On writing: a note to my past and future self

I’ve been reading a lot about freelancing lately. Or writing in general. How people earn money by doing it, how to do it better, how to reassure yourself that you’re doing the best you can, etc. These stories have been running alongside a wider conversation about the incomes of writers and how most writers supplement their incomes in all kinds of ways other than writing. The fact that the top 25 per cent of authors in Australia earn an average of only $9000 per year. And there’s a strange vortex surrounding the field where people don’t earn enough to subscribe to the journals they ask to pay them. And yes, it’d be tax deductible, if you earned enough to pay tax from which to deduct.

Anyway, I distracted myself. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learnt in the past 18 months or so and, while I acknowledge that I am the worst freelancer in history (mostly because my imposter syndrome is so great I have trouble pitching usefully), I do occasionally feel that things are okay, that I’ve learnt plenty and I know vaguely how to move onwards. And while I hardly have any right to offer anyone else advice, I do want to take myself gently by the hand and whisper soothing things sometimes. So I thought I would note these lessons down somewhere I can refer to again, when I feel lost and despondent.

  1. Be patient

I would venture to say that unless you have done a significant amount of research, or freelanced on the side for a time, it will take you a good six months to a year to figure out how to do this. When I started working in this way a lot of people had advice on working from home. You need a routine, they said. Get up at the same time every day. You need an office, they said, you need to pretend like you’re working in a different building from your home. And you know, there’s a lot of truth in that but it’s not the full story. There is no class in this, there is no amount of advice that will suit everyone because everyone is different. So much of this is trial and error, and so many people seem to get it much righter than me much sooner. But it’s important to recognise the professional development you undergo while failing at something. Even that is worth something. And I’m the last person to bang on about seeing silver linings because sometimes things are just rubbish and you’re allowed to call them so. But every rubbish thing will teach you much more than a long series of lucky accidents. It sucks, but it’s true.

2. Get your head in the right place

This is related to patience because it takes a long time to figure out how to think of yourself while you’re doing this. There’s a big shift from thinking of myself as working by myself, to working for myself. When you’re working for yourself you’re your own boss and you need to have the right measure of self awareness to know what you’re capable of and how you work best. It also means you get to choose your assignments, so you may as well make them assignments that light you up, that make you feel alive, and that challenge you in the right ways. Give yourself permission to approach people, give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done.

While you’re at it, you may as well give yourself permission to succeed. No one else is going to do it.

The other day I realised that I’m currently working on two books and a degree (with a vague idea for a third novel), all of which a few people seem to believe in, so perhaps I should rise above the fear that I will never work again and actually write them. This is what being a writer is: in one hand paralyzing terror, in the other opportunity. You have to live with them both but you can choose to focus more on one than the other. I am rubbish at this but I am trying.

3. Learn to love having lots of pots on the boil

I’ve squandered a lot of opportunities in the past couple of years. I messed up in ways that I regret a great deal but also that I couldn’t have helped at the time. One of the biggest obstacles to success has been that I expected freelance work to be like a tap I could turn on. I thought that I would be able to find that one place to get work and that it would replace the security of my full time salary. That is not ever going to happen. The flexibility I get from working like this also means that I am often (always) short of cash. I have to look further ahead. I have to say yes more often than I say no. I have to keep minute track of my finances and consider all money spent an investment – either in my work, in my body, or in my mind.

4. Cross pollinate your mind

Sometimes that investment in yourself comes from unexpected places. Remember to read and read broadly. Make sure you spend time and money on art forms other than the one you feel most passionate about. Remember to spend time outside, under the sky, in all weathers. Remember to spend time with children and remember to spend time with old people. Speak to your family and listen to the cadence of their voices, the way they are all a little bit alike, and also watch strangers in the street and imagine how they might laugh.

I spent a fair bit of time over the past 12 months thinking I didn’t have time for these things but if I don’t have time for these things then I don’t have time to be a writer. To write you need to spend time in the world. To create you need to be close to humanity and you need to find pockets in your mind least explored and shine a light in there and investigate words and ideas from new angles. And a lot of that happens away from the keyboard.

5. Meet people with enthusiasm

This is the one I find the hardest. I am terrible at networking and when you’re working for yourself you need to make the extra effort to put yourself where people you want to work with are. And show them that they should want to work with you too. It might not pay off right away, hell, it might not pay off ever, but at the very least you’ll get some much needed social interaction and I daresay your enthusiasm for your work will be buoyed by that.

When you start to lose enthusiasm, it could be that you need to change something, or it could be that you’re losing your way. This should not be painful. This might be poorly paid, it might be challenging, it might be stressful but when you start to think “my god, I’ve ruined my life” remind yourself that this might, in fact, be what your life was always supposed to be. Let go. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be pretty. It’s yours, you own it. Fill up your cup, even if it’s just to reassure yourself that you can refill it again, so you’re not too afraid to drink from it.

Now it’s your turn: what advice would you give to your past writing self?

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