Fresh Eyes: Freelancing, or my quarter-life crisis

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Sayaka & Anthony photoby Sayaka Matsuoka

It’s gotten easier.

At first it’s intimidating because you’re putting yourself out there and it’s your ideas and you feel vulnerable. Will they like it? Will they think it’s stupid? But that’s the nature of freelancing. After I finished my internship with Triad City Beat, I thought that the job offers would start pouring in; I was wrong. Just because I had worked at an excellent paper didn’t mean that similar papers knew who I was. It didn’t even mean that I deserved their attention; I had to work for it.

I started by writing a short, 40-word review of a movie for Indy Week, the alt-weekly in Durham. It was the first thing that I had “published” after Triad City Beat. Excitedly, I flipped through the pages and found my tiny review in the vast sea of other critiques. It was one of those rare moments when you’re disappointed and proud at the same time. But that’s how you start out. Small pieces first, then a story here and there. And if you hustle, network and impress your editors enough, maybe they start including you in their group emails and asking you personally to contribute to stories.

The first 500-word-plus story I pitched successfully as a freelancer was about a publishing company launched by a Chapel Hill transgender man. The story touched on the birth of Trans-Genre Press and its mission to publish work by other trans people. I happened upon the story while I was working at my part-time job at a tea house; that’s the job that pays the bills. Unfortunately, freelancing is a grind and it isn’t sustainable as your only source of income unless you’re able to write several stories each month. And with each article going for about $100-200 a piece, you’d have to write five or six to just cover the basics. When my article came out, I was ecstatic. Sure, my parents didn’t understand what I was doing and it didn’t make a lot of money, but the reward came when the subject of the article reached out to me a few weeks after the piece had come out. He told me that someone had contacted him because they related to the article as a trans person and they felt like they had finally found a community. That’s why I write. Not for money or recognition, but to shed light on important topics.

After I wrote that piece, the editor I had been communicating with began emailing me and asking if I could follow up on some interviews for an article that he had been working on; I had moved up from occasional freelancer to reliable contributor.

My latest articles are also ones that came about as a result of my part-time gig. Feature pieces like ones on a new tea shop opening up and an herbal chocolatier were approved by the food editor at Indy Week. Now I was on the list of food writers in his email group.

Graduating from college wasn’t easy. I think I’ve cried more in the past year than I did during my four-year undergrad career.

I don’t believe them when they say that your twenties are supposed to be the best time of your life. For me, my post-college twenties have been defined by what I and several others in the same boat can only describe as a quarter-life crisis. I can’t even begin to tell you how many career-advice articles I’ve read or how many “tell me what career I’m supposed to have” quizzes I’ve taken. But the one thing that I keep coming back to is journalism — the simple idea of finding the most interesting stories and writing them down to share with a broader audience.

When I go to parties and people ask me what I do, I fumble with words for a few seconds but I always end up saying that I’m freelancing; I’m a journalist.

It’s not as romantic as movies or shows make it out to be. Maybe that’s the exciting part. You never really know when you’ll stumble upon the next story or catch the tail end of an interesting conversation that could become a worthwhile piece. Of course freelancing is different than working as a staff writer for a publication, but I find that the most interesting stories present themselves when you’re doing the things you love. If you continue to go out and have new experiences and talk to intriguing people, you’ll discover that most of them have a few gems hidden in their caches. And they might not even know it; it becomes your job to ask them about their story.

You don’t have to wait to write just because you don’t have a platform. Carry a notebook around, jot things down in your phone. Start a blog. Just keep writing, because that’s the most important thing. Not so much getting recognition for your writing, but collecting the stories. Then you can reach out to different publications and put yourself out there. And it’s okay if you cry because being an adult is hard and it’s scary. But you just have to trust that it’s going to work out. For me, it was about surrendering to my instincts and reminding myself of what I love to do; there will always be more tissues.

Sayaka Matsuoka is a freelance journalist in the Triangle, avid tea drinker and dog enthusiast. Reach her at [email protected]