It's a Freelance Life 
By Bryan Close  


Nora Sayre at 23 in England. Photo by Walker Evans; Walker Evans Foundation/Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  Several years ago the provost of Columbia University, in cooperation with the Authors’ Guild Foundation, produced a study showing that the average annual income of a freelance writer was somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000. What motivates people to enter this ridiculously non-remunerative line of work? How do they survive once they do?

Here are the stories of two writers, Nora Sayre and Darcy Frey, who, while being neither rich nor exactly famous, have found a measure of success. They have discovered how to make the life work.

More or less.
 

It might seem to an observer that Nora Sayre has led a classic freelancer’s life. Just don’t try to tell her that. "‘Freelancer ’ has become a very offensive term," says Sayre. "Ten years ago it was legitimate. Maybe. Now it’s just another word for ‘unemployed.’" She prefers to think of herself simply as a writer, calling that "the honorable term."

Sayre is what a certain kind of writer used to call "of a certain age." She refuses to say how old exactly for professional reasons. "It isn’t vanity, dear," she says. "But unfortunately writers are downgraded in our earnings based on our age. They think we become less capable of grasping things."

It is hard to imagine anyone who knows Sayre making such a misjudgment about her. Though she is not particularly mobile – she asks me several times to fetch things for her, even to answer the phone, and she breaths with the help of a thin oxygen tube, a leftover from what she calls "a very fancy infection" that she got a year and a half ago – the flow of Sayre’s conversation is nonstop, witty and delightful, ranging from politics to theater to the sorry state of magazine journalism. "It’s not a good time for magazines," she says matter-of-factly. "The profile has been replaced by the celebrity puff piece. Vanity Fair is having a lot of influence."

Sayre lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment near the corner of Central Park West and Cathedral Parkway, which she calls "just a fancy name for 110th Street." During my visit with her she reminds me more than once not to stand on her oxygen tube. (She manages to do this much more graciously than I would if someone were standing on my oxygen tube.)

"The thing for a writer to do, really," Sayre says, "is to have a private income." Sayre does not, and for most of her life she has had to have an additional job to help pay the bills. She was an editor for years, and she now teaches undergraduate courses at Columbia University. "It is, quite frankly, impossible," she says, not to have some other source of income. Still, she speaks almost reverentially of the "seven lovely years" during which she did nothing but write. During that time, Sayre survived on a combination of book advances and fees for magazine articles, averaging a balance of about $200 in her savings account. "I managed for those seven years to break even with no other income at all. I was able to travel. I was able to go to the dentist." She was able to survive, she says, because she has no dependants and a relatively inexpensive life – "rent controlled apartments, things like that."

Though her recent illness has slowed her down a bit, Sayre still tries to work eight hours a day. She writes drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads, "like Richard Nixon," she says, and then transfers them onto the computer. "It isn’t all writing, of course," she says. "Some of it is re-writing, or looking at things with a critical eye. It is very easy to fill eight hours this way." And there are the research days, spent in the library or conducting interviews. "Reporting is really my first love," she says. "I like to be at the center of things."

Sayre has written for The New Statesman (she was the magazine’s New York correspondent from 1965 to 1970), Esquire ("The old Esquire. It was quite good back then."), The Progressive, The Nation, The New York Times (as a film critic), and The New York Times Book Review (for which she still writes). When she has a piece rejected ("I’ve always liked the word ‘piece,’" she says. "‘Essay’ just sounds so – unprofitable."), as she says all writers invariably do, she tries to recycle it. Sometimes she puts it in a book. She has written four, including Running Time: The Films of the Cold War, Previous Convictions: A Journey through the 1950’s, and Sixties Going on Seventies.

And though she hates the word "memoir," launching into a tirade against what she sees as the debasement of the form, she has recently finished writing one, On the Wing: A Young American Abroad. But it is not, she says emphatically, one of those "boo-hoo books" that are "only worth reading because the narrator is so wretched."

