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We spent the July 4th holiday weekend in West Virginia visiting the newest member of the family (and his family, of course). Because descending on parents of a newborn is like sticking razors between their toes, we opted to stay at a local bed & breakfast. The owners use have-a-heart traps to keep critters from ripping up trash bins and terrorizing guests. While we were there, a possum was caught in one of the traps.
Who knew that possum would have anything to teach us about writing? Yet our homely little friend had some serious lessons to impart, which became clear to me as we were driving back from releasing him miles away as a favor to the busy B&B owner.
Going for an easy meal is usually a trap. The possum was lured by the prospect of a free, easy meal. All he had to do was stick his nose in that innocuous-looking box … Free is never free. If it’s easy, it’s pretty likely you’re about to walk into a trap. What freelancer hasn’t been tempted — even briefly — by the thought of easy money for quick work? Yet how often do those “easy” jobs turn into endless commitments on your time? Very often.
Once trapped, you’re at someone else’s mercy. That possum sat for at least 24 hours in that cage in the intense heat with no shade. The owners were slammed with a full house and most likely forgot about it. That’s why we offered to shuttle him elsewhere. Another few hours and he may not have recovered. It’s a bit like that with “easy” jobs and low-hanging fruit (a.k.a. content mills). Once you’re in, you can’t see any way out.
No matter how much you push against the same wall, you’re still not going anywhere. It was evident from the blood on the possum’s mouth that he’d tried repeatedly to chew his way through the metal cage. That gained him nothing but a bloody mouth. Yet it’s tough to sit back and hope things will change, for he didn’t know that to be the case. The same goes for making excuses that keep you in one spot. If you push against all the advice (that you’ve asked for) that suggests you change what you’re doing, it’s like doing nothing at all.
Hissing and gnashing your teeth are equally useless. What kind of incentive is it for a human to grab hold of a cage when the animal inside is threatening to rough him up? While we didn’t fear the possum’s complaints and posturing, he was clearly trying to change his fortune with body language. Freelancer, if you bitch and moan about work, clients, and markets, your posturing is a lot like a possum in a trap. It’s just bitching.
Submitting isn’t good, either. After what had to be a harrowing several hours of fighting and straining to break free, the possum had succumbed to fatigue and thirst and was lying curled up when we came to its rescue. Like that possum, some freelancers will just stop trying because “freelance writing is dead” or “there just aren’t any good-paying jobs out there” is an easy excuse. If you suck it up and take it, you’re still stuck. And nothing will change.
It takes a bit of darkness to see the light sometimes. Let me just say it: possums stink. We didn’t realize just how smelly they were until we were putting that cage in my car trunk. They’re not skunk-type smelly, but I wouldn’t want to sit next to one. So in the trunk he went, where he went on a dark, scary, bumpy ride for at least ten minutes. In the end, he was rewarded with freedom, but he didn’t see it coming. That’s pretty much how it is when freelance writers decide to walk away from the sure-thing content churn and start finding better clients. It’s dark and scary, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll see the light again. But you do. And you are rewarded for your efforts.
New territory can be refreshing. Once the cage door was cracked open, that possum was in a new home. His first steps, shaky and wobbly, were straight to one of the nicest little streams a dehydrated marsupial could wish for. He drank without caring that we were still there. And he had plenty to drink. His little possum cup runneth over, and while we knew he was still scared, we couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t thinking he’d just scored an upgrade. When freelancers opt for a change from the ordinary, the scenery can be, and usually is, more refreshing and rewarding than the old way of doing things.
Writers, what lessons can you learn from a caged possum?
Have you ever found your way out of a figurative trap? How did you do it, and what was the result?