Taking a Toll

I would not trade the liberation of working for myself — of coming up with ideas and translating them into paid words, or teaching at the University of Cincinnati or working with Northside teenagers — for stacks of cash at a more reliable, albeit mind-nu

A short stack of 1099 forms, what the government releases for “miscellaneous income,” is the annual tally of what my bevy of last year’s employers said my services were worth.

Recalling all the jobs that kept the lights and heat on ain’t pretty or lucrative, and fanning through these 1099s doesn’t elicit shouts of joy or warm feelings of fondness.

Some of that work nearly broke my spirit; others sent me headlong into a crisis of faith.

But I would not trade the liberation of working for myself — of coming up with ideas and translating them into paid words, or teaching at the University of Cincinnati or working with Northside teenagers — for stacks of cash at a more reliable, albeit mind-numbing, soul-sucking job. I would, however, do grunt work for Satan if I could have my mother back for 24 hours.

I have been toiling outside cubicles for so long I would not know how to impress a boss with the fake busy-ness of clacking computer keys and loud, one-sided phone calls if there was a gun to my temple.

I did a stint for a few years on staff at Cincinnati Magazine a few years back and I thought I was dying sitting in that little office in Carew Tower trying to ignore the noon-day herd of the click-click-click of kitten-heeled secretaries on the other side of my thin wall. Worse still, I could barely write a sentence in that room and wrote most of my long-form narrative stories in my home — perfect home training for working from home for what looks like the rest of my life.

Of course, I did a long bid at CityBeat as a staff writer and columnist and, again, it was nearly impossible for me to write in the office despite that all the other writers could do it. I’d mainly disrupt everyone else with my profane humor or with raucous stories about one lying politician or another, then I’d just sit there returning emails of snide, hateful readers or return phone calls of people asking me to come speak at their meetings or in their classrooms. Then I’d pack it up and go home where I’d write whatever I was working on, burn the Word document to a disc and return to CityBeat in the middle of the night and move the copy from the disc to an editor’s queue.

That satiated my insomnia, my natural inclination toward misanthropy and created a state I didn’t realize had a name until just recently: productive anxiety. That is, I perpetually create editorial situations where I’ll get myself into deadline trouble until I am under (sometimes extreme) duress and then I write myself out of that corner with the dead-eyed fury of an almost unconscious madwoman.

I do not recommend this for every creative soul, but it’s how I work and it could never work in the public spaces and beneath the sallow lighting and manufactured camaraderie of an office setting.

This is best for grizzled freelancers, kid.

“Freelance” should be listed in Roget’s synonym finder under “hustle,” then again under “stamina” and lastly under “foolhardy” and “daredevil.”

Friends and family never understand it, though most of them secretly envy the freedom of a freelancer to wile away daytime hours in lounge clothes and bed hair; however, they come to their senses when they’re told how little disposable income the freelancer has or they hear about insurance tales of woe or listen to a freelancer recite all the flavors of Ramen Noodles and which flavors go best with which vintage of Kool-Aid. (Spicy hot Ramen pairs well with grape.)

But I have been in such a deep mindset of survival for the past handful of years that the only time I even consider the seemingly paltry status of my income is when 1099s start crowding my mailbox at the beginning of every year.

Then, I think to myself, “Oh. Damn. What? How did I...? How come I’m not...? Ah. Well. God bless it.”

And don’t get it twisted.

It’s not resignation.

It’s resolution.

Because the good freelance work — the meaningful, the lasting, the widely read and the vigorously discussed, the hard-fought sentences — is a collective badge of honor, and so 2014 was filled with evidence of the aforementioned kinds of work.

My 2014 1099s are like that photo album your mom’s been keeping from the photo filchers in the family; she has been saving it to share with just you.

I published a story on Judge Tracie Hunter in Cincinnati Magazine that took 14 months to research and write, and the tedium and heft of the story added greatly to the pain in my infected right foot, which sidelined me for months while I recuperated. (I walk now with a limp.) Somehow, my fee for that story doesn’t begin to equal the weekends, the middle-of-the-night furious typing, the plowing through newspaper archives. It’s lop-sided freelance equations like this one that make me pause and rethink myself; yet, I continue.

My fee for this weekly column, when added together for the month, covers my rent. It’s rare, though, that I don’t pinch off it a little to help pay Verizon or Duke, then I have to make up the rest somehow to make my patient landlord whole.

That’s where the University of Cincinnati comes in.

When President Santa Ono isn’t hacking away at departmental budgets to help pay for that stadium, I get assigned a journalism class and that money adds so much wiggle room to my income that I’ve been known to take my partner on an old-school dinner-and-a-movie date.

There’s no way I could’ve financially survived my past two summers without my job at Churches Active in Northside (CAIN), supervising neighborhood teens. That stipend was a bridge over troubled waters.

And so, it’s February and the money merry-go-round begins again. I got a pile of clean lounge clothes and a notebook of story ideas. Bring it on.


CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]


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