Sixties Going on Seventies, in spite of what Sayre calls "a somewhat unfortunate title," is the book she refers to most often during conversation. Nominated for a National Book Award and hailed by critics, the book is a brilliantly guided tour through one of the most explosive periods of our recent history. It is filled with invigorating prose, such as these lines from the book’s first essay, "Democratic Death-In," datelined Chicago, 1968:

Such blood: released from bruised and broken veins, from foreheads, scalps and mouths, from eyesockets, shattered wrists, and skulls. I saw seven policemen beating one young woman – long after she had fallen; a row of sitting singers whose heads had been cracked open by a charge of running cops; a photographer’s camera smashed thoroughly into his eyes.


"Like a lot of my generation, I grew up with no politics at all. I didn’t even read the newspaper," Sayre says, not proudly perhaps, but not shyly either. "Mine was a rather liberated family," she says, "but it was a very square time. Even the freest spirits were cautious. Clearly life was safer and easier if you had no politics." That changed when she went to England after graduating from Radcliffe. Politics in England, she found, were much more energetic than what she remembered at home. "They have more of a tradition of a vigorous opposition than we do." Sayre realized then that she was "somewhat of a lefty."

In England she landed a job writing reviews at The New Statesman. She returned to America following a brief, unsuccessful marriage – "That was another era," she says – and became The New Statesman’s first New York correspondent. "I don’t want to give too much credit to the Brits," she says, "because I am no Anglophile. But they give a writer so much more freedom, especially then."

"Our major priority was to stay free," Sayre says of her contemporaries. "We didn’t want a job at Time or someplace where you had to write in their institutional voice." She notes with despair that young magazine writers increasingly rely on clichés and other forms of lazy writing. "It was so important to us all to nurture and protect our voices," she says. "Young writers today just don’t seem as worried about that." She laughs and adds, "Though some of them could certainly afford to worry about it a little more."

Sayre comes by her own voice honestly, having been raised by writers. Her father, Joel, was a war correspondent for The New Yorker, and her mother, Gertrude, wrote for both The New York World and The New York Times. Maybe because they knew how hard it was, they discouraged her from writing. Which was fine with her. "Growing up, I did not want to write," she says. She always wanted to be a veterinarian.

"When your family does something, of course you don’t want to do it," she says. "Unless you’re a Rockefeller, I suppose. Or a Redgrave." Or, as it turns out, a Sayre.

Darcy Frey sits down and immediately spills a glass of water across my lap. He apologizes with disarming earnestness, not only to me, but also to the woman at the next table and to the waitress who quickly arrives with a towel. We settle into our chairs at Café Edgar on West 84th Street, mine still a bit damp, and Frey grins sheepishly, removing a comfortable-looking, broken-in sweat jacket to reveal a comfortable-looking, broken-in T-shirt. Suddenly he laughs. "Well," he says, peering over his menu at my soggy notepad, "there’s your lead."

And who am I to argue? Frey’s talent as a writer is the reason I’m here. The 39-year-old Frey makes his living as a freelance writer. As such, he makes his own schedule and pursues his own journalistic interests. He pays for his own health insurance.

The New York native has been reporting and writing for magazines since he graduated from Oberlin College in 1984; it’s all he’s wanted to do, and he’s good at it. So much so that the editor of The New York Times Magazine, Adam Moss, cites Frey’s 1995 article on the care of extremely premature babies, "Does Anyone Here Think This Baby Can Live?," as being instrumental in that magazine’s development from not-so-great to pretty-darned-good. Another of his cover stories for the magazine, "Something's Got to Give," a 1996 piece about the alarmingly intense subculture of air-traffic controllers, was so vividly written that it inspired the 1999 film Pushing Tin, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

Frey is modest about his success. "I’ve had terrific editors," he says more than once. His relationships with his editors are important to him, and he freely gives them credit. Frey speaks of Stephen Brill, for whom he worked at The Amercican Lawyer during his first three years out of college, with admiration and gratitude. The same goes for Richard Todd, editor of the now-defunct New England Monthly ("A great magazine," says Frey. "The quality of the writing was so high. That was like my graduate school."), Lewis Lapham at Harper’s (where Frey was a contributing editor until 1994) and Moss and the other editors at The New York Times Magazine, whom he calls "especially satisfying" to write for.

