Some thoughts on freelance writing

If you are a regular reader of my blog, or you know me personally, you know that I recently lost my job.  It’s a mixed blessing for sure.  On the one hand, I now have time to finish my dissertation, to really focus on it, to get the writing done for myself.  But, as I’m sure you can imagine, lack of income is stressful– but I’m managing.

As part of my job search, I have run across many freelance opportunities. The problem with most of these is that companies (usually small business owners) think that means that they can offer the same wage (or less) that they would offer a person who is on payroll– completely oblivious to the fact that as a freelance worker, that wage needs to cover the expenses of the business of working freelance.

Huh?

Let me back up here.  Last month I responded to a job, a posting on a student job board at the University of New Mexico.  Someone was looking for a blogger.  The pay was nowhere near what I wanted to earn, but I sent in a resume anyway.  Immediately I got a reply from Jann–she was super excited about my skill set, and since she had posted that job listing a few months earlier, her needs had changed significantly.  She didn’t need just a blogger, she needed someone to write technical articles for her website, edit white papers, and possibly help with search engine optimization.  We arranged for a time to talk on the phone so I could get more details about her needs.

In the meantime, I checked out her website, and got an idea of the kind of work she did–  selling LEED Certified products to improve energy efficiency. When I told her my rate, her response was “Whoa! you’re still on California rates!”

What I didn’t tell her was that “California rates” would have been twice that.

“What would you do for half that?” she asked.

Of course since then, I’ve thought of several juicy responses:

A half-assed job

Prose with no punctuation

Every third word missing

(you get the idea)

But at the time, working from a place of fear, I was determined to make it work.  I said, “Let’s meet and go over in more detail the kind of work you need done, and I would certainly consider lowering my rate if this were to be a regular gig.”

We set up a tentative meeting, and then I went off to Portland to witness the wedding of my dear friend Nari, and hang with my cousin Katie. …   and I did a lot of thinking, so when I returned I sent off this email:

I’ve returned from Portland, and while we had penciled in a time to
meet, I apologize for not following up to confirm or select
a place. I had some time to think while I was gone, and I’m going to
have to stick to my $XX / hour rate for writing. I don’t think that’s
out of line for a skilled freelance writer– even in Albuquerque.
Part of that income goes toward my own social security contributions,
health insurance, marketing and administrative costs, etc. So working
for half that as you suggested, would not be in my best interest…
and I’d hate to start working with you harboring resentment.

If you’re still interested in meeting to discuss opportunities, I’d be
happy to schedule a time. Otherwise I wish you well, your company and your products sound really interesting– you’re doing important work.

I can’t tell you what tremendous relief I felt after hitting the send button. And since that time I’ve done a bit of research….

As a freelance / self employed/ contract employee, one who is not on payroll:

  • I will be responsible for paying federal Self Employment tax. This is 15% right off the top.  This tax replaces the Social Security and Medicare withholding that an employer usually handles via payroll.  And since I will be the employee and the employer in a freelance situation, I pay contributions for both.
  • I still have to pay income tax (anywhere from 11% to 19% depending on my income) after the self employment
  • I get no 2 weeks paid vacation, no sick days, no PTO.  Any time off I take, I don’t get paid for.
  • Hours I spend marketing myself, invoicing clients, preparing proposals, preparing quarterly taxes…  I don’t get paid for.
  • Time spent running to the post office, or the store for office supplies…. I don’t get paid for.

How does this break down?  Well, I am NOT an accountant or a CPA, but I am a self avowed geek with some mad Excel skillz.  I created this handy dandy spreadsheet, using information from an article on AllFreelanceWriting.com and the Tax Rate Calculator they recommended over at SmartMoney.com:

 

Freelance 

Pay Rate

Effective 

Pay Rate

(after SE Tax)

30 hrs/ week 

(billable hours)

50 weeks/yr 

(no paid vacation)

Self Empl 

Tax

FED Taxable 

Income

Effective Tax
Rate
Annual

Income Tax

 

Due

Annual

Take Home Pay

$ 10 $ 8 $ 254 $ 15,000 $ 2,295 $ 13,853 11.02% $ 1,653 $ 12,200
$ 12 $ 10 $ 305 $ 18,000 $ 2,754 $ 16,623 11.49% $ 2,068 $ 14,555
$ 15 $ 13 $ 381 $ 22,500 $ 3,443 $ 20,779 11.96% $ 2,692 $ 18,087
$ 20 $ 17 $ 508 $ 30,000 $ 4,590 $ 27,705 12.44% $ 3,731 $ 23,974
$ 35 $ 30 $ 889 $ 52,500 $ 8,033 $ 48,484 15.71% $ 8,246 $ 40,238
$ 45 $ 38 $ 1,143 $ 67,500 $ 10,328 $ 62,336 17.35% $ 11,709 $ 50,627
$ 65 $ 55 $ 1,652 $ 97,500 $ 14,918 $ 90,041 19.31% $ 18,828 $ 71,213

Some notes about this chart…
1. I assume 30 billable hours per week, which is really wishful thinking, especially at the onset of working freelance.

2. Some of the “taxable income” can be offset by allowable deductions for home office (including a percentage of utilities, mortgage or rent), supplies, equipment purchases, health insurance… this is where it comes in handy to have an accountant who can ensure you are in compliance.

