The Midnight Disease
Freelance Writing’s Joy And Terror
To the freelance writers who labor in the shadows.
I know you are out there: unknown, unappreciated, underpaid, unfazed.
When I was in the throes of finishing a novel, if I woke up in the dead of night, say 3:12 a.m., and couldn’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, I’d put on coffee and write. By night I chased dreams. By day I chased money. I am a hired gun, a freelancer.
Freelancing is simple. Either you can write well enough to make a living or you can’t. A degree isn’t necessary. Courage is.
I’m often asked to explain the writing life. What’s freelancing like? How did you become a freelancer? For a long time I couldn’t explain my path to writing or freelancing’s randomness, difficulty, and purity. An accident of sorts, a temporary teaching position at Columbia College brought me to Columbia. I’ve been here since. On assignment to write about waterfalls a few years back, I found my elusive answer.
“In the Cherokee’s Great Blue Hills of God,” I wrote, “rivers thunder over the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Waterfalls pound the rocks, kicking up mists, which receive treasures from wayward winds—fern spores from the tropics. The lucky ones fall into moist, fertile niches and bless the hard gray rocks with green riches. The others perish.”
I, too, was windblown, a spore who found a hospitable niche. Many times I have renewed myself through writing, Resurrection Fern that I am.
I grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia. It’s a good place. The people are solid South. Still, cows outnumbered the people and the world of pastures and pine forests was light years from the life this boy imagined.
Growing up, I worked in dad’s saw shop, a tin building set on concrete. It had no insulation, no heating, no cooling system. In summer, fans welded to truck rims swirled the sweltering air about, and sweat made dark spots in the armpits of Dad’s blue National Linen shirts.
In winter, tires burning in a wood stove turned the stovepipe cherry red. Ten feet from the stove, though, my breath hung amidst smoky shafts of blue winter light.
The place bristled with menacing blades and tools. Paintbrushes in buckets of gas stood ready to clean black resinous sawdust from saws that had slain Georgia pines. One day, a shop hand cleaning saws splashed gas on his overalls. Daydreaming, he walked near an acetylene torch showering steel sparks. He ran outside, his mad rush fanning the flames until dad tackled him and rolled him in the dirt. The sickly sweet smell of burnt flesh stayed with me a long time.
My dream to write was embryonic but I knew one thing: I didn’t want to be around steel, sparks, and gas. A vast sea lay before me, one I had no choice but to cross. I cast my fate to the wind. I didn’t worry about being blown off course. There was no course.
My father’s father owned a fine cattle farm and he gave me some advice I never forgot. “If you can make money for the man, you can make it for yourself.” After earning a Journalism degree and a master’s at Georgia and five years of college-level teaching, I set out on my true journey—to write, break into print, and freelance.
My first full-time writing position was as a scriptwriter/cinematographer for natural history films similar to “National Geographic” documentaries. These were the days of endless revisions, remote locations, primitive barrier islands, cold mornings in blinds, and days along blackwater rivers. These were the nights of filming nesting sea turtles in Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge while that luminous river of the heavens, the Milky Way, wheeled above.
I was happy writing scripts. Still, writing for print was the song the sirens sang. South Carolina Wildlife published my first feature, “Mysteries Of The Firefly’s Light,” illustrated by Joe Byrne. I became the magazine’s managing editor. I wrote features and worked with photographer Robert Clark. In time, we tired of the same old same old but wanted to give it one good shot before leaving.
We set out one spring morning in 1987 for something meaningful. Along Highway 378, we found it: the vanishing shanties of a vanishing South.
“Tenant Homes—A Testament To Hard Times” struck a chord. Newspapers throughout South Carolina reprinted it and the stately little shacks’ sad stories caught the eye of the USC Press. In one home, an old black lady had scraped by selling lye soap and “flowers” cut from pink and mint green Styrofoam egg cartons. She had died two weeks earlier and unfinished work lay among rat pellets and dead insects. Pines swallowed her shack but her story lives on, here even.
After John Culler left South Carolina Wildlife, it became a government publication run by bureaucrats. A book contract in hand, I walked out to freelance in August ’87.
I had never felt more alive or more afraid.
