Changing focus with freelancing

For the most part, we are expected to get an education, then chuck all of that out the window to work for an employer who will train us with an entirely different skillset, and bestow upon us a schedule, a wage, and whatever benefits don’t cut into their profits. We are supposed to take pride in being worked to death by someone else as they get the glory and the gold. We are in charge of our lives at home, but never at work. Even at home, if the police or some middle-management code enforcer from our HOA shows up, we are also reminded just how in charge of our lives we are.

Whenever someone asks what I do for a living, I provide just enough information to justify my existence in polite society. The short answer I often give is that I write content for websites. This pays the bills and child support. It isn’t much, but it helps me get by. Content mill work.

The long answer about what it means to work for a content mill is that whenever someone Google’s a question or does a search, the search engine pores through the vastness of what is published on the internet, searching for keywords, phrases, and metadata in search of what statistically aligns best with what you were looking for. For every website that Google comes up with, there has probably been someone like me who wrote the copy for that site. There’s a good chance that like me, they don’t even know much about what they wrote. They just included enough key terms and related information (probably ripped off from another website, press release, or general knowledge) to get locked into Google’s tractor beam of relevance to make it to page one of your search results.

The information is secondary to driving web-traffic to the site. That’s why all the medical sites strongly suggest consulting your doctor and all the legal sites say to contact the attorney. It’s a “call to action” but it’s also a get out of jail free card when it comes to liability. It’s called SEO or Search Engine Optimization. A client requests a bunch of keywords to be packed into a blog post so Google looks for it. Length of the article also weighs heavy on whether or not the post lists on page one. There’s a saying that if you ever need to hide a dead body where it will never be found, put it on page two of your Google search results.

As long as the page keeps listing as page one, the customer is happy. I get paid. Not a lot, but I get some money for writing something that sounds convincing enough to a search engine to put on your screen. I’ve written legal posts, medical posts, tourism for places I’ve never been, product descriptions for things I have never held. And the poetic justice of this is really nobody but Google is even reading any of it.

I actually beat myself up quite a bit about that last part. That isn’t to say that the client doesn’t read the posts. They usually read them, put them through their SEO checker, and judge whether or not I’m going to get them placed on page one. Most of the fuss I’ve gotten has been “Needs to used active voice. Change all passive voice to active” because the SEO checkers figured out that Google likes when you are doing something, rather than if something is or isn’t.

There are times I really hate writing this stuff. Especially for law firms. Bloodsucking bastards that they are.

Last night I hit a wall. I struggled for six hours to write one 2000 word post for a law firm. I had three more due by 10pm today. It wasn’t happening. There’s a scene in that movie, Shine, where the main character is playing a Rachmonimov piece and al he hears is the keys hitting wood as he plays the notes. There is no music. Then (spoiler alert), his brain short-circuits and he collapses from the intensity of the experience. But he is no longer playing music, he’s just hitting keys. Last night, that’s how it felt to write another legal post nobody is going to read, and nobody is going to buy for at least another month. But of course, everything is DUE RIGHT NOW. It was just word salad, with a bunch of keywords, active voice, and pandering to a goddamned algorithm for views.

I waved off the other three.

Recently, I’ve been reading about freelancing and how to increase your success in the field. One of the things that keeps coming up is diversifying your income streams. Somehow I feel like writing for content mills is polishing brass on the Titanic. The jobs are coming less frequently and more associated with what makes the algorithms happy, instead of thoughtful, compelling content actual people might read. I’m considering branching out into other media that allows me to write stuff I want to write, stuff I would want to read even, and somehow get paid to do it.

I think it’s the only way that makes sense for the long term when it comes to making a living doing this. So when I give people the short answer of “I write copy for websites” it doesn’t cover what I really do. I am editing a book I wrote, I’m working on establishing myself as a freelance writer, more specifically a travel writer. I’m a published author who needs to do his own marketing and sales but has to figure out how to dedicate more resources like time and money to that whole process.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how traditional publishing is on the way out. Publishers used to help an author edit, produce, publish, and market their works. The writers got paid pretty well for it too. Nowadays, publishing is a mess. If you do get an advance it isn’t that much. The publisher expects the least amount of work to edit and get the book perfect for publication, and once that is done, they expect the writer to do their own marketing. A lot of publishing contracts are given to either celebrities with a fan base (and these tell-all autobiographies are usually ghost-written by some schmuck like me), or are just tag-a-longs with popular intellectual properties/themes/trends that are a sure thing when it comes to making a profit.

When people complain that movies are nothing but remakes, lately the same is true of books. It’s either post-modern rehashes of books we read when we were growing up, or Kirkland brand copies of successful series like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Ad infinitum. You would think it would be easy to just write something like that, but usually a publisher already has someone in mind to write this crap. They usually know them–a friend of a friend, or a family member.

Traditional publishing is circling the drain. Especially with magazines. So, the interesting thing is that the best way to make money is to just do it yourself. Run your own publishing house. I mean, why not if you are going to have to do all the marketing anyway?

So, I’ve been researching other things today. Podcasting. YouTube channels. Monetization. I’ve come to realize that nobody is going to open the gate for me, so I might have to do it myself. We are living in some strange times for this. It used to be that the writing was the horse that pulled the cart of advertising and merchandise. Now it seems to be the other way around. Crazy.

I gotta say too that the learning curve is steep. But it all makes better sense than hoping I can approach things with a dying model of industry as traditional publishing and expect success.

Why I do this

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a “Why do I do this?” post. Sometimes I need reminding. Why would anyone write anything if the fear of writing was that others might see it. I think that might be the difference between people who have the compulsion to put their thoughts into print and those who would never want to express what they feel on paper, much less risk someone else reading it. A lot of people do write, and they hope that no one ever sees it. So what compels some of us to put such personal thoughts out for just anybody? Like that dusty bowl of ribbon candy at your grandparents’ house.

There have been many times in my life that I have felt alone in how I feel, and nobody else seemed to feel that way either. So, that moment when you read something that echoes how you are feeling, you find a connection with someone else, either separated by miles or even years. In some cases centuries. The truth is the people a thousand years ago are going through much the same things that we are now. With a few minor differences (more like complications) thrown in by technology.

I’m sure there was a second century farmer out there who thought that the young kids of today had it so good because they had some kind of iron bit at the end of a stick instead of just wood. We just used wood in those days, and it was good enough for us!

Today I stumbled across one of my older blog posts. It is one of my favorites. At the time I wrote it, I was feeling really raw, but I was also healing. The me from three and a half years ago is different than the me I am today. Back then, he couldn’t have known the challenges he would have faced, and maybe it would have been too much for him to bear. But he did see the natural progression of some things. Not so much a self-fulfilling prophesy, but more like just being able to read the road.

I’ve been through a lot of bullshit since then, but I have also had amazing moments, sprinkled in here and there. There will probably be more of that to come–good and bad–but I do see a break in the clouds. I see opportunity. Adventure. Contentment. Peace. My life isn’t over yet. I have only just started really living. When pathways are taken away from you, rather than sit there and stew and whine about it, you have to push ahead and find something else to live for and new pathways to make for yourself. It isn’t easy. There are days that is the last thing I want to do. Like hiking up the side of a mountain, you can stop where you are and say, “I just need to catch my breath.”

Some people just pitch their tent right there and never go any further. They are too afraid to see what is on the other side of the mountain. It’s easier just to stand on the side of a steep incline all day, because that is what they are used to doing.

I have this ringing in my ears. It comes from years of abusing my hearing with loud music, playing the drums, heavy equipment, you name it. In a quiet room, I can sit here and hear that neeeeeeeeeee just ringing in my ears. That’s the way it is sometimes. We live in a world of chaos where there is always drama or conflict or people shouting and acting bonkers. They don’t feel safe without the familiarity of so much chaos happening around them. It would be like sitting in a quiet room and just putting up with the ringing in your ears without it. So, they metaphorically crank up the stereo, vacuum the floors, turn the TV up to full blast…just so they don’t have to hear that ringing they can’t stop.

The ringing in my ears is annoying, but it isn’t hurting anyone. Not even me. It’s just a sound. It just means I have damaged my hearing and made some mistakes in my life. I can still hear. I can still feel. I can still walk and climb and drive and sing. I might not be able to hear as well as I used to, but I can still hear. And even if I couldn’t, there is a lot more to life. Focusing on the one thing that doesn’t work that well and making it your personality is exhausting.

After a while, you don’t even notice the ringing in your ears. And if you want to play loud music, play it. But only because you enjoy it, not because you are hiding from the ringing in your ears.

So, back to the original question. If you are reading this and it spoke to you, if it made sense or captured what you couldn’t put into words, I’m glad I wrote it. I do this because we are wired to communicate and this is just one more way we can do it. As people, we are flung all across the planet. Sometimes our tribe isn’t the people we are neighbors with. Sometimes they are halfway around the globe. I write because that’s how my brain has found its happy place. The peace it needs. Most nights I can’t even sleep unless I write. The noise in my head becomes too much then. Writing is like turning off something one by one until all you are left with is the quiet. Sometimes it even turns off that incessant ringing.

And since nature abhors a vacuum, that emptiness, that quiet lets good things back in. Instead of ringing, I hear music. Instead of all that weight, I feel strength. And instead of fear, I feel brave enough to keep walking ahead to see what is on the other side of the ridge.

Lost souls

Today was a bit of a wash. I needed to sit down and work on assignments, or my own writing, but because of some insomnia, I didn’t get to sleep until late and I didn’t wake up until late. Early afternoon, I was ready to sit down and work right after I finished doing some dishes. But before I could fill up the sink, my dog started going nuts. Someone was at the door. Living in the same town as my folks means the occasional drop in visit. They can happen at any moment. I’ve tried to get them to call or text first, but I can hardly get my mom to keep her phone charged, much less keep it with her sometimes.

I looked outside and a woman was walking down the sidewalk. I opened the door and she came back. She was medium height, thin, dragging a purse with her. Her hair was black with a white streak–messy and tangled. She wore a heavy coat and ratty sweat pants, canvas slip on shoes.

She said, “Sorry to bother you. I’m cold. Can I come inside and get warm?” It was then that I noticed she was pale, her hands were shaking. Her teeth chattering. I was about to suggest she go down the street to one of the businesses that were open. It had snowed recently and the wind coming out of the west was bone-chillingly cold.

I invited her inside and asked her to take a seat in my living room as I turned up the heat. I remember very well what people look like who are going into hypothermia from my days as a Boy Scout. I offered her a cup of tea, and she accepted gratefully. She explained that sometimes she has siezures.

She told me her name was L and she was on her way to take her husband his wallet. He was currently in the town jail. But she couldn’t say why. Not as in she wasn’t going to tell me, no, she honestly didn’t know why. Because of her siezures, she said that she had problems remembering things. She carried in her purse a composition book. Its pages were warped and wrinkled from water damage and a lot of use. In the notebook, she had written all sorts of pieces of information. Little notes to herself. Important dates to remember, things she loved about her husband, W. A list of her favorite songs. She read some of these to me. Lots of Don Williams, country from the 80s and earlier. She seemed…off. Speaking of herself in the third person. I couldn’t help but notice a wound on her forehead that was black. My dog kept licking her hands, begging for attention, but always back to the hands. Her right hand she kept closed, and when she opened it, I could see a big purple knot on the back of it. She said she had hurt it, falling during a recent siezure. She was taking keppra. 3,000 mg per day, but had dropped down to 2,000.

Years ago, L had a TBI that had resulted in constant siezures. I could tell she had some sort of permanent brain damage, just from how she talked and how she couldn’t remember from moment to moment: Penny’s name (which she wrote down in her book), even the name of the town, which was a header in the book with a date. They had been living in a camper across the street for a few weeks, having filled her prescription in Craig, camped in the Walmart parking lot in Laramie for a few weeks, and a stay at Ivinson hospital where she says “They saved my life” there. She didn’t say how. Unless she had written it down, I doubt she remembered.

They had been living on the road for a while. She called the camper “home.” Because her husband was in jail, she didn’t know how to turn on the heat or the generator. She had it written down to take him his wallet, and a note from the Sheriff explained that he wouldn’t be coming back for a few days. From the sounds of it, unless W could post bond, he was there until at least November. Another note written on a yellow card from a parole office said “October 27. Don’t be late.”

