“Being a freelance writer,” my aunt once advised me, “is the worst job in the world.”
With a career spanning four decades in film, journalism and joe jobs, she speaks from experience. There’s a lot of truth in that statement.
Of course, she didn’t mean literally the worst job in the world – obviously freelance scribes do not rank among China’s coal miners and India’s manual sewer repairmen in the pantheon of the unluckiest labourers on earth.
But she had a point: it is a painfully unpleasant profession sometimes. Days can be spent sitting by yourself, boxed inside your home, isolated from the world, waiting for cheques that never come and contacts that never respond.
Your friends pilfer you with lolcat gifs from their desks as they sit on comfy chairs inside climate-controlled offices while paychecks are regularly plonked into their bank accounts (with benefits and pensions) regardless how much time they waste on icanhascheezburger. And you, on the receiving end of these lovely jpegs, sit in the glorious splendor of your living room, surrounded by dirty dishes and unwashed laundry, with a bank balance half the size it was when you got people drunk for a living. Constantly forced to sell yourself to new employers while worrying the whole time that your profession is just a glamorous kind of unemployment. You want to tear your hair out, cry and punch your computer screen. But you don’t if only because you know you’d never be able to afford the repairs on your shoestring salary.
My aunt was wise to warn me to be wary of independent writing.
But now, after five years plonking away in this very strange profession, I have learned that she only told me half the story. There are many bad days, but they are almost perfectly balanced out by good days. Days that are so good you are tempted to think you actually have the best job on the face of the earth.
You wake up when you want, spared the misery of a sweaty, cramped commute, and can spend your day however you choose. You don’t have to wear silly suits or speak in ridiculous corporate jargon. You can spend time in your garden.
Nobody can shout at you or oppress you, and you never for a moment feel like somebody’s dogsbody, wasting the precious seconds of your life on meaningless paperwork. You can write in the evenings if you feel like it, take time out on weekdays to see the amazing exhibits that are too crammed with 9-to-5ers on weekends, and go to the park when it’s sunny if you have reading to do.
And – perhaps best of all – rather than spending all day every day doing the same thing over and over, you can diversify your time. In my case, partitioning weeks both to writing about topics of gravely serious importance and under-appreciated issues I care passionately about, as well as to building awesomely cool gadgets, taking part in fantastical replicas of Blade Runner, and escaping to the countryside to celebrate science at music festivals.
At all times you are the captain of your ship, master of your domain, and steward of your future. When it works, and you manage to publish an editorial sharing your views on something you know and care about, or get invited to go across the country to publicly debate a corporate mouthpiece, or spend a few hours in the sun while everyone else is in the office, you feel delirious with pride for making it work. At one point, when I thought about giving up and going for a full-time job, a friend (a much younger writer) said: “But why? You’re living the dream.”
I have come to this conclusion: freelance writing is simultaneously the best job and the worst job in the whole, wide, world.
You can sum it up in one phrase: it’s like being professionally bipolar. It is as though my job belongs in the DSM.
I recently discovered that I have used the Photo Booth application on my MacBook to take more than a hundred photos of myself – most frequently, while working and looking for an excuse to avoid writing. This gallery of pictures illustrates the bipolar nature of my profession perhaps far better than I could ever describe in words.
Here we have the best job in the world – placed in the location of my choosing, rather than some corporate despot’s sterile office:
Feel that vitamin D.
And here we have the worst job in the world – impoverished, tired, and painfully isolated.
Then like clockwork it reverts back to the best job in the world – with meetings scheduled at the Barbican to see the birds. Just because you can. What else are wireless laptops for?
But without fail it will once again turn into the worst job in the world, forced to toil late into the night in darkness, in solitude, in sadness.
Then back to the best:
And again to the worst:
Worst (no sick pay):
All freelancers are driven to despair from time time to time, and invariably think about getting a normal job with normal hours, normal pay, and – most importantly – normal stress levels.
The last time I thought about this, a friend of mine – a freelance designer – instantly recoiled in horror. “You cannot even think about going fulltime – you belong in the world of freelance. You’re like Spider Jerusalem.”
I’ve been compared to many things in my life, but a psychopathic homicidal bald journalist was a first. I didn’t take offence, but I was taken aback. I quibbled. And to be fair, he made a fair point.
“Yes, you’re broke and stressed and lonely and sometimes it’s awful. But you have to think of it as a transaction. You give up financial security, but what you are buying,” he reminded me, “is freedom.”