Guest column on Achenblog

I have had a vision of the future: We all work for ourselves, answerable to no one but Google.

I came by this view after I took the buyout at The Post, where I had been editor of The Washington Post Magazine (before it became the WP magazine). But as much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t afford to retire in the sense of pursuing shuffleboard and living in pajamas. (Turned out, I could only afford the pajamas part.)

I wasn’t going to starve, but I did need some supplemental income. Originally, I had imagined that I’d pick up some new work in journalism. But despite 30 years as a newspaper writer and editor, I soon was forced to conclude that finding another newspaper job would be as likely as finding work as a stagecoach driver. Sure, there were still a few Wild West tourist traps operating, but they were downsizing to pony rides, and, in any case, none ever responded to e-mails bearing my resume.

So after a lifetime of resisting it — God, how I hate to gamble — I went all entrepreneurial on myself. I hired a guy named Steve to build a website for me, hung up an electronic, web-searchable shingle as an editor for hire and began publishing my own blog. My idea was that the thousands of people who had inundated me with manuscripts over the years may want something more from an editor than a terse rejection notice. What if they could stop that guy whose signature spelled doom in mid stroke, get him to spend some time with their writing, to tell them what they’d done wrong and how to improve?

Maybe I had the kernel of a business plan. But making it into an actual business would require an education. First I had to figure out how to buy and register a domain name for my website. I still haven’t figured out how someplace called has managed to acquire ownership of every site name in the universe, even those that nobody has thought of yet. But so be it. At least coming up with possible names for my editing/blogging site proved easy. I spewed dozens:;, — every pun and cliché in the book. And discovered: all of them were taken.

My friend Gene Weingarten suggested, which was both catchy and apparently available, but possibly didn’t deliver the exact message I was looking for. Whenever Gene had branded me with that name in his Post columns and chats, I told people, “I prefer Tom the Surgeon.” Which is probably why I woke up in the middle of the night and fired up my computer to type “storysurgeons” into godaddy’s search engine. Bingo. With a little application of plastic I had a website name Five minutes later, I got an email from Google (privy to every random thought that goes through my keyboard) offering me a $100 coupon for advertising my site online. I filled out a form, and now I had an ad campaign too.

So for the cost of a week-long vacation, I had an online business and my own publishing concern. In the days that followed, I very easily slipped into writing and working the same hours I had in my Post job, except for two minor differences. One, nobody was paying me; and two, if I wanted to get up in the middle of the afternoon and take my dog for a walk in the woods, I could, and would. I found that to be a fair trade-off.

On a recent afternoon of the sort that has given fall a good name despite the fact that it is a harbinger of three months of black ice, I was stepping through a light-dappled forest, the emerging reds and golds exploding in the angled sun. A cool breeze rustled a million leaves, and I could barely hear the hum of work-day traffic beginning to build behind me. Something came over me, and I felt the urge to shout. So I did, tentatively at first, and then louder until I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “FREEDOM!” over and over like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

Then I remembered: in the very next frames of film, Gibson has his guts slowly spooled out of his body by the executioner.

But, damn, this sense of liberation feels good. While it lasts.

Story Surgeons on Achenblog.

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