These folks were living the van life, but the darker side of it. They had no money, and from the sounds of it, they took turns winding up in jail in towns along the way. W had written a note which she kept in her book. It read, “No more jail! For either of us!” She didn’t seem to be a drinker or on any drugs other than her medication. Just two lost souls on the open road, bumping from place to place…passing time.

I let her know I needed to work today and I hated to send her back out, but I offered her another cup of tea. She had stopped shivering and seemed better. The color had returned to her face. She was no longer grey. At the time, I thought of the risk I was taking inviting a stranger into my house, but this stranger was on the verge of freezing to death. I outweighed her by probably 70 pounds. I know where my weapons are stashed in my house, and I had my knife close at hand. I texted my friend Tiffani, telling her quickly what was going on. Of course, she wondered what the hell I was thinking. So I kept her updated as L hung out and drank her second cup of tea. L said Penny’s eyes were “truthful.”

I’ve heard a saying that we should be kind to strangers in need, because angels are among us. Then I thought of how we shouldn’t invite vampires into our houses too. The two thoughts mixed about as well as oil and water. I told L where she could find the jail so she could bring W his wallet. She would have gone in the complete opposite direction. She asked if she should visit him today, and I told her she should. He probably didn’t know where she was and it would have made him feel better. I considered the bruise on her head and her obviously broken hand, but the notes from the police said nothing about restraining orders or staying away from W. She didn’t seem to be afraid of him, but her notes in her book about how he was her true love were jarring. Almost insistent. I can’t say, really. I’m just someone whose life intersected hers briefly.

They both just seemed like they were lost, making their way across the country, finding themselves in new places, with L unable to remember most of it. The thought of that scares the hell out of me. It’s one of my worst fears. Without being able to remember things, I wonder what the point of experiencing them is. Every moment bleeds into the next. Something fires and you know you’ve been there or done it, but did you really? The notebook remembers it, I guess, but you don’t.

I do believe that home isn’t where you live, but where you are safe. Sometimes we find a home in another person. Sometimes a place. There are a few times in my life I have felt at “home.” A few when it was a person who made me feel like I was home. And a few where it was a place. Right now, I feel very much like I am drifting, but the idea of living how L and W do…it’s not romantic. It feels desperate. They are surviving. Blown about by every wind. Connecting the dots between parking lots and pharmacies. No family to call to post bail. Nobody to even turn on the generator on a night below freezing. Having to write down your favorite songs because otherwise you didn’t know them. Writing down your spouse’s name and date of birth so you know it for the next time you have to see him in jail.

As Penny begged for pets from this stranger in the house, L told me about a cat they had for a while. How they got it a litter box and a bed and how W didn’t like it sitting in his chair. She said one day the cat just never came back. She couldn’t remember what she had named it.

As much as I would like to see the country and travel around in a van, I wouldn’t want to live like that. I guess there is a difference between living in a van for adventure, and living in one because you are aimless. All who wander aren’t lost. But some are lost. Some live on the fringe, because polite society has branded them, they have worn too many orange pajamas and been told when to eat, when to move, when to sleep, when to shit. They drift because they are tired of being told what to do. But they don’t even know what comes next. It’s just running until you can’t run anymore.

Before going, L asked if she could have a hug. I gave her one. She said she figured I would either help her out or send her away to the cold. She said I was a good person, that I was kind. I told her I’m trying. L finally left and I watched as she veered away from the straight line to the courthouse and the jail, back to the camper. I’ve looked outside a few times tonight. There are no lights on. No signs of life.

The reason I say “I’m trying” is because the whole time I wasn’t comfortable having a stranger with problems like this in my house. Wondering the whole time if they are casing my house to rob it later. I didn’t feel like a gracious host to angels in disguise, but more someone who offered tea and a place to sit in front of the fire to someone because I didn’t want to be the reason she froze to death. I can’t say that is really a “good person” kind of thing to do.

There are times I try to do things a good person would do, and there are times I would rather shut myself away from everyone because people only bring pain. They only take. They just use you. Sometimes it feels lonely to try to give back. You keep asking yourself “What’s the catch?”

I didn’t get a lot of writing done, but I guess today gave me a lot to think about.