3. Income Tax Due. This is a big one, you need to plan for this because you’ll have to pay estimated quarterly taxes… you’ll need the cash to do so.

4. I did not even figure the expense of doing business in New Mexico. I have heard there is something called Gross Receipts Tax, a tax on all items billed to a customer. There may be business registration fees or licensing fees that need to be paid– I’m still researching.

5. I have some mad Excel skillz, but HTML…  not so much, so this chart does not look so pretty.

6. Most importantly… $20 per hour is NOT $20 per hour in your pocket.  And keep in mind MINIMUM wage is $7.25 per hour.

So maybe I’ll be turning down jobs, and I’m okay with that.  Really, if I don’t value myself who will?

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A Good News Bad News Kinda Day

All week I’ve been sluggish and weepy.  You see, today, April 15th, is the fifth anniversary of my father’s death.  It’s especially ironic that he died on April 15ht because he left us ten years of unpaid taxes–unpaid and unfiled, and unopened notices from the IRS… That’s my Dad on the right, me in the center rockin’ those 80s glasses, my sister on the left, behind us the waters of Lake Michigan.

I didn’t have a great relationship with my Dad, but it wasn’t bad either.  He was a good man that had a lot of problems, some of which I’m sure would not have been so damaging had my mother not died.  But that may be a fantasy, I don’t know.  What I do know is that he was smart and had a sharp wit (he could be a pretty funny guy).

What I do know is that he loved me, and I understood him– and still fear becoming like him…  As I look around my house now I see piles of I-don’t -know-what on my dining room table, papers strewn across my office floor and clean clothes stacked on the floor in my bedroom.  I wonder if this is how it began with my Dad.

A few significant differences I cling to:

1. I filed my taxes yesterday.  Here’s where the good news comes in– I’m getting a refund, whew.

2. My family room has places where friends can sit, and it is not so messy that I would be mortified if someone dropped by. I would even let someone in the door (and the line of bags of recycling that was in the entryway last week is now gone–  recycled!).

3. My mail– even junk mail– is opened and dealt with within a week of receiving it (usually on Saturdays).

4. I vacuum and dust. Not as regularly as I would like, but it does happen.

5. I know when all the food in my freezer went in.

6. If need be, I could get my place clean in about two hours. (I may not be able to find everything afterwards, but it would look pretty).

7. I feel like there should be a seventh thing, but I can’t think of one now.

 

A prose writer’s romp through poetry

I’ve always thought that in some ways writers of creative non fiction are close to poets– that the search for the emotional truth of a thing is similar in both genres.  But now that I’ve been taking a poetry workshop I’m not so sure. Poets are different. Not in a bad way, but they think differently. They like to move commas and cut words, and play

with

white     space

on the page, much more so than you’re average creative non fiction writer.

Even a lyric essayist.

They’re also more willing to sacrifice what Tim O’Brien calls “happening truth” not in service of what O’Brien calls “story truth” but rather in service of emotional truth and image.  This is the part of poetry I find most difficult.

I submitted a poem to my workshop that admittedly needs work. At least the second section (maybe it doesn’t even need to be sectioned, or…).  I will share it here for your viewing pleasure:

 

dream

I.

frozen at the doorway
it was a dream, no
a movie I watched once
lights flashing like red lightening, or
a projector,
not an ambulance
not that ambulance
everyone in slow motion—
You, Mother
on the floor, tiny and still
Father crying

II.

in a dream
You came back
stood at the foot of my bed
squeezed my toes
“It will be okay” You said
I awoke
cheeks wet

You are still
gone

 

A couple of notes…  the title:  I am terrible at titles. Every now and again I nail one, like “Reconstructing My Mother” I think is a great title for my memoir, but “dream” … not so much.

Section II.  I indented to indicate a shift, a lapse of time, a new understanding.  Probably doesn’t work, but hey! I wanted to play with placement of text on page.  Also, Section II (written just for this workshop) is clearly not as tight as Section I (which I’ve been tweaking for the last year and a half or so).

So what does this have to do with “happening truth” and “emotional truth” and “story truth?” you’re probably asking yourself.  Hang tight. You’ll see.

My professor, the brilliant Dana Levin who is known to advise:  “Revise Towards Strangeness” suggested some changes I found quite uncomfortable, unsettling even.  That in the second section, that we SEE the mother (good advice) and that perhaps she has only one arm or something (BLASPHEMY! that’s not how it happened! ).

Now I’m not saying that your average CNF writer won’t adjust a few details, add a little dialog here or there, embellish, conflate, compress, or move scenes for effect.  I’m okay with that.  For the record, though, I’m not okay with CNF writers who make shit up (then get into big trouble).

But removing an arm from my dead mother?!  Are you kidding me???  That’s just 1. WEIRD! seriously weird!  and 2. WRONG, just wrong.  Isn’t her deadness bad enough? do we have to mutilate her in a poem as well?

So how do I revise?  I can’t cut off her arm, so I may just surgically remove Section II and leave it as one small moment on the page.

I do admit, however, that playing with words, thinking imagistically, tightening prose into poem is, in the long run (I hope) good for my prose writing.