Freelance

     I was never so happy and so miserable and so broke as when I was a freelance writer.
     Lee Trevino said there’s nothing that sharpens your game like playing for $20 a hole when there’s only $5 in your pocket.
     That about sums it up.
     It’s amazing how many great stories are out there, when you can’t eat or get drunk and you’ll get evicted unless you find a story and write it and sell it.
     Talk about sharpening your writing skills.
     Later on, when I was a city editor at daily newspapers, and cop reporters told me there was nothing happening on their beat, I’d say, “Are you f***ing kidding me?”
     Freelance news guys took a beating in the first Bush recession, in 1989-90. Newspapers cut costs, and freelancers were the first to go. The market never came back. Then the Internet came along …
     Freelancing is an old, ignoble profession, but the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back no farther than 1820, in “Ivanhoe.”
     The OED calls freelance “a term used by recent writers,” to describe “those military adventurers … who in the Middle Ages offered their services as mercenaries, or with a view to plunder, to belligerent states … a ‘free companion.'”
     The first freelance news writer, so far as I can tell, was a poor old fellow named Thomas Nashe. He was born on the coast of Suffolk, England, in 1567 – 3 years after and about 60 miles away from a fellow named Bill Shakespeare.
     To be a freelance writer, one needs printing presses, and the second press was not set up in England until 1500. Freelancers need at least two presses, because if there’s just one, whoever owns it wins – all the time.
     But more than that, freelancers need people who can read, and who are not starving to death and have enough money to spend a penny on something that will not directly contribute to keeping them alive – people who will read just for fun. And they need a government that will allow freelancers to exist.
     All those conditions did not exist until the late 16th century in England. Actually, they didn’t exist then, either. That’s what killed Tom Nashe.
     I thought I had it hard as a freelancer, but I didn’t have it as hard as Tom Nashe. If a big shot didn’t like my stuff, he’d toss it in the trashcan. I remember the time a daily newspaper editor threw my freelance piece onto his cluttered desk and told me, “You can’t write.”
     I’ll see that guy in hell.
     But if a big shot didn’t like Nashe’s stuff, he could hang poor Tom, cut him down alive, castrate him, unspool his intestines and burn them in front of his eyes, then cut him into four pieces – drawn and quartered.
     That’s what happened to some of the first freelancers.
     Ben Jonson, a friend and rival of Shakespeare, got thrown in prison for a freelance play he wrote with Nashe. Jonson was branded on the thumb for it and nearly got his ears sliced off. Nashe, perhaps more adept at freelancing, ran away.
     Makes a rejection slip seem like a slice of wedding cake, don’t it?
     Nashe’s big hit as a freelancer was called “Pierce Penilesse.” In fact, Nashe was known as Pierce Penilesse. Freelancers have been penniless ever since.
     Most of Nashe’s freelance pieces were actually novellas, but he sold them as news because no one knew what a novel was yet. Tom Nashe helped invent them. By the time Miguel de Cervantes invented them for good, poor Tom Nashe was dead.
     Nashe died in 1601, probably, about 34 years old, but nobody knows where, or exactly when, or why. Plague, maybe. Or just the wearying life of a freelancer.
     Poor Tom had the bad luck to be a freelancer before there was much calling for it. Need? Hell, it was illegal. King Edward VI prohibited “spoken news or rumour” by proclamations of 1547 and 1549.
     A need for freelance writers didn’t arise till the late 1600s, when Englishmen started drinking coffee, and coffeehouses sprouted up all over London. Get some coffee in an Englishman and stick him in a coffeehouse, and he’ll want to read a newspaper. And there you are: modern life.
     But freelancers didn’t have much of a show until the first daily newspaper came out, London’s Daily Courant, in 1702.
     So freelance news guys have been around for 300 or 400 years, no more.
     There will always be freelancers, because it’s so much fun. People freelanced even though they could be hanged and drawn and quartered for it. I had fun freelancing, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. But if you asked me what, precisely, the fun was, I couldn’t tell you. It was more in what I didn’t have than what I did.
     I bet Tom Nashe had a lot of fun. For a little while.
     Moliere summed up the life of a freelancer best. Moliere said that writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then you do it for a few friends, and then finally, you do it for money.

%d bloggers like this: