No handbook on freelancing

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Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part column discussing the world of being a freelance journalist.

There is no ‘How To’ manual for becoming a freelance writer.

Had there been, I would have snatched it up 45 years ago and saved myself a lot of blood and tears. Instead, from my teen years forward I stumbled through a dozen or more jobs and false starts before I came to a painful realization: in order to pursue my dream career I had to embrace unemployment before I could become self-employed.

I eventually made the leap into uncertainty and the disquieting knowledge that I would never receive a regular paycheck 30 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.

Sadly, my writing career unfolded only after I had taken stabs at the following jobs: Fuller Brush man (one month), golf course locker room attendant (three weeks), men’s clothing salesman (five days), professional PGA Tour caddie (three months), insurance salesman (one day), blackjack dealer (four months), newspaper sportswriter (18 months), assistant magazine editor (one year), magazine editor and publisher (10 years), college writing and literature instructor (four years).

You can see that my progression of jobs was gradually leading to my true calling, but only after I’d taken a half dozen left turns when the roadmap said I should go right.

I tested somewhere between pathetic and disgraceful at all the professions that weren’t connected to language. For instance, the only sales I made in four weeks peddling kitchen and bathroom supplies for Fuller Brush were to blood relatives. My dear mother bought enough blue toilet bowl coloring to last her 20 years, and my Aunt Dorothy gave me an order for a bunch of mops and a gross of No-Pest strips. (If the stinkin’ things really worked why would anyone buy a gross, unless they lived in a Rain Forest?)

I had been told by a buddy in college that in his door-to-door dealings as a Fuller Brush man he often got invited inside by desperate housewives who were interested in more than mop covers and vacuum bags. But in four weeks knocking on doors that never happened to me once. And in the five days I hustled fabric at the Davenport Hotel Men’s Sport Shop in Spokane, I sold but one tweed sport coat, and that to a golf buddy who bought it more out of sympathy for me than because it fit well across the shoulders.

Neither of those short-lived jobs contributed in any way to my current profession. But beginning with my stint as a caddie I was able to find at least some form of application.

The first article I ever sold to a national magazine was about my experiences looping on the Tour for my teammate from the University of Oregon golf team. And that happened solely by chance.

While we were playing in the Mexican Open on one of those rare off-weeks on Tour, I bumped into the editor for Golf World magazine down in Guadalajara. Because my buddy led the tournament wire-to-wire and ended up winning by a mile, this editor was in our gallery all weekend.

We kibitzed a lot during delays in the competition, and he was intrigued that I had gone straight from graduate school, where I’d studied Dostoevsky and Chaucer, to the menial task of lugging a golf bag around the country.

Back then, pro caddies made little money, usually just enough to get to the next tournament and a crash pad at a Motel 6, where they didn’t always leave the light on.

Caddies were also generally an illiterate bunch. So this editor and I (he was also an English major in college) got along fleetingly. We discussed not only how well the golf ball would jump out of bent grass, but also whether Steinbeck or Faulkner had a more poetic take on the American experience.

The man gave me an assignment to write for Golf World about my experiences as a caddie, and he paid me the princely sum of $75 for 5,000 words.

Forget the meager stipend. Getting that first professional byline in a national publication put the hook in my lip and convinced me this was what I wanted to do for a living. However, it would be another dozen years before I could give writing my full-time attention.

(Next week, in a second part, I will discuss more steps and missteps in my literary journey.)

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About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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