Everyone should live a year or three without a salary. You’ll learn something about yourself. I learned much. That some people view freelance writing as a mystical calling while others deem it menial, something akin to a short order cook who scratches out the day’s menu.
That business types insist on capitalizing “customer,” “client,” and “company.” “Well that’s how we earn money.” Oh, I get it. We Writers use Words. Plumbers repair Leaks. What arrogance. Never forget, the business world gave us that gem, “functionality.” What nonsense. Georgia writer, Harry Crews pegged these types. “If you give a man a white shirt and a tie and a suit of clothes, you can find out real quick how sorry he is.”
That women tend to see writers as romantic, heroic loners. One night, sharing drinks with a woman, long after the thrill of seeing my byline had died, she asked in wonderment, “Don’t you just love seeing your name in print?”
“I love seeing my name on a check,” I replied. (A Payment Fable: Once upon a time, three clients screwed me. All three drove Jaguars.)
That I prostituted myself being a ghostwriter, a phantom for egos. “Look, I got published.”
That belittlement comes with the territory. I was introduced to a haughty Yankee, a thick-hipped executive, fond of herself and fond of food.
“A writer,” she said. “Well, I mastered that in college and moved on to bigger things.”
That freelancing brings the world to you. As the years unfolded, I interviewed Bill Gaither, Armstrong Williams (who interviewed me), Mackenzie Astin, Delbert McClinton, Patty Duke, and Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer who sang “We’re An American Band” to me. I came to know James Dickey and corresponded with writers Faye Moskowitz and James Salter, wrote speeches for governors and Bill Gates. These events were light years from saws, gasoline, and men afire.
Dazzled by the possibilities, I stuck with it. I wrote to live but lived to write even more. Beneath it all, though, lurks a fear and aching loneliness I never quite shake.
Monday morning. Cars leave driveways. People rush to work. Soon, they will be in status meetings planning their week, sharing lunch, and receiving automatic deposits no matter what they don’t do. I, however, have no projects, no deadlines, no lunch plans. Today I will attempt to create art but I know I will fail.
The craving to create something sacred is maddening. Write hack copy for a living too long, I fear, and my love for writing will die. A sad blues refrain plays in my mind. You know I'm free, free now baby. I’m free from your spell. I’m free, free now; I’m free from your spell. And now that it's over, all I can do is wish you well. Did I ever consider giving up? One day, while running on a wooded trail near an assistive living center, I came upon a young man and a much older woman in a secluded glade kissing with passion, their side-by-side wheelchairs backed together.
Sometimes the terror overpowers you. You take a sabbatical, a “real job” like a spy who comes in from the cold. Even that’s difficult. Being a “wordslinger” intimidates the weak-kneed who might hire you. Happy with their direct deposit and benefits, they give you short shrift. I was passed over for a job once because I was “too good.” You wouldn’t tell a physician, “No, you might save too many lives.” And so, the truth is sometimes you have no choice but to freelance.
Alone with your thoughts, terror at bay, your day is pure. Once you get past the Monday melancholia, the rest of the week is dreamlike. Freedom. No meetings. Morning sunlight streams in as New Age strains fill the air. A candle burns softly. A rose the color of coral begins to open on my desk. From a fountain, the glassy crash of falling water—a sound older than mankind—floods the room with serenity. At my fingertips lies mankind’s crowning achievement: language.
“Writing is a kind of smoke, seized and put on paper,” wrote Salter. Yes, without doubt. You grab, get nothing. Eventually I seized a curl and discovered a rich world—not the materialistic world—something more valuable, one with thrills, a grain of recognition, pleasure and peril.
A beautiful woman writes, “Well, I’m not the slightest bit surprised I loved it. Nothing you write could disappoint me.” Having a flawless blonde, fresh as mint (we just met), take your hand and say, “you and I will make love.”
A writer can be a bit of a rake. Of course writing offers pleasure. December, an icy night for a sidewalk book signing, nonetheless a spark of admiration warms the evening.
“I know you must love being a writer,” a ravishing blonde tells me. “I envy you so.” She leaves, glances back, smiles. Though it’s Christmas, her creamy skin is a burnished summer gold, her legs sculpted. She’s stepped right off the silver screen into my heart.
You bask in the limelight a bit and everyone wants to know you, but then you retreat to another uninspiring assignment, lonely, forgotten, all the while looking for a way out of hackdom.
