Cirque du Freelance

photo by creativetouch

By Jaed Coffin

I have a regular freelance gig at Maine Magazine. The magazine typically has to plan out its story schedule several—as in six—months in advance. This makes it kind of hard for a writer like me, because I don’t like to “plan” anything. I like to shoot from the hip, chase down a story when I feel like it, and then drown myself in a single-minded creative process until every word and comma feels just right. But when I’ve got other stories coming down the pike, and future stories on back burners that I’m constantly trying to lock down, the whole precious “writing process” becomes more like a “writing circus.”

Here’s what my summer looked like: At some point in late June, my editor assigned me a story on what it means to be a “Mainer.” I went to the library, checked out like ten books on Maine history, and started playing around with a draft.

In the back of my mind, I knew I had a story about sword fishing that was sort of time-sensitive. Though the story wouldn’t run until March, I wanted to make sure I got on a boat during the peak season—July. While I was toying with the Mainer article, I was calling up fishermen I know, asking them to take me out on their boats.

Then I got word from my editor that week—I think I was somewhere in July by now, right before the Stonecoast residency—that they wanted to run a story in October about the current US Senator of Maine, Olympia Snowe. Great! Let’s do it! When? Now!

So I started researching Snowe’s career while I was finishing my Mainer article. The sword fishing article got put on hold—at some point, my editor and I decided we’d go with tuna fishing instead. I finally finished the Mainer piece, turned it in, and kept up my research on Olympia Snowe.

But wait! Breaking news! There was a story in Oxford County about the new casino that I needed to cover for the October issue, alongside the Snowe story. In fact, the Snowe story might not even happen! She’s too busy! Kill it!

So I traveled north to Oxford with my photographer and spent a day talking to Oxford County locals about their experiences. I wanted to write the story when the material was still fresh in my mind, but then I had to spend an afternoon making some changes to the Mainer story that a copy editor had suggested.

I patched together an Oxford draft, just about the time we found out from Senator Snowe’s office that the Senator was available for some interview time. Hooray! So I had to drop everything and do that. It was a great day! But I knew that I was going to have some other stories to work on, so I cranked out a draft of the story in a coffee shop ten minutes after our meetings were over, just to get something down.

That week, I wrapped up the casino piece, dealt with the edits, called my tuna fishing buddy, locked down a date to go out, then got word that a piece on Linda Bean—the granddaughter of LL Bean who wants to save Maine’s lobster fishing industry—was finally a go. I called Bean’s assistant, and he told me that Linda was on her way to the Republican National Convention; if I wanted to see her, it had to be that afternoon. I dropped everything and went up to Port Clyde and spent the evening riding around on this big yacht taking notes. The next day, I finished the Snowe story, and waited to hear back from my editor about the casino story.

But what about that Sugarloaf story? When I would get up to Kingfield, Maine, and contemplate the meaning of that big snow-less ski mountain for the December issue? I went north for the night. The day before I had to write captions and respond to editorial remarks on the Bean article.

Meanwhile, the Mainer article came out, and I had to spend a day doing a radio show on MPBN. The whole time, I was thinking about tuna, and whether or not I’d ever get out on the water. Otherwise, I might have to get up to Aroostock County for the fall harvest. The magazine wanted to run the story in September of 2013, after all.

Last night, I sent in a final draft of the Sugarloaf story and wrote captions for the Bean piece. When I got up this morning, I finally got a call from my photographer. The tuna fishing is on! Tomorrow. At noon.

In the mail today, I finally got my September check for the Mainer story. And so it goes.

Jaed Coffin is the author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday (forthcoming in 2013). He has served as a William Sloane Fellow at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Wilson Fellow in Creative Writing at Deerfield Academy, and a Resident Fellow at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. Jaed is on the nonfiction faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA.

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