An important but underrated function of marriage is regulatory.
When one of the spouses begins to depart the tolerable territory of thinly disguised narcissism and borderline weirdness and tiptoes up to the border of naked, pathological, indefensible pigheadedness, the other spouse—out of his or her own self-protective instincts—calmly says something like what my friend Betty occasionally says to her husband Bill: "Bill, give Mr. Mouth a rest." (And you know what Bill says, nine times out of 10? "Thank you, Betty.")
In moderately functional marriages everywhere, we spouses keep one another sane. You're welcome, America. And I'm grateful to be married, personally.
But I'm not married, professionally. Though I'm known for shacking up very seriously with publishers—I freelanced extensively but not exclusively for one publisher for eight years and I've slept most nights for the last five at the comfortable home of another—I stubbornly hold that professional marriage just isn't for me.
Why not? Mainly, because I'm too "codependent," I believe is the term. When I work inside your offices and among your people, I lose my personality in your culture, I get far too deeply caught up in the lives of the human beings in the immediately surrounding cubicles, and—worst of all—I try to solve all your problems regardless of my true ability to do so. So while logistics aren't exactly my core competency, somebody has to organize the company's headquarters move, and since a guy can't write all day every day ….
That's an exaggeration, of course. I've never tried to organize a company move. But I have gotten myself into management jobs I hated and in charge of strategic initiatives I had no particular aptitude for carrying out. And when the enterprise has ended in failure or misery, I've resented who? My employer, of course.
So I gotta stay on the outside. I gotta make you pay for my services a la carte. And if it turns out I don't like doing one of those jobs—or I don't like the mix of jobs I'm doing, for you and other publishers—well, then I gotta let you know.
Probably almost every hour of every day in the life of a busy freelancer involves a necessary decision about self-interest: Is this project worth the money? Is this story worth some extra effort? Does this assignment contribute to my résumé? Will this job invigorate me or drain me? Is it worth doing this gig for goodwill, or is this a favor that could quickly become an unpaid job? And so on. And on, and on.
The trouble is, all those questions are about me, and my own self-interest. And necessarily so. I've seen freelancers who do work out of the goodness of their heart. They wind up helping kooks with memoirs, and editing the community association newsletter.
Still, after 13 years on my own, I see signs of warpage, in the mirror: Outsize anxiety and indecision over whether to take projects. Personal decisions that seem influenced by professional interest. A gradual loss of willingness to lose myself in "fun" work, perhaps out of fear that it will cause me to neglect better or more steadily paying stuff. And the taking of all of the above altogether too seriously. (As you can plainly see.)
Forgive me. I'm a married man, but professionally I'm a confirmed bachelor, getting set in my ways.
Well, I guess every kind of professional life twists us in some grotesque ways.
How has your work twisted you?