It is exactly one year since I quit my day job and went freelance as a writer/community arts facilitator/festival programmer/conference speaker/semi-professional political pundit/full-time job juggler. Here is a picture of me in my flamingo jumper on my last day at work. Here is a picture of me in the very same flamingo jumper just 365 days later. My hair is longer now and my eyebrows look better but I am not as tanned. (Nb. this may be something to do with the Instagram filter). I’d say I look exactly the same amount of tired in both photos.
I do not regret going freelance. It has been an amazing, if somewhat hectic year. Here, in no particular order are my favourite things that have happened since leaving work: getting to make a Radio 3 drama with Liam Neeson, visiting Norway, New Zealand and California in less than three weeks, finally making it to the end of The Sea, The Sea, signing a three book deal, programming 3 different literary festivals, becoming a roaming writer on the trains of Ireland, reading at Cheltenham Literary Festival for the first time and not messing it up, writing and performing a piece in collaboration with a string quartet, my week at the super scenic, incredibly hospitable, Dalkey Book Festival, joining a gym and being able to run for 10 minutes without stopping, publishing a book of Postcard Stories, making 3 German documentaries about Brexit, (still not sure why this happened or if I am actually considered a serious political voice in Germany), the International Literary Showcase week at Norwich Writers’ Centre, looking after Dementia Friendly screenings at the QFT, teaching my first ever university classes, visiting Katherine Mansfield’s house in Wellington, so many amazing older people’s arts projects I’ve lost count. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. When I flick through my photos from the last year, it feels more like a decade and yet it also feels like it was just yesterday I emerged from the Council office block, clutching a potted plant and a bunch of good intentions, ready to kick off my new life. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. I’m pretty sure the mornings would kill me now. But I have to be honest and say the transition hasn’t been plain sailing either.
As I’m spending my entire weekend writing an enormous project evaluation, (one of the perks of not being 9 to 5), I thought I’d present my first year of freelancing as a kind of report. There are no graphs, because I don’t know how to do graphs, and no mention of Section 75, but there are positives, negatives, a financial statement and some general conclusions which may help sway those of you who are thinking about giving up the day job. Think carefully before you cut up your swipe cards folks, it’s great here in the land of the freelancer, but it’s pretty hard work too. Hope this is useful.
- The juggling is exhausting. Besides my writing I’ve consistently had around seven community arts or programming projects on the go all year. Much as I try to place boundaries on each of these projects they always seem to leak into each other. Clients contact you constantly. Everything seems urgent. It’s really hard to properly relax when your inbox is nowhere near empty and you can see the unanswered emails mounting up. It’s also quite a stretch, head wise, to be constantly jumping in and out of different projects and switching employers.
- I have to say I actually miss the 9 to 5 hours. At peak times I’ve found myself working 13 hour days, 7 days a week, and still not feeling on top of things. I’d love to switch on the freelance equivalent of an “out of office” and just ignore messages but there always seems to be a pressing deadline.
- Working in the arts community in Belfast means that you’re always on the job. When I go out to see a movie or play, people are constantly approaching me to ask work-related questions. This can be a bit exhausting. I really don’t want to be a bitch and I don’t think I could ever tell a person to go away but sometimes I’m definitely thinking it in my head.
- The same goes for the literally 20-30 emails I get every week asking for advice on getting a manuscript published, or who I’d recommend for an arts project, or if I could advertise a gig or reading using my social media contacts, or any number of small queries. I really want to be helpful. People have been super helpful to me in the past and I have appreciated it, but I honestly spend somewhere in the region of 10 hours a week replying to these kind of requests. I can’t seem to work out how to pare this back without seeming like a horrible person. Help.
- Subsection to the above point, I’ve met and worked with so many people in the last year I can’t remember their names and this is excruciatingly embarrassing when I bump into them in a coffee shop or all night Tesco. If I’ve mind-blanked on your name or called you the wrong name at some point in the last year, I’m so sorry. I’m not rude I’m just tired and a bit muddle-minded.
- I’m not getting as much writing done as I thought I would. While working full time, I was averaging about 2 hours per day. I’m still managing my 2 hours but I naively thought I’d have oceans of time to sit in coffee shops reading and writing. I’m also getting behind on my Holby and Casualty, (though this might be more to do with just how dull Holby has been of late).
- I’ve quickly realised that salaried people have no idea what it’s like being a freelancer. I know this because I was a salaried person last year and did not understand. Salaried people are always calling meetings and brain-picking sessions. The motivation is great and it’s always lovely to catch up over a cup of coffee but rarely does the freelance person actually get paid for any of these meetings and they can often take up a substantial chunk of the week. (See also, phone calls, press shoots, radio interviews and launches).