Over the years, I’ve seen how those exposed to the disease prove their immunity. Many would-be writers crossed my path. They took my classes. Called me. Wrote me. Some plunged in too steeply and burned out. Others approached too lightly and glanced away, forever uncaptured. Many didn’t have control of their time: writing’s true raw material. Of the hundreds of aspiring writers I’ve taught, but two made it. One became a magazine editor, Sam Morton, he freelances now. The other writes for National Geographic, Glen Oeland.
Writing makes fools of some and fools others into thinking it’s easy. Seeking therapy, many aspiring writers join writer’s groups, though their time would be better served writing. In 1992, Warren Slesinger, USC Press acquisitions editor, called. He was addressing a writer’s group that evening and wanted company. Beers afterward convinced me to go.
We drove to an old home converted into a law firm on Laurel Street. Pink and evocative of Charleston, it had a staircase at the top of which sat a large room with a long table surrounded by dreamers.
A spirited brunette, Collette, introduced Warren, which brought a buzz from the would-be writers. Warren introduced me as an author. This, too, sent a murmur around the table. The brunette and I locked eyes. She was, I’d discover, a woman who always got what she wanted.
Truly unforgettable. A man whose day job was keeping statistics on venereal diseases read an impassioned piece about English General Orde Wingate who was desperate to fight the Japanese hunkered down in a swamp in Burma.
General Wingate pranced around naked—it’s true—at strategic moments to get an edge. A British general exposed to his officers was comical enough but as the VD statistician read his stilted prose, his crescendo climaxed with Wingate’s plan to roust the Japanese from their haven.
“Men, I’ll penetrate the Japanese in their rear.”
The room exploded in laughter.
The love statistician slammed his fist on the table. “Damn it, this is serious.”
At evening’s end, the brunette approached. “Can I call you? I have a manuscript I’d love for you to read.”
I handed her my card.
The next afternoon a blue convertible pulled into my driveway. Out popped Collette with her Midnight dossier. I invited her in, told her I’d read her work and started coffee. Before I poured the first cup, she put her arms around me.
“As soon as I saw you, I knew we were meant for each other.”
After that we seldom discussed writing. A year after meeting Collette, I came in from the cold, taking a writing position at Policy Management Systems Corporation, a place overrun with ardent, attractive women. (You can’t spell “promiscuous” without PMSC—the eager letters line up.) Collette asked me to get her on there, but the corporate world has no need for romance writers. Still, I told her to call me back in a week. She never did. Women fade as their fever cools. And so, I forgot her.
Seven years later, a woman with the name of an actress and I sat at a bar talking with a couple we had bumped into on our runs into Cola Town. The man was nowhere as vibrant as his brilliant brunet. When he went to the men’s room, she slid over, confessional, volunteering he had lost his previous wife and child in an accident. “He had the most difficult time with his wife,” she said in apology.
The next day, fearful, I called Collette’s office. A woman answered. I asked for Collette. She put me on hold ... then, “Sir, she was killed in a car wreck three years ago.”
I said nothing. Hung up.
Now and then, I pass the attorney’s office on Laurel. It’s a different color, maize. I remember the beautiful brunette determined to be a writer. I see her in my driveway, stepping from her car. I see her slipping her clothes off, freeing her bra. She loved words, she loved writers, but not the real me.
Her poor husband ... I think of him too. Tragedies abound.
“Your book has just been haunting me. Tell your friends you have an agent.” July 2, 2002. I had just signed a contract with New York literary agent, Malaga Baldi. Her words should have taken me to the heights. They couldn’t. I’d just learned my father would have his larynx removed. The voice that urged me to study to avoid Vietnam vanished beneath the knife. He died November 15, 2003. Cancer. I write about him often, as I do here. And sometimes I do so in the dead of night. Twenty minutes pass. Sleep refuses to return. I write.
What’s freelancing like? This. A cold wind blows. I stand on a peninsula, alone: in one direction, the joyous Sea of Creation, in the other, the terrifying Sea of Disaster. Infected by the Midnight Disease, I plunge in and swim against the current like a crazy man, hoping talent will save me. I know though. I know.
There is no cure. You write—for better or worse—until death do you part.
A Southern Writer