Memoirs of a Freelancer

A marriage annoucement in today’s New York Times caught my eye: between Kathleen Rubenstein, 22, and Hays Golden, 23, who met at the University of Colorado.  After trumpeting the impressive pedigree of the bride’s parentsthe dad is the strategic-planner and fund-raiser for an autism society and the mother is the founder/CEO of her own management-consulting firmthe Times briskly identifies the bridegroom’s father, Arthur Golden, as “a freelance writer and the author of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (Knopf, 1997)” and then expends five-times as much ink on the credentials of a cousin of the bridegroom’s father, Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and the brother of the bridegroom, Michael Golden, Times vice honcho.

Now I’m not ragging on the paper for covering what is essentially a Times family affair, but for its description of the bridegroom’s dad as, first, “a freelance writer.”  Was that phrase necessary at all?  Wouldn’t it simply be sufficient—and far more informative—to identify Arthur Golden straight out as the author of Memoirs of a Geisha, a brilliant, bestselling first novel, for which Golden received oodles of well-deserved praise for beautifully and empathetically telling the story of a Kyoto geisha in the 1930s from the woman’s point of view.

Maybe someone at the Times felt it important to say “freelance writer” to forestall any impressionsince the novel was published ten years agothat Golden has been sitting around in a kimona fussing over tea ceremonies and sipping sake.

Writers like me bristle at the description “freelance” because it sounds like a synonym for “had a four-paragraph piece published in a minor airline magazine seven years ago.”  For that matter, if someone I just met in a coffee shop asked me what I did and I replied that I’m a writer, the next question would inevitably be, “Have you published anything?”  But to say off the bat, “I’m a published writer,” would sound too defensive or, alternatively, too snobby, as if I’m distinguishing myself from the other caffeneited scribblers around me who are struggling to get published. 

Such is the writer’s ambiguous lot.  If I said I was a doctor, my questioner might imagine that I owned a stethoscope and listened to congested people’s chestsshe wouldn’t ask me if I had ever examined a patient.  If I said I was a gardener, she wouldn’t wonder if I had ever pruned a hedge. 

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2 Responses to “Memoirs of a Freelancer”

  1. Howard Goldowsky Says:

    Paul,

    I have to disagree with you on this one.

    Where do the stereotypes of labels end and truth begin? Wanting to remove a factual label smells like political correctness run amok. If Mr. Golden has been writing freelance for the past ten years, then this makes him a freelance writer. This is likely a fact. I don’t see anything wrong with this. He also happens to be a best-selling author; but this doesn’t delete his current freelance status. We all wear many hats.

    If somebody says “I go to MIT,” what does this mean? This person could be brilliant, or, they could just happen to go to MIT. We don’t know. But it’s still a fact.

    People should be judged by their merit and the merit of their contributions to the world, not by the general labels others use to describe them. Labels, I agree, are often gratuitous — so our opinions must transcend labels. Real opinion should be anchored in fact.

    Writers need to have the self-esteem and objectivism necessary to weather labels, possible lack of publication, etc. It is often the most self-confident writers among us that are the most self-deprecating.

    Unlike chess, the writing world does not have ratings or ELO. Standards are often subjective, and readers must discern merit through their own personal standards.

    Howard Goldowsky

  2. paulhoffman Says:

    I understand where you’re comong from, and I don’t like labels either. I am a freelance writer, I suppose, because I don’t have fulltime employment. But I’ve always hated the word freelance because it seems pejorative. Artists friends of mine don’t describe themselves as freelance even if they can’t support themselves from their art and have fulltime jobs outside the art world. They just call themselves artists because that’s how they see themselves. I wish writers were just called writers, regardless of whether they’re freelance, on staff somewhere, published, or unpublished.

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