst with my right arm/hand, which I write with. It’s not really surprising given that I spend eight hours a day typing, mouse clicking, and hand-writing notes on review books, and that’s not even counting the writing I do on my own time. I belong to a Facebook forum for women writers, and hand trouble is certainly not unique to me. In one thread a few dozen ladies replied to chip in about hand pain and what to do about it. Their suggestions ran the gamut from ice packs and supplements to massages and acupuncture.
More generally, I’ve felt achy and lethargic. I never feel refreshed from sleep, and I end my low-energy days feeling mentally but also physically exhausted. Pangs in my lower back are almost certainly due to my posture at my two desk setups, but it was several years ago that I realized I no longer felt resilient to physical knocks. If I wrenched my neck too far to one side or tweaked my shoulder while reaching under the bed, I’d be feeling it for the whole rest of the day, if not longer. Last week it was my hips that ached. This week it’s the side of my left foot. Surely I shouldn’t feel quite so crumbly at the age of 32! Our mostly vegetarian diet is very good, so that’s not the issue – apart from a few vitamins I might be low on. What to do?
A few books (it always comes back to books here) finally convinced me to do something about my health. You might be surprised to learn which ones. One is Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, a work of wildlife biology I featured in last week’s Books in Brief. In one chapter Heinrich marvels at how bears can hibernate for months without adverse physical effects, given that humans in extended bedrest studies suffer lost muscle mass and bone density, poor absorption of nutrients, and pre-diabetes levels of insulin resistance. “Our bodies are not adapted to inactivity,” he writes. “In our evolutionary history, in contrast to bears, exercise was a constant, and we’re not made to tolerate being idle for long.” A 25-year study of 17,000 Harvard graduates found “the stresses of inactivity mimic the aging response. Every hour of vigorous exercise as an adult was repaid with two hours of additional life span.” It’s no surprise that I’m feeling older than my age!
I’ve also recently stumbled across Jenifer Joy Madden’s books, The Durable Human Manifesto (2013) and How to Be a Durable Human (coming out later this month). Here are a few of the things she taught me or reinforced:
- Computer work burns a quarter the calories of manual labor.
- “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity,” according to James Levine of the Mayo Clinic.
- A sedentary lifestyle increases the risks of DVT, cancer, and metabolic disease.
- The USA has seen a resurgence in rickets from lack of Vitamin D from diet/sunshine.
- Reading on a screen, one blinks 66% less often than when reading in print, leading to dry eyes.
So with these books to convict me, what have I chosen to do about my health?
- Since Saturday I’ve been taking a daily multivitamin with iron.
- I’m making more of an effort to drink a glass of milk a day.
- I bought a supportive wrist/finger glove to wear while typing and writing by hand.
- If that fails, I’ve bought a moldable ice pack.
- I’m looking into yoga classes in the area.
- Biggest change of all: we ordered a cross trainer and it arrived a couple hours ago. It’s on the low end of both price and functionality, but will meet my needs. As soon as my hubby can put it together – facing the window in the spare room – and we rig up an e-reader ledge, I plan on using it for half an hour every weekday. That’s time spent standing and exercising, but hopefully not lost ‘work’ time if I can read a review book on my Kindle at the same time.
As someone who works with words, I live so much in my head that just to acknowledge that I have a body that occasionally needs care is big for me. I know the above are not huge steps, but they’re a start. With vigilance, I should be able to ward off osteoporosis, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, three conditions I’m probably more likely than average to develop later on in life.
For those of you who do desk- or computer-based work, how do you try to counter the perils of sedentary life?
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions – I prefer to set challenges and commitments at any time of year – but I have a few professional and reading-related goals that I will share here for the sake of accountability.
- Target a few more big-name publications. My work will appear in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Los Angeles Review of Books in the early months of 2016 – that’s progress, but I’d like to work on getting some other noteworthy publications.
- Assess which freelance gigs are working for me and which ones are not worth it. Sometimes I look at the number of hours I put into a project compared to the ultimate payment amount and think I must be crazy to continue with it.
- Find ways of being paid into my British bank account rather than hoarding lots of dollars in an American bank account where they’re not doing me much good.
- Focus on reading more of the books I actually own. This means cutting down on NetGalley and Edelweiss requests and volunteer reviewing!
- Keep an ongoing priority list of books and authors I want to try, and make steady progress through it. On the list so far: Elena Ferrante, Matt Haig, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Wallace Stegner, Tim Winton, and Nell Zink.
What are some of your goals for 2016 – reading-related or otherwise?
When I was growing up, my mom instituted a Thanksgiving ritual whereby each family member was given five dried corn kernels and we would go around in a circle and each say one thing we were thankful for, repeating the cycle until we’d all thought of five reasons to be grateful and added our corns to a communal basket.
I recently read The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan. For her one-year experiment in changing her attitude, she kept a daily gratitude diary in which she wrote one to three things she was thankful for every evening.
I’m not the world’s most optimistic person, and sometimes I can only see the bad side of my position as a freelance worker: uncertain income, loads of little piecemeal assignments not adding up to a proper salary, the dread of IRS calculations, no vacation time, feeling cut off from humanity and stuck in the house, and so on.
