Jan 14, 2011

The Parable of the Bolshy She-Beast

Anna Melville-James and Amanda Castleman
shortly after they went freelance in 2000
In 2000, Anna Melville-James and I were reporters for Oxford's newspaper group in England. Our mustier colleagues considered us interchangeable: a generic woman – uppity and twenty-something. Never mind that her Limey accent, belly-button ring and silver-screen style contrasted with my sandy, scruffy Yank persona, complete with Doc Martens malingering from the grunge era. One woman we were in their bleary eyes – and as Geminis, we found this doubly amusing. Anna and I even named our alter-ego: "The Bolshy She-Beast".

"We'll wither here," I cried.

"But I don't like the London rat race either," she said, then, riffing on the centrism of our respective leaders Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. "There must be a better way, a third way."

Each Friday, we met after work at G&D's gelateria and each listed our goals: administrative, creative, personal, and professional. Our notebooks recorded any and all aspirations, from my "pump the houseboat's bilges" to her more glamorous "dry-clean the camel-hair coat". More often, entries began with "chat with editor X about story Y".

Whoever accomplished less, proportionately, bought the coffee and ice cream that week.

I stopped nail biting about the hubris of pitching a glossy market. The outcome didn't matter, just the attempt. Anyway, that query was one among many.

Mainly, I just didn't want to spring for snacks… not on a feature writer's salary. So I got busy.

Within months, Anna and I both quit the office. Our freelance boom had begun. Eleven years later, we both are self-employed travel writers: not as young, but uppity still – and still great friends.

A version of this ran in the 2008 Bylines: Writer's Desk Calendar, along with this bio: Amanda Castleman never did learn to pump the bilge promptly. After eight years in Europe, she's now based on dry land again (or what passes for it in Seattle). Her articles have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, Wired, Salon and MSNBC.com, as well as the BBC, Guardian and Mail on Sunday.

She's contributed to dozens of books, including Greece, A Love Story and Single State of the Union, plus titles for Frommer's, Michelin, National Geographic, DK Eyewitness, Time Out and Rough Guides. Amanda teaches through Writers.com, where she explains professional secrets beyond coffee and ice cream. Her website is www.amandacastleman.com.

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