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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Back in "The Life," or "Self-Unemployed"

Well, I'm going back into "the life," as folks in hair-raising careers occasionally say. Folks like freelance intelligence operatives, career con artists, undercover detectives, and mercenaries. When a retired spy gets a call for help from an old friend and tells you he has to go back into "the life," there's a lot he isn't telling you. Such careers may be lucrative, or they may be deadly, but they are always unpredictable.

A lot like freelance technical writing. Well, except for the deadly part. But to the head of a household in today's economy, it has its risks, believe me.

How it Started the First Time

My first bout in "the life" started in 1995 when my employer of fifteen years suddenly laid off 3,000 folks in my community, including 80+ technical writers. Fortunately, I was the only writer around who understood the technologies I had been documenting. So I came back in as a contractor and finished up the project I had been working on. And then another one. And then another one. Over a seven year period, I led nearly twenty different documentation projects for several different major corporations, learning many new tools and technologies along the way.

The Good Part

The great thing about working on a new project every few months is how much experience and how many skills you gain in a hurry. It can actually be exciting, if those of you who can't stand writing at all can imagine such a thing. In a sense, being a senior technical writing consultant is a bit like being a stand-up comic - the only thing you have to sell is yourself, and folks can usually figure out pretty fast if you've "got the goods."

The very best part of this was how often I worked from home. I was around more often than not when the kids were young. I'd get up around 5:00 and go to work downstairs. Later, I'd help Shelia get the kids up and on the bus, then go back to work. Then from about 10:00-2:00 I could work in the yard or whatever; then I'd put in a few more hours in the late afternoon or evening. It's not surprising that most of the big jobs in my garden railroad got done in this time of my life. Or that I almost never missed a soccer game or school play or awards assembly.

The Bad Part

The occasional gaps between contracts were the bad part. Unfortunately, when the downward economic slide started in 2000-2001, the first things that most companies cut were the cutting-edge R&D projects that had been my "meal ticket" for nearly seven years. By the summer of 2002, the gaps between contracts were getting longer than the contracts. And buying decent family healthcare insurance when you're not actually working was tough, even then.

Coming "In From the Cold"

So, in late 2002, I took an unexciting job with a "safe" local company that soon went into financial hardship, and eventually closed without warning. Oops. I moved on to another "safe" local company that was soon assimilated by a big corporation. Then the corporation decided abruptly to move our labs and offices a thousand miles away. Oops.

Back on the Market

I circulated resumes, called old friends, did all the things you're supposed to do. But the sad news is that, even when the economy is on an upswing, the last technical writing positions to open up are inevitably the jobs that require serious experience.

Then a few weeks ago, I began hearing from folks who needed my skill set and knew they needed my skill set on a short-term project. Several potential opportunities fell through when the development manager couldn't get some VP four levels up to sign off on the project or some such. Still, things were looking hopeful.

Then on one day, about three weeks ago, I got a dozen e-mails and a dozen phone messages from folks from a dozen different agencies all over the country trying to recruit me for one particular contract in the region. I called back the only recruiter who spoke understandable English, then started through the client's "vetting" process.

Then a couple of days ago, it hit me, that I was going back into "the life" that had been alternately so rewarding and so unnerving back when I had a younger man's nerves and resiliency.

What is "Self-Unemployed"?

I also remembered a folk-song I wrote about "the life" called "Self-Unemployed." I thought it was clever, but only three people "got it." Turns out that folks who "get" folk music don't tend to get "industrial/economic" humor and vice versa.

I don't have the verses handy, but the chorus goes:

    Now there's flow charts hanging on my living room walls.
    I wear my pajamas to the conference calls.
    I either have too much work or nothing at all,
    And the job-hunting fills in the void.
    I work early in the morning and late at night,
    But I know my wife and my children by sight.
    And I can work by the pool when the weather is right -
    After all, I'm Self-Unemployed!

If this is all starting to sound like fun, it can be, but it's not for the faint-hearted, or for folks who are used to living from paycheck to paycheck.

For me, I'm on the part of the roller coaster where you've been ratcheted to the crest of the highest hill, and the only thing between you and a frightening and/or exhilarating rush is the sign that says "Hold your hat!"

We'll keep you posted. Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else to let me know you're paying attention, I remain,

Paul Race

Click to see some ways you can help us grow the hobby.P.S. Enjoy your trains. Especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

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