But in the spirit of Thanksgiving corns and gratitude diaries, I’d like to offer five reasons why I’m very grateful for what I’m doing now.
- A truly flexible schedule. No day is ever exactly the same as the next. It’s no problem at all to fit in doctor’s or vet’s appointments; I’m always in for workmen and deliveries. Chores, errands and bits of food prep can squeeze in wherever they need to. I can get up and make a cup of tea whenever I like. I generally find time to have the cat on my lap for a couple of hours every day while I read. And sometimes I even get the luxury of a nap!
- None of the petty crap of a 9-to-5 job. Boy, I sure don’t miss commuting to London, having a boss and annoying colleagues, putting on a faux-helpful demeanor for customers, and watching the clock in near-existential despair. Yes, I have employers nowadays, but it’s really completely different – they’re just names on the other side of e-mails. I am my own taskmaster; the buck stops here. Plus I almost never bother with makeup.
- Varied work. On most days I split my time between editing scientific journal articles, reading for work and pleasure, writing book reviews, and blogging. Even if I’m preparing multiple reviews at the same time, assignments feel distinct depending on the venue. Writing a strictly structured 350-word review for Kirkus is nothing like writing 950 words with a theological slant for Third Way magazine, for instance.
- Occasional affirmations. The majority of my freelance queries are met with silence if not outright rejection, but every so often I get a ‘yes’ that can make my day and keep me going. Although it’s not a paid assignment, I was particularly pleased when Third Way magazine asked me to write their 2015 Year in Fiction roundup. I’ve also recently started working with Publishers Weekly, the Times Literary Supplement, Stylist magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Life revolves around books. I’m surrounded by books all day, every day – much more so than I ever was in my six years of working in libraries. I’m always deep into 10 or 15 books at a time, with stacks of print and virtual books waiting for me. I get paid to read books and write what I think about them. Isn’t that amazing?!
From The Gratitude Diaries I learned that thankfulness appears to boost the immune system, lower stress, attract others’ help, and spark 20% more progress towards goals. Really, why not try it?
As one man Kaplan met puts it, “I’m happy, healthy … and in the most productive moment of my life. If I don’t walk around the street buoyant and jubilant, then what’s wrong with me?”
Our address was chosen at random to take part in a nationwide time use survey run by NatCen Social Research in conjunction with the University of Oxford. On last Sunday and again this past Friday, we had to fill out the entire day’s activities in 10-minute blocks; for the whole week we also had to note our hours spent in paid work. My husband’s graph looked pretty standard, but mine resembled a Morse code message. Overall I did 35 paid hours –making for a fairly normal working week – but it was spread across the days, often in evenings or in odd chunks here and there.
Having my paid work, volunteer work and hobby all overlap in the realm of bookishness is convenient, but it also means I treat all my hours as potential work time. I consider my unpaid reviews (e.g. for Nudge, For Books’ Sake, The Bookbag, Shiny New Books and Third Way magazine) to be ‘work’ just as much as those I’m paid for, so it can feel like I put in much more than a 40-hour week.
The truth is that it’s hard to make a living from book reviews. Very few venues still pay for reviews – why would they, given the abundance of people who review for free on Amazon and Goodreads, among other websites? I’ve found some American print and web publications willing to pay for writing, but in the UK, paid opportunities can seem few and far between. My more reliable source of income is editing academic journal articles.
There’s one exception to the rule: self-published books. Indie authors have to do all their own marketing and publicity, so are eager to garner professional reviewers’ opinions. Several of my main gigs are for independent companies that provide book reviews to self-published authors, for a fee. There have some a handful of gems over the past 20 months, but there have also been some books so utterly terrible that they should never have seen the light of day.
I wrote to Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s book editor, last year and asked for his take on the situation. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote to him:
“It seems to be an irony of this life that the books I want to be reading and most enjoy, I usually don’t get paid to review; while many of the books I am paid to review (most of them self-published) range from okay to terrible. I wondered if you might have any advice for me – specifically, whether there is still money to be made from reviewing for traditional print media.”
He let me down in the nicest possible way:
“The short answer is, ‘No.’ There has never been much money to be made reviewing books, and, lately, there’s almost none. The collapse of almost all the nation’s book sections along with the rise of a million book blogs and a trillion customer reviews on online bookseller sites mean there’s very little demand for professional book reviews. For people who want to read about books, this is largely a good thing. For people who want to support themselves by writing about books, it’s problematic. If you write well and enjoy it, that may be enough. Or you may find some new way to write about books that could draw an online audience. I wish the best!”
Do I have some novel way of writing about books? I doubt I could make that case. I write for pay when I can, but for the most part I just follow my tastes and amass all the free new books I can – through the unpaid review venues mentioned above, from the library, via giveaways, or as electronic downloads from NetGalley and Edelweiss. Although I’m a writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; it’s an essential part of my identity rather than a professional goal.
Many of you may be bloggers who have a day job and review books purely for the love of it. I’d be interested to get some feedback from any of you who write book reviews, especially if you get paid for some but not for others:
- Do you feel varying degrees of pressure depending on the audience or venue you’re writing for?
- Does the knowledge that an author (perhaps a self-published one) is paying for your opinion mean that you approach the work differently?
- Do you see a future for paid book reviews?