Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eulogy for a Once-Worthy Career

Today I said farewell to my 26-year career as a science writer. Oh, I may linger around the coffin for a bit, just to see if the corpse magically returns to life, but I've never been great at wishful thinking and taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) has never been my thing.

It's also possible I shouldn't be writing this eulogy until my feelings are more settled, but then again, it's immediate and heartfelt.

My feelings are a mixture--that all-too-familiar hollowness of mourning combined with an expansive sense of freedom; Fear of the future and its stoic opposite; Disparagement and bewilderment--what the hell took me so long to get to this point? I berate myself for behaving like a conceited princess, "I'm too good for this!" but simultaneously for being a feeble old has-been, "I'm no longer good enough."

The circumstances of the ending are just my stumbling blocks. Maybe I wouldn't have tripped if I'd had my eyes open in the first place--or been more fastidious about my working conditions, or less patient with the folks I worked for. But now I am where I am.

The slow-motion downfall started in December when the small, New York-based magazine I've been writing for -- almost 7 years now -- was sold to a large publisher of special interest magazines in another state. I had a contract with the small publisher. The agreement stipulated that if either party wanted to change or end the contract, they had to give 60 days notice. I thought that gave both parties a measure of predictability and safety.

But when the magazine was sold, my contract evidently wasn't part of the deal. No one bothered to notify me until the deal was complete -- about the same time as I'd finalized the copy for the next issue (March-April) of the magazine.

My contract specified that I was to be paid $1000 upon acceptance of copy for each issue. That sum never changed. I never missed a deadline. But the old publisher had gotten quite sloppy about paying me on time. I once asked for a raise and was told they didn't have the money for it. I also complained (very nicely) that I would like to be paid on time, but they took no notice of my requests and I let it slide.

When the magazine was sold, the editor said the new owners still wanted things to continue as they had. She said I should go ahead and prepare another column as usual. At that point, I was owed for four months' work, so I thought it would be good to get some assurance that I would be paid what they owed me before doing more work for them. The new publisher's back office told me that it was their policy to pay freelancers when each issue of the magazine ships, not when the copy is accepted.

At that point I realized that neither my editor -- the third I've had since I began writing for the magazine -- or the new owners even realized I had a contract. So I dug out a copy and sent it to them. But I also told them that since my old contract had been voided, I would like to make some changes. I told them I would take the usual fee for past work and for the next issue (May-June), but thereafter expected an increase in my fee to compensate for 7-years of inflation:
I appreciate  that there are market forces at work eroding the value of my craft such that it's dead cheap -- even free -- to acquire writing services. But I am guilty of further undermining this valuation by accepting fees that have declined in real monetary value. Just factoring in inflation since 2006 (when I began writing for the magazine and was paid $1000 per column) would mean that just to retain constant purchasing power, my fee should now be $1225 going by UK inflation rates and $1155 going by US inflation rates. My proposal of a fee of $1180 falls between these inflation-only increases. I must accept responsibility for not being more aggressive in seeking greater compensation ... sooner -- or otherwise finding more rewarding opportunities.
Amidst all the details of getting paid, I've failed to congratulate [New Publisher] on its acquisitions. I've long felt that the magazine and its sister publications have great potential for helping people with chronic health conditions. (In fact, I've suggested other areas where I see even greater opportunities along these lines.) In the avalanche of information available today, it's great to see that someone is still willing to try find a niche where personal information needs meet commercial endeavor.
The new publisher agreed to pay me upon acceptance, and said they would pay part of the fees that banks now charge to deposit checks. But they said there would be no contract -- just issue-to-issue assignments -- and no fee increase.

The good news is that, as of February 18, the new publisher has paid me for my work in the Jan-Feb and March-April issues. My editor said the woman in charge was working out other problems associated with moving staff -- and letting people go -- but there might still be hope they would find more money for me. The bad news is that the editor and her staff haven't yet gotten back to me to finalize the May-June copy.

Since last hearing from the magazine editor almost two weeks ago, I've had time to reflect -- and to have a brief dalliance with the idea of writing for a new client, in this case a major UK book publisher.

I was swept off my feet when, shortly after all-but-kissing-the-old-client-goodbye, I saw a call for freelancers to work on a book on a subject I've long hoped to write about. They were only looking for experienced science writers. I wrote to the editor immediately, declared my life-long passion for the subject and desire to contribute to her book. She wrote back asking for my CV and a couple relevant clips (I had already included this information in my original response) if I was interested. She told me the pay would be £130 for a 600-700 -word "spread" for the richly illustrated volume. After I asked, she said the copy for the book must be done by early June.

I spoke with the editor on the phone to ask a few more questions and sat down and crunched the numbers. If I worked really hard and could manage a whole chapter of the five-chapter book,  I might just be able to stay at roughly the same hourly rate as I'd achieved writing for the old client -- but completing my year's work by June. I wrote to say I'd be prepared to begin next week, and would like to take on either chapter 1 or 5.

