Take Advice From a Writer Who Doesn’t Take Her Own Advice
You know that moment when you’re bleary-eyed, cracked out on caffeine, manically typing as the coffee shop barista stacks chairs? That’s not just me, right? Every time I find myself in this last-minute deadline sprint, I shake my fist at the sky asking, “Whyyyy?!” and “Is this even worth it?!” as if this situation has been inflicted on me. As if this is someone else’s fault other than my own. When the article is finally submitted, I tell myself, “Never again. Next time, I’ll finish early. Next time, I’ll proofread twice. Next time, I’ll have so much time, I’ll leaf through the mothafuckin’ thesaurus sipping mint tea.”
But when I’m honest with myself, I know next time won’t be any different. Freelance writing for me is a pendulum swing of ecstatic freedom and punishing all-nighters. I run on adrenaline and cortisol. Basically, I’m super unhealthy.
In the meantime, I’ll keep writing about health while trying to be healthier myself. The irony makes it meaningful, right?
And the laughable paradox? I write about health. In fact, I recently wrote a 2,000-word manifesto about work/life balance.
I didn’t want to be a freelancer, honestly. I got pushed into it when I lost my full-time position as an agency copywriter. At the time I was living in Montreal, eating beans and discounted bruised fruit. I was scraping together every copywriting assignment I could find, writing text for vitamin bottles and face cream advertisements. But at night, I was doing what I loved. I reported on neo-burlesque and underground electro. I got press passes and green room interviews. Of course, those articles paid even less. Most times, they paid nothing at all.
Back then it was less a question of work/life balance, and more a question of survival. Would there be enough money for rent and wine? What was the cost of lost sleep to get a story that didn’t pay, versus meeting a deadline for a copywriting gig I hated? But, the paradox ran deeper still. Those two years saw some of my most inspired writing. Articles about French kissing musicians and reinventing opera.
Perhaps the health of my writing is contingent on my own precarious health? Is that my karmic contract? Some sort of Robert Johnson deal where inspiration only strikes when I’m stressed, hungover, and sleep-deprived?
When I’m honest with myself, the answer is no. I’ve been writing professionally for five years now. You’d think I’d have the hang of this. But the problem is this: I have no process, no routine, no formula. I thought that was my edge…what helped me stay innovative, off the cuff, spontaneous. Really, that’s just a rationalization for my own lack of self-discipline. I still struggle with this every day. Even so, I have learned a few things.
So here is some advice, most of which I never listen to. But you should. ‘Cause I’m a health writer, dammit.
Balance Is a Life’s Work
This realization really helped take the pressure off. Balance, like someone doing a headstand, takes constant readjustment. Those little muscle tremblings and contractions to keep from falling over—it’s not static. Balance is fluid movement. Some days we’re better than others. So on days when I fall over (and go skiing instead of editing), I try not to be so hard on myself. Which leads me to…
Let Yourself Play
Workaholism is like a calorie-restricted diet. Too many rules, and you’re more likely to binge. I found I’m more focused, motivated, and inspired when I take the time to laugh, bike or swing on the swing set at the park. It’s those moments of levity that give me more stamina for moments of intense concentration.
Every Email Isn’t Urgent
The hardest part of being a freelancer is never “going home” after work. Work is home, home is work. So your office never really closes. When I get an email at 11pm while shooting pool at the bar, it still stresses me out. I have to repeat to myself, “Every email isn’t urgent.” They can wait until Monday. “Now, sink the damn eight ball.”
Deadlines Are Bullshit–But Still Kinda Work
I started my journalism career in a hard news environment. Every article was due yesterday. Now, when I have projects with long-term deadlines, I feel sluggish and unmotivated. I try to use self-imposed interim deadlines, but they feel contrived. I procrastinate anyway.
Despite myself, I know they’re working on a subconscious level, silently mounting the urgency and motivation to get it done. So give yourself deadlines. They’re dumb. But work…kinda.
Risk Asking for More Money
Freelance websites that coach you to “ask for what you’re worth” annoy me. Yeah, duh. But it’s so much harder than that, isn’t it? Estimating the cost of a gig involves wading through a psychological swamp of self-respect, time calculations and competitive analyses. What I’m “worth” is contingent on how bad I need to pay my heating bill, and how much faster I can write it than my competitor. Not to mention how self-confident I felt this morning pulling up my drooping eyelids in the mirror. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that asking for more money is always worth the risk. It makes me uncomfortable and stressed out every time, but I know even if I don’t get it, it’ll be a little easier to ask the next time.
So there you go. Those are some tricks to tricking yourself into “a process,” from one stressed-out freelancer to another. Does it work? Sometimes. There are always periods of working hard and hardly working. In the end, “the process” of figuring it out for yourself is what makes freelancing so worthwhile. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing about health while trying to be healthier myself. The irony makes it meaningful, right?
I thought this piece was great. In addition to being honest and well articulated I found the authors humor really refreshing.
I love this piece Emily! It’s eerie how much I can relate, especially on process/routine/discipline which I’m allergic to. Year after year I get a little better but it is totally not my natural tendency. Excited to have you writing for us!
Emily, what a lovely piece! As someone who gets out a lot of her anxieties by making to do lists and then mostly not following them, I love that it is actually possible to get things done without a plan. Let’s break the rules… by not having any. And then know that there’s probably a better way to get things done. :)