Muffler Origami (or Why Freelancing Is a Networking Game)

Here’s what I know about cars — fixing the engine will make the muffler explode.

My wife and I both have day jobs. We also have a mortgage, two cars, two dogs, a cat, and a teenage daughter who all seem to require constant cash infusions. When we need to staple some loose ends together, I freelance.

We both need to get to work, so we have two cars. Like most two-car families, we have The Good Car and The Other Car. We make a monthly payment to the bank for The Good Car. We make a few annual payments to the mechanic for The Other Car. This week, The Other Car stalled twice on a busy highway, which meant it was time to make a payment. My wife and I were both between paychecks on our full-time jobs, but The Other Car doesn’t care about that stuff. The Other Car is ruthless.

We took The Other Car to our excellent, reliable mechanic of nearly 15 years. He looked at it, gave us a heart-stopping estimate, and then, since we were a *mumblety* hundred dollars short, he agreed to let us pay what we could now and the rest when we get our next paychecks.

Sometimes freelance writing feels like work for a big, faceless company, but it’s actually work for editors. They see your work. If they like your work, they tell each other. Or they remember when they change jobs. And when they need someone, they think of you. Just like when I need The Other Car fixed, I think of my mechanic who does great work and lets me make partial payments when things are tight.

I swear to God these things are related.

Red Green used to say, “If women can’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” I don’t have either of those going for me. I don’t know anything about tools or cars or engines or joists or anything.

My training in fixing stuff came in the form of holding a flashlight while my dad swore at things and hit them with wrenches. I’m the guy who goes to a big chain oil change joint and ends up paying for two new warp nacelles and a flux capacitor because the kid sitting next to me in the waiting room thinks my wumpus fluid seems a little dark. I have no idea how to replace my air filter, but freelance writing means I can do origami – if I manipulate a blank piece of paper just right, I can turn it into a rebuilt 2004 Saturn Vue engine.

A few weeks before The Other Car decided to become a problem, I got an unexpected email from an editor I used to work with asking me to do some freelance writing. The day my excellent mechanic gave me that heart-stopping estimate, that editor paid me for that work. So instead of being *mumblety* hundred dollars short on my bill, I was able to pay it.

Of course, “I paid the bill and drove away in the car and lived happily ever after” is a great place to end the story, but it’s just a little too clean, isn’t it? That’s not how life works.

Life works more like this.

We picked up The Other Car from the mechanic Friday afternoon. Started it up. Sounded great. My wife drove the Other Car to work; I drove The Good Car home so I could take my teenage daughter to her babysitting job. That night, when we were all in the same place for a minute, I asked how The Other Car was doing.

“It’s kind of loud.”

“It wasn’t loud when we picked it up.”

“I know. It got loud later.”

My wife drove The Good Car to work the next day. I started The Other Car up in the daylight (it was loud, as reported) and stood behind it. Smoke was coming out of both ends of the muffler.

I called my mechanic.

“Where’s the car?”

“At home.”

“OK, I’ll come get it.”

When you freelance, even if it’s just for extra income, you rely on relationships. You find a good client, a good editor, a good proofreader, and you hold onto them like grim death. The same goes for the non-writerly parts of your life. You find a mechanic like mine, or a dentist like yours, or an accountant like your cousin’s, you take that person your business because they’re reliable, excellent, and they know how to maintain a good relationship.

I can’t fix cars, you can’t fix teeth, your cousin sucks at math, but we can write. We can be that reliable, excellent, relationship-curating go-to freelancer for someone else, and we can turn that into everything we need.

Now, while I await the next heart-stopping bill, I’m going to start folding as much blank paper as I can find into a nice, new muffler.