Do you Have What it Takes to be a Freelancer?
Precariousness isn’t a badge of honor.
And yet, it’s the daily reality of many freelancers like me who put on a brave face and try not to let the struggle show. Instead of being proud of what we’ve achieved, we’re still mildly embarrassed it isn’t more yet, perhaps because many of us are often holding our own hand and remain our harshest critic.
Also, if you live in a culture that equates human worth with a dollar figure, you need motivation that goes beyond earning a living as it is what can and will carry you during rough patches.
When your geographical coordinates are variable and you’re a so-called digital nomad, there’s this erroneous impression that you’ve made it because you’re always on the move.
This isn’t my case at all.
Home is in the Pacific Northwest — Washington State — but I haven’t seen it or my two cats for months; instead, I’m in Europe, ping-ponging between Paris, Lisbon, and Amsterdam. Nice though it may sound, it isn’t quite what you think.
My stepmom is gravely ill and I can’t do anything for my parents unless I’m on the same continent as them. That much became evident within a few days of landing in Paris in December 2018. Because major depressive disorder did away with my writing voice and livelihood for five years, I hadn’t seen my family since the year before I immigrated to the US.
They thought I had abandoned them while the grim truth is I couldn’t purchase an airfare any more than I could purchase therapy to get better.
For the best part of my initial three-month stay, my father was under the impression I was about to abandon him again. Instead, I worked non-stop while juggling the imperatives of family life. In practice, this means many hospital appointments and many heartfelt talks, none of which can or should ever be rushed.
Work always happens but it happens around my family; my family doesn’t happen around it.
Being a freelancer in the UK and Portugal was never as harrowing as it has been in the US before I shipped out back to Europe.
I’ve been a journalist since the mid-aughts and I’ve almost always freelanced, working various contracts and taking on one-off assignments. At the time, half of all journalists in the UK were in the exact same situation as me; it was normal.
If making hay while the sun shines is the modus operandi of freelancers loath to turn down any work because we don’t always know where the next commission or client will come from, said work commanded professional fees back then.
But there were hiccups, too.
It once took a public media organization over a year to pay me so I frequently went hungry. I learned to live on one meal a day, something I still do ten years later. No regrets, it’s a useful habit to have, as is knowing how many days you can reasonably go without food.
There’s zero job security in freelancing so being resilient, adaptable, and able to roll with the punches is essential. It’s a good idea to be clear about what your outgoings are to the cent but you can seldom plan how much you’re going to earn or know whether you’re going to be able to cover them.
Having healthy financial habits, putting what little money you can aside, and knowing how to keep going on very little are essential coping skills. This will help you take a mental load off otherwise you could well drive yourself crazy with worry.
Selling off my personal narrative piecemeal on the internet as I rebuild a life word by word is quite the radical approach but it’s the one I chose because there were no barriers to entry and no need to explain the five-year crater on my résumé. Most importantly, there’s a guaranteed payment — no matter how modest — coming in at the end of the month, regular as clockwork. Every little helps.
So I was able to roll up my sleeves and start reactivating my editorial skills right away without wasting hours crafting pitches that may or may not result in commissions.
When my stepmom’s cancer diagnosis hit in September 2018, I realized I would no longer have the luxury of time.
Like all those who struggle to make ends meet every month, I can’t afford to dillydally about how I’m going to make money or if I’m going to survive; I just have to get on with it. As long as my writing voice holds, there’s no excuse not to produce copy and maintain a steady editorial output come rain or shine.
Meanwhile, I’m also working on establishing an EU base in the Netherlands so I can be near my parents but not under their feet as they need their space. This’ll also give them somewhere to escape while still able and no excuse not to get away from Paris. Based on what I’ve read in medical journals about my stepmom’s latest chemotherapy protocol, this is something that needs to happen soon.
To keep going, I tell myself that I’ll be able to address the repercussions of such a relentless pace on my mental and physical health as soon as fixed geographical coordinates allow me to get back into the European health care system. Unlike in America, health is a basic human right here. The amount we have to pay per month is negligible compared to the thousands of dollars Americans hemorrhage every year on insurance before co-pays, assuming they can cover co-pays.
Until then, I trust vocation and love to see me through even though I’m still getting back on my feet.
Freelancing may not always be the obvious or most lucrative choice but when flexibility is key and you need portable work, it’s the one option that makes sense.
While I can meet deadlines, I can’t be tied down to a regular schedule when in Paris as my parents’ needs come first. And when it means staying up all night working before or after a day at the hospital then that’s what happens. If it means working less because my mother needs attention then that’s what happens, too.
Many of us end up freelancing not by choice but because it’s the only way to earn an income while dealing with non-standard circumstances.
If this doesn’t fit in with the dreamy idea many employees have of freelance life, it’s our own fault. Freelancers are often too busy building up a business from scratch and struggling to survive to take time out and explain what our daily reality is like.
While some freelancers do quite well, chances are this level of comfort didn’t happen overnight but is the result of grit and guts. Until then, precariousness is far more common than one thinks, even in skilled professions that sometimes enjoy a lot of visibility and some amount of perceived prestige, like journalism, editing, or translation. All of which I do.
Our situation is seldom enviable but for one thing: We freelancers are incurable optimists with steadfast focus who get the job done, whatever it takes.
When you have no one to rely on but yourself, it makes you reliable by default and efficient to a fault.
If you can turn unpredictability into an asset rather than a liability and are comfortable embracing the unknown and experimenting, freelancing is an excellent way to find out what you’re made of and how committed you are to your profession.
My earnings may be modest, but freelancing has enabled me to remain by my family’s side for the last eight months while supporting myself and this alone is priceless.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.