Friday, January 23, 2009

Love/Hate Relationships

Being a freelance writer is all about relationships — relationships with editors, agents, clients, designers, photographers, printers, computer experts, interview sources, and other writers. It’s an understatement to say that such a career requires well-honed people skills and that developing and sustaining relationships are essential to success.

“Love/Hate Relationships” not only covers both scenarios, it captures the ambiguous nature of our feelings towards those who pay our “salaries.” I hope you have encountered at least one or two clients or editors who fall into the too-good-to-be-true category. When you do, you probably pinch yourself, simply because they are such a rare breed. These are the people who return phone calls, respond to query or marketing letters, respect your work, pay you what you’re worth time), and try not to make unreasonable demands. They are all candidates for sainthood, in my opinion.

At the other extreme are those who are rude, arrogant, disrespectful, demanding, unrealistic, over-controlling, and penny pinching. Working for them is stress squared because they leave you feeling diminished and drained. On the bright side (yes, there is a bright side), as a freelancer, you do not have to do business with people like that. You can turn down the job at the outset; address the problems when they surface; and, if you choose to, resign from the project. My feeling is that, no matter how much you think you need the money, nobody needs it that much.

When I was a full-time employee, I can’t even count the number of times I bit my tongue, compromised a principle, or tolerated unacceptable behavior from a boss; because, I told myself, I didn’t want to risk my livelihood. Jobs like mine were not that easy to come by ... I had two children to support ... I would never live down the humiliation ... and on and on and on. Getting fired was the worst possible thing I could imagine; and then, one day, the worst possible thing happened.

Amazingly, I did not die; my children did not starve or become homeless; I did get over it; and I felt free for the first time in my career. The worst possible thing turned out to be the best possible thing. One of the reasons was knowing that I would never again remain in an abusive situation. I knew there would always be another assignment, another client, or another job, just around the corner. In the last 20 years, I have had to test that assumption on more than one occasion. I have walked out of a meeting; I have confronted a client who was way out of line. I have even stated, unequivocally, that I found the person’s behavior unacceptable and, if it didn’t stop, I would leave immediately. It stopped.

These, of course, are worse-case scenarios, but they illustrate the underside of freelancing. Not everyone you encounter will be professional or even civil. Some people are very difficult, if not impossible, to work with (See Solving People Problems (Amacom) for an entire book on this subject). But nowhere is it written that you have to grin and bear it. You don’t.

In between these two extremes are the people you are more likely to work with or for. They are neither saints nor villains; they are just regular folks. They run the gamut of quirks and personalities, good days and bad, consistency and professionalism. For the most part, you won’t love them or hate them. You may develop relationships with them, or you may never get past being seen as a “vendor.” You may admire some things about them and dislike others. And you may even put up with less-than-optimum working conditions from time to time. But that is the reality of the world of work and certainly of freelance work.

Years ago, when I was working for a large corporation and having a particularly bad day, I was crying the blues to my printing salesman. Finally, he shrugged and said, “Well Bobbi, that’s why they call it work and not sandbox.” I've often thought of having that put on a banner and hanging it over my desk.