Illustration: Owen Smith
THERE’S A FINE LINE between self-employed and out of work, and there have been times I wasn’t sure which side of the line I was on. My career — as a freelance design writer, mostly — has had its ups and downs. I’ve had few day jobs, most recently from 2000 to 2003 as editor-in-chief of Modernism Magazine, a quarterly about 20th century design. For the most part, I’ve been freelance, a word I always thought had exhilarating connotations, but which many people seem to regard as a half-step up from the gutter.
I’ve had long-running regular columns in The New York Times ‘Styles’ section (“Foraging,” about off-beat shopping), Metropolitan Home magazine (“America the Collectible”), and hundreds upon hundreds of articles published in shelter and travel magazines and various national newspapers. Still, I occasionally get, “Are you on staff somewhere these days, or are you still…<sniff>… freelance?”
Kristin Cardinale, the author of a new book, The 9 to 5 Cure, wants to scotch the word freelance altogether and replace it with “patchworking.” It means the same as freelancing — working for a variety of different clients — while conjuring up a bunch of old ladies sitting around making ugly quilts. I was so riled by this latest attempt to stigmatize a great word that I commented on a media website post about the new book:
I say, be PROUD to be freelance! It’s a great, swashbuckling word, originally used for knights who owed their fealty to no one lord (hence, the free lance). Let’s turn the ‘negative stigma’ into a positive, for godssakes. The picture you paint of cafe-sitting, game-playing, and desperate phone calls is not an accurate one. Freelancing is about freedom, and taking charge of your own career, not being chained to aggravation and office politics.
Lately, thanks to my income-producing property, I hustle less for writing work, and live at a more relaxed pace. I do enough writing to keep the brain from atrophying, and have plenty of time for leisurely walks and swims and lunches, and puttering in the garden (soon!) — a life more or less indistinguishable from a vacation.
And now I have a new word to describe my present career stage, and I’m growing to like the sound of it: semi-retirement.