Frey is best known for his only published book, The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, the story of four teenage basketball stars from the projects of Coney Island and the ways in which society exploits them. The book came out around the same time as the popular documentary film, Hoop Dreams, and together the two projects heightened national awareness of the commodification of young athletes. The idea for the book, an immersion report from a culture where, as Frey writes, "there is basketball, and when that doesn't work out, there are drugs," came from Todd, Frey’s editor at New England Monthly, who suggested that they work together on a longer piece.

"I had done a lot of reporting for him on inner-city issues, so this story seemed natural," says Frey. The Last Shot, like most of Frey’s work, is meticulously reported and masterfully written. "I enjoy reporting and writing equally," Frey says, "which is fortunate because they’re such different skills." The Times’s Brent Staples wrote, "This book – compellingly written, with elegance, economy and just the right amount of outrage – should be read by every parent who has a child involved in school sports."

Sitting across the table from me, Frey doesn’t look all that prone to outrage. His sandy beard is closely trimmed and half a shade lighter than his slightly tousled hair, and his boyish face shows deep lines around the eyes from his frequent broad smiles. Still, he carries himself with an ease that seems to belie an inner toughness. It’s not hard to imagine him hanging out on the courts and in the gyms of Coney Island introducing himself to everyone he sees. His curiosity is compelling and infectious. It’s easy to see why a fatherless kid from Brooklyn – or an intense, strung out air-traffic controller, or the parents of a severely premature baby who might not survive – would open up to him. Or a reporter, for that matter. I think that during our conversation I wound up answering more of Frey’s questions than he did mine.

He also seems comfortable with the responsibilities and pressures of his career. "When you’re self-employed," he says with an unaffected nonchalance, "you have to invent every single day – whether it’s writing or reporting or filling out insurance forms. Nobody’s going to make you do it." When the waitress (the one who brought the towel) tells Frey that the restaurant’s lemonade is unsweetened and that he will have to add his own sugar, he pauses for a second. Then he grins at her. "I think I can handle that," he says.

Frey does his best writing in the morning. "I like to wake up into the writing," he says. He used to have an office where he went to write, but he found it too expensive a luxury to maintain. Now he works in his apartment on West 86th Street. "My computer is in my living room. It’s a pain," he says. "I definitely prefer to write somewhere else." Frey is now taking a break from working on his second book – a memoir of the two years he spent caring for his dying father – to research and write a piece for The New York Times Magazine on global warming. Though his reporting requires reading and travel – he recently returned from a trip to the Arctic Circle – Frey says he spends most of his time on this story "talking to scientists, trying to understand what they’re talking about."

He prefers to split his time between writing books and magazine articles. "I want to keep a foot in both worlds," he says, noting that magazine writing is more stable because "the paycheck comes sooner." Also, he finds it helps to come back to his book after time working on something else, "especially outward-directed stuff" like the science involved in the global warming story. He has written two drafts of the as-yet-untitled memoir for which he has a contract with Random House, but he doesn’t know when it will be finished. Frey, who dedicated The Last Shot to his father’s memory, becomes a little uncomfortable talking about the memoir. Asked about its structure, he smiles and says, "We don’t exactly know yet. I’m working on that."

Frey’s range of interests is broad, and even though he enjoys working on diverse assignments, he sometimes can’t help feeling envious of writers who have steady beats. "It would be nice not to have to start over from scratch each time," he muses. And though his career as a whole has been "very happy," Frey has had his share of disappointments as a writer. A piece he spent six months reporting and writing died on the presses when New England Monthly folded. "That hurt," he says. (He later sold the story to Rolling Stone, which somewhat mitigated the pain.) Even worse was the time he published a profile on Fred Hughes, the executor of Andy Warhol’s estate, for Manhattan Inc., only to find that New York magazine was running its own profile on Hughes – a much better one – at the same time. "That was the freelancer’s nightmare," he says. "It’s like someone said ‘These are your flaws as a writer – these are all the things you didn’t do well,’ for everybody to see."

The next day Frey called to thank me again, earnestly, for the lemonade.