I should have twigged that this might be less than a dream job when the editor wrote back to invite me to look at comparable format work in two other books by the publisher. And she said they really only wanted freelancers for chapters 2, 3, and 4. She said it would probably be best if I just picked a couple of "spread" topics and had a go -- because I wouldn't be paid for the writing unless the publisher decided to use it. This essentially was a "try-out" or "writing on spec."

I can't say I was impressed by the publisher's format. I like fun, accessible, lively presentation of information, but this was more like bending the story/ picking the subjects  to fit the format, rather than starting with interesting science and good writing and finding the best way to present it. I swallowed my pride and e-mailed the editor to say I  was less confident about doing a full chapter. But I said I would take her suggestion, and offered to do two topics -- an easy one, and one that would be quite difficult because it required distilling a broad field down into 600 words. Just doing diligent research on that subject would take a few days.

The editor wrote back to say she understood. She reminded me again that the work would only be paid if the publisher used it. And she said it would probably be best if I just tried one topic -- the hard one -- for which she would send me the directions in a few days.

The penny finally dropped. This editor was retreating rapidly -- or else we just weren't communicating well with one another. Either possibility was dire. Despite having seen my C.V., and examples of my work, the editor had gone from enthusiasm for my services and encouraging taking on a whole chapter -- to suggesting two sample "try-out spreads" -- to suggesting it was chancy that my work on a single "spread" would be up to snuff. And even if I should be so lucky as to be accepted after my try-out -- the job would pay less than the amount new EU immigrants need to earn in Britain in order to be eligible for benefits. {A slightly irrelevant detail, as I am not a new EU immigrant, but this additional way of discouraging incomers had just been announced} And that would be my reward for writing articles I wouldn't be especially proud of. Having just awoken from my sleepwalking through diminishing conditions of employment at the magazine, I didn't think this was a promising place to start a new assignment.

Thus it was this morning I found myself writing two dear John letters to my old and not-to-be new clients.

So where do I go from here? Despite these blows to my pride, in my heart of hearts, I do still think I'm a good science writer. But the field is just too depressing. There are fewer and fewer staff science writing positions, and they certainly aren't to be found in rural southwest England. I wouldn't rule out moving, but I also don't think I would ever land an interesting science writing job in the U.K. I have applied for some and never had even cursory interest. I don't think the British "get" me. But it's also possible that I'm just crap at what I do, or crap at presenting myself, or just too old and lazy.

So that leaves freelancing. There are precious few rewards in freelance writing beyond what inherent interest is to be had in the subject matter and of course personal pride in a job well done. There's no admiration from colleagues; no prizes, accolades, or even the pleasure of a laugh with colleagues at the water-cooler. Sometimes I am able to give a friend a tip on a health condition that I know about from my work. And of course I am lucky to be able to live in a (usually) pleasant rural location and have the flexibility to fit my work to fit around laundry, housecleaning, cooking, gardening and unpaid writing and editing.

I don't think it's just the poor  pay that bugs me. I'm sufficiently well-off and historically thrifty that I don't need to earn massive amounts of dosh. Rather, I think it's the declining pay, combined with the dwindling personal satisfaction or sense that the work is particularly helpful to--or appreciated by--the world.

The only question that remains is, where do I now want to volunteer? I'm writing another unpaid article for a free local newsletter. But then? It's a question that is being asked a million times a day as the Baby Boom generation retires. In asking, I'm only a couple years ahead of other 61-year-olds.

Maybe I'll go on a silent retreat to find myself (again) and take the next step in mindfulness meditation. Or I might be happy going back to school. Maybe I should devote myself more seriously to poetry. Or learning to play the guitar. Or gardening. Or painting. Or turning our garden into a retreat center. Or starting a village cooperative store. Or writing the World's Greatest Cookbook. Maybe I should get a dog or finish turning all the photos from my summer travels into picture books.  So many possibilities await once I stop listening for my once-worthy career to rouse itself from death and ring that little bell!


  1. Celia, I so enjoyed reading this entry of your blog -- I'm only sorry it took me so long to get around to it. Your writing is so very good (crisp, concise, stylish); so much of what one reads on line these days is sloppy and trite, one forgets what good writing is! I hope that you have found a project that you can put your heart into, or that you will find one soon. I'll keep reading. Gemma

  2. You made my day, Gemma. Nay... made my *week* ... And the lack of subsequent postings here reflects stagnation. I am putting my mindfulness skills to good use -- just calmly holding my impatience, my sense that I'm not going someplace -- rather than quickly grabbing the first thing that comes my way, just to be doing something, anything. Of course, that lets lots of niff-naff and trivia (as the Brits say) fill my days... Another thought I'm trying just to notice and not get annoyed about...