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Present Self Spends. Future Self Gets Stuck with the Bill.

·672 words·4 mins
Survival Writing

“If I could, I would un-smoke,” she says to me. Previously in excellent health, she’s taken a turn for the worse the past few months. It’s bad. Bad enough to kill her if things don’t turn around. Right now she is doing everything she can. And she’s stopped smoking. But it’s up to her body what happens next. If she heals and how.

“I’m sorry you’re dealing with this,” I tell her. “I know what you mean. If I could, I’d un-smoke, too.” It was only a couple of years for me of heavy smoking — and it’s two decades past now. I’m glad I quit (it was SO hard). But I can’t help wishing I never started. I keep reading about people with my kind of smoking history who go on to have problems way down the road.

But I know her current situation is much worse than mine. And don’t want to make it all about me. So I pivot back to her. Ask her questions about what she needs. Try my best to listen.

But as I do, I can’t help but think about what an unfortunate trap it is that we fall into: Present self spends. Future self gets stuck with the bill.

Freelancing and the Bittersweet Feeling of Being Greenlit

And it’s not always life or death either. If you’ve ever made plans to go out with people and found that on the day you’d planned to meet up that you were in no emotional shape to do, you’ll have felt something similar. Past self set future self up for something that you really don’t want to do. Past self set the appointment, but future self is the one who has to go.

And sometimes they’re very different selves.

As someone who has done a lot of freelance writing, I’ve dealt with this phenomenon a lot. When you pitch an article to an editor, you do your best to make it sound like something they’d want to publish. You’re basically talking up something that doesn’t exist yet. Ideally, you write an outline and give an approximate word count.

And if you really want to make life easy for an editor, you pitch a timeframe. Something like “with your go-ahead, I could have this to you within a week’s time.” Whatever could be feasible.

Especially when pitching for well-paid markets, the easiest way to get something accepted is to make the piece sound amazing (and a perfect fit for the audience for the publication), all while promising you can deliver ASAP. It helps to have a prior publication history — but if your pitch is good enough, it’s not strictly necessary.

Even so, you never count on all of your pitches being accepted. So if you’re trying to make your living as a freelancer, you must overpitch. You pitch more work than you expect to get greenlit. That way, you’ll still have some paying work to do if and inevitably when some (or even most) of those pitches fall through.

I’ve done it. I’ve pitched much more than I could feasibly deliver if every editor said yes. I’ve also put out pitches to places where I think I have no chance of getting accepted, only to feel like I’m going to pass out when they say yes.

And I’ve certainly experienced that simultaneous excitement and terror when an editor greenlights something ambitious — particularly if a bunch of editors all say yes at once.

At that point, future self is left to fulfill promises past self made. I’ve always found a way to make it work. The last thing you want to do when you get on an editor’s radar is let them down by failing to follow through. You might not get another opportunity. (Most editors will take a solid but reliable contributor over a brilliant but unreliable writer any day of the week.)

No matter the context, we all have to deal with this disconnect: Past self spends. Future self gets stuck with the bill.


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