Her writing was too colorful for academia . . .

Becoming a Freelance (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love query letters)

I didn't actually set out to be a freelance writer, because when I was young I had no idea of how to go about getting to be one. But I had always wanted to write. My best chance of getting to write books and articles, I decided, was by being a professor, so I set about to get a Ph.D. in anthropology, the subject I liked best.

After a professor severely criticized my M.A. thesis for being written too colorfully, I decided that I had been right about the writing but wrong about the Ph.D. To find out if there was anything in this academic business, I spent the next few years teaching college (back in the distant days of the teacher shortage, it was possible to do so without actually getting the Ph.D.). My classroom experiences convinced me that I was wrong about that, too, so I chucked the whole idea.

That fall I followed my husband to Washington, D.C. I needed a job, and the only credentials I had were in anthropology. Being an inventive type, I went down to the U.S. Employment Service, took down the loose-leaf binder with the job openings starting with the letters from A-G, and opened to Anthropologist. There, to my amazement, was the opening of my dreams: a job writing books about anthropology.

She wrote books about foreign countries about which she knew nothing. 'The series was very well received.'

I applied that day and a week later found myself a Research Scientist at Foreign Area Studies, a contract research center run for the army by American University. I joined a staff of assorted fugitives from academe and went to work writing authoritative chapters on countries I had never been anywhere near for a series of volumes called the Area Handbooks, which were published for many years by the GPO. Six of us — an economist, a political scientist, a historian, a military expert, an editor/chairman, and I — would, from a standing start, put together a 300-400 page book on a particular foreign country in six months flat. The fact that most of us knew nothing about the place when we began didn't even slow us down. I contributed to 13 volumes, and the series was very well received.

I learned some invaluable things at this job: how to write on deadline; how to write good expository prose; that I could learn almost any subject matter that could be expressed in English if I set my mind to it. I had the good luck to work under a very fine editor named Percy Winner, an old-time foreign correspondent who taught me a lot. After several years, I began applying those lessons to what I really, ultimately wanted to do. I started submitting and selling freelance articles, learning about the magazine business from books I got at the library.

Then the job went away in a government budget cut. All my colleagues were scrambling to find new ones, but I decided to try something different. I thought I'd use the District of Columbia Creative Writing Scholarship to solidify my freelance career. People were amazed that such a scholarship existed, but I qualified. All I had to do was write furiously, go downtown and stand in a long line for a morning every other week, fill out some papers, send out some resumes and talk to people about finding a job, and cash the biweekly checks that came in the mail.

The long line was at the Unemployment Office, and that's also the name that was at the top of the check. The amount line said $175 or thereabouts, and that was just fine. By the time my "scholarship" ended, I was making real progress in my freelance career.

But my real, true ambition was to write books, though I hadn't a clue how to go about doing that, either. Once again, my chance came, as it were, totally by chance. On the theory of "write what you know," I had done several articles for Washingtonian magazine about local libraries and universities. After a while I found myself out of universities to write about and thought I'd have to think of some other topic. Then I remembered hearing about a college for the deaf over in the Northeast part of town.

'But are they paying you enough?'

"College for the deaf" sounded like an oxymoron to me, and I was intrigued. I asked the editor what he thought. "Nah, nobody's interested in that," he said. But I decided it wouldn't hurt to take a peek to satisfy my own curiosity, so I looked up the address of Gallaudet College (as it was back then) in the phone book and drove over.

Once again, another stroke of luck: I met a supremely gifted PR woman named Donna Chitwood, who became a close friend and still is. Within a couple of hours, she introduced me to the most fascinating place I had ever been. I had stumbled unawares into a foreign country in my own city, a culture with the unique characteristic of being based on a physical disability and communicating in a language that uses the hands. It was an anthropologist's paradise. I was simply captivated, enraptured, obsessed. It was like falling in love.

I told the editor what had happened and he said to go ahead. For two weeks I spent all the time I could at Gallaudet, learning all that I could. I repeatedly asked Donna what book I could read that would explain all this, and she repeatedly answered that there was none.

At the beginning of the third week, Donna asked me what I was doing. "Writing an article," I said. "Yes," she answered, "you keep saying that. But how are they paying you?" "With money," I answered. "No," Donna said, "how are they paying you enough?"

The agent suggested that she accept the publisher's offer. 'Astounded, I did.'

Enough for all the time I was spending, she meant. Light dawned. Perhaps this was the book topic I was looking for. Perhaps if I couldn't read the book I wanted to, I would have to write it.

Well, I thought, I'll go home and see if I can think up enough chapter titles to fill a book. I sat down and in three minutes had written down 13, which would appear, unchanged, between hard covers just two years later. I wrote the article, which was a great success. Then I wrote a ten-page book proposal and mailed it to a hungry young agent I had met in New York.

Two weeks later I called her to see what was going on. "This may take a while," she said. "It could take months. I'll call you when anything happens."

Two weeks later she did. "Doubleday has made an offer," she said. "I think you should take it."

Astounded, I did. I spent the next year in a frenzy of research and writing, learning sign language, talking with everyone and reading everything I could. Dancing without Music: Deafness in America came out in 1980. I am extremely proud that, except for six months in 1988, it has been in print ever since, now in paperback with Gallaudet University Press. It made a tremendous splash in the small world of deafness, and I was a semi-famous figure in that little universe and, amazingly enough, a deafness expert, sort of. I got assignment after assignment on various aspects of deafness. After a couple of years, though, I decided it was time to move on to other subjects. There I was, a published journalist and author!

It was my agent who decided I had the makings of a health writer. Anyone who could describe the functioning of the ear, she told me, could do likewise for the uterus, and before I knew it I was writing a book about abortion. And that led, in a series of additional happenstances and chance encounters to, well, now. But by then I had already become a freelance, so that's another story.

(C) 2001 Beryl Lieff Benderly

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes on health and behavior in books for adults and children; articles for magazines, newspapers, and the Web; and reports, brochures, and summaries for a wide range of clients. She also serves as chair of the NASW Freelance Committee.

November 1, 2002

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