- When I got sick and lost my voice and coughed almost constantly for nearly a month I still had to go to work or I wouldn’t get paid. This sucked.
- I actually believe in the things I am now doing. I choose to work on events and projects which I think are meaningful and so most evenings I come home, albeit exhausted, at least convinced I’ve made a little bit of a difference with my day.
- I’ve been able to specialise; focusing my attention on work with older people and in the arena of books and literature. Rather than reducing my work options, specialising seems to have opened up lots of doors for me with opportunities to work on very specific projects and speak at conferences and festivals about my work.
- In theory I can structure my days as I want to fit in travel, friends or an extra hour in bed if this seems like a viable use of my time. I’ve not taken enough advantage of this flexibility but I know it’s a really big positive aspect of being a freelancer.
- I’m working with good people. I think this has been the biggest revelation of the last year. When you get to choose who you work with, you can choose to work with inspiring, reliable, creative people and tap into their energy. Belfast is jammed with great people and now I’m not constrained by procurement rules I can work and collaborate and dream with all of them.
- Travel. Before I could really only travel at weekends and holidays or when I’d built up enough Flexi time by coming into the office at 7am and staying ’til 6:30pm. Now, I can say yes to all sorts of really amazing travel opportunities. This year I’ve been to New Zealand, Spain, Norway, America, Holland, Belgium and all over the UK and Ireland. I get to stay in nice places, meet really interesting people and not only are my expenses covered, they actually pay me to be there. This is definitely a win.
- Everything I do is mine. This sounds like a bit of a moot point, and I don’t for a minute mean that I’m not keen on collaborating or working on group projects. But I do love the way the work I do is no longer swallowed up by an enormous organisation. I mostly work with small community groups and arts organisations whose contribution to the city I really value. It’s great to feel like I’m adding a little to the great work they do and even within this, I’ve really felt as if I’ve been able to establish my identity as a freelance arts programmer known for working in the arena of literature and older people. I think/hope people are starting to associate my name with a certain kind of arts work and this is really heartening.
- I’m not stuck. If I don’t enjoy working in a certain area, I can easily move on to something else. The claustrophobic feeling of being tied to a place and job I start dreading every Sunday evening is long gone.
- At the end of the first year of freelancing I’ve made a tiny little bit more than I made in my day job. However, and this is a big however, I’ve gone from working 40 hour weeks, to at least 60 hour weeks. So, if I’m being honest I’m actually making significantly less than I made before. I have managed to lower my overheads a little but I still need to work out how to stop having to work 60 hour weeks in order to make ends meet. Nobody can sustain this level of work.
- Though I have a pretty much zero tolerance attitude to working for free, if I’m honest about how I spend my time about a third of it is working pro bono. I’m including all the above mentioned meetings, phone calls, promotional work and press calls in this, plus a great deal of my writing. (Though I eventually hope to find paying homes for some of the pieces I’ve been working on outside my commissioned work). This isn’t ideal but maybe it’s a necessary evil of freelancing.
- I totally failed to take into consideration a lot of the hidden financial extras when going freelance. The subsistence money you spend when traveling to paying festivals and workshops. The extra mileage you do traveling to events and classes. The cost of heating and lighting the house which is now your main workspace. I have an amazing accountant who’s helping me claim back as much as possible from these expenses but they did come as something of a shock.
- I have also had to learn the hard way about stretching money out and budgeting for the low pay months, (January, January, January). When you can make £4,500 one month and £125 the next, (true story), you need to get pretty good at spreading your income out. Similarly, I need to either, get better at holding on to a bit of a financial buffer or, stop destroying laptops. Let’s just say the annihilation of two MacBooks within 4 weeks, (pot of mint tea and slammed car door), made a fair dent in my very limited savings at the start of the year.
Being a freelancer is hard. No one has your back. When your computer won’t connect to your printer you can’t phone the IT department and get them to sort it out. There is no one to have an office Christmas party with and sometimes people will try to pay you in wine or dinner, which is nice, but won’t work for paying off your gas bill. It can be very lonely. You will always feel tired and have a niggling feeling there’s something you should be doing. BUT it is much much better than doing a job you hate AND at least fifteen times a week, if you’re anything like me, you will feel like the luckiest person in Belfast to be getting paid to work with the most amazing people, doing the thing you love. I’m hoping the second year is easier than the first.