Can Freelance Writing Help you Rebuild a Life?
On transcending illness and hardship, word by word
It isn’t unusual for me to tiptoe out of bed in the middle of the night to go fix some copy.
Against my better judgment, I’ve been known to forgo sleep to meet deadlines, a habit I acquired as a long-term freelancer for B2B publications back when I started out in journalism. No matter how chronically understaffed we were, magazines always went to press on the same date every month.
It fell to freelancers who wanted to keep working for this publishing house to smooth out the process, whatever it took.
As I came from the technical side of news and current affairs broadcasting, even trade press rush felt oddly peaceful. Spending the night writing up features about housewares isn’t quite the same as coordinating live radio-two ways by remote. And having technology fail you while an irate journalist spews expletives at you down the phone line all the way from Jerusalem.
The ability to let others vent while remaining calm, composed, and capable comes down to detachment and razor-sharp focus. Being as “unflappable” as “indistractable” is the only way to survive in news. You learn how to become a reliable farmer who delivers on schedule using all the tools at your disposal; you become an effective communicator so you can immediately enlist help without a fuss.
Once you’ve worked under this kind of pressure, nothing much can faze you, not even the prospect of rebuilding a life word by word after a five-year hiatus.
Out loud, in print, and in public.
As a journalist, I never once envisaged I would one day make a living writing about my person.
I would prefer not to but after depression stole five years of my life and destroyed my writing voice, I had to come up with a plan.
As journalism seeks to humanize complex issues, I thought I’d try and use my own experience of mental illness to try and make a dent in the stigma still surrounding it. While depression can strike anyone at any time and already affects over 300 million humans worldwide, many still suffer in silence.
Be it at work or at home, the fear of losing our job, our reputation, and even our loved ones means we often try and tackle depression alone.
Sometimes, we do so for years on end and go to unspeakable lengths to conceal the distress within. Depression doesn’t incapacitate everyone as it did me. Some sufferers are high-functioning and cheerful; they don’t let on about the distress within. When the pressure gets too much, many take their own life, much to the surprise of their nearest and dearest.
And yet, if we lived in a society where mental illness were perceived as no different from physical illness, fewer people would die. And fewer would wither away in isolation and pain without anyone to reach out to. For my part, there was scant sympathy for my predicament at home and no money for medical care that could have nipped depression in the bud.
I’ve always had insurance but, like many Americans, I could never afford the co-pays.
This is how a manageable issue got out of control and stalled my life for so long. In the process, I amassed a lot of material on the myriad ways mental illness can wreck a life on every level, from professional to personal via financial.
Once I understood no help would ever be forthcoming unless I provided it myself, I set out to do the one thing I hadn’t been able to do for years: write.
Out of necessity, the farmer of bygone days had to become a creator again.
Having built news products from scratch before, I reasoned I could likely do it again.
But for a small caveat: my writing voice had left me.
Vocation, however, had not. It kept nagging me to write my way out of the mess illness had made, as if it were the most obvious and natural thing in the world. After a while, this unusual approach did indeed start to make sense but my words and grasp of language certainly didn’t rush back the minute I put fingers to keyboard again.
Instead, I had to relearn how to do my job, string sentences together, construct an argument, and find a tone that fitted my message. At first, I was so angry incandescent rage carried me for several weeks during which I messed up a lot, writing much unpublishable copy. But for every three or four duds, there would be a piece that had legs and spoke to others so I kept at it, eventually reactivating all my editorial habits.
And because I refused to compromise on quality, I unwittingly recreated the kind of pressure I thrived under in a newsroom, diving into societal taboos to make at least the one person think.
So I could once again support myself, I made the insides of my head and heart inspectable to anyone with an internet connection. It was and remains counterintuitive and deeply uncomfortable work.
Setting up as a freelancer isn’t for the faint-hearted.
It takes effort, consistency, and dedication to build up something people want to come back to day after day. It isn’t enough to write and publish, you have to offer value to readers in the form of informational, educational, or entertaining content.
Freelancing is entrepreneurship by any other name even though many of us aren’t particularly bothered about descriptors because we’re too busy trying to make ends meet.
But if it doesn’t pay your bills, freelancing becomes unsustainable and it is time to cut your losses and pivot back to regular employment. Being an employee can afford you the kind of balance and dignity not always attainable with freelancing.
For example, I’ve been working seven days a week for over a year now and much as I love what I do and am never short on motivation, this isn’t a life. The only reason I’ve kept doing it as long as I have is to show potential employers what I’m made of so they don’t focus on the five-year crater on my résumé.
This is because depressives like me have a bad rap in the workplace. There’s often the assumption we don’t stick with things, need a lot of handholding, and are unreliable therefore not a potential good hire.
Since words are meaningless without action, I’ve spent the last year demonstrating the exact opposite.
Ihave been rebuilding a life that works, word by word, since July 2018.
I started out in the Pacific Northwest and am now typing this in Haarlem, Netherlands. I came back to Europe in December 2018 so I could be close to my family as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for stage 4 cancer. Having two passports — a French and a US one — is a blessing.
The decision to be based in the Netherlands rather than elsewhere in the EU wasn’t taken lightly. I used to live in Amsterdam in the early aughts so it already feels like home; Flemish ancestry has made me keen to improve what little Dutch I studied at university many years ago. Also, the Netherlands also offer a vibrant international and multilingual environment, which is catnip to me.
But most importantly, the Netherlands allow death with dignity, something my stepmom insists on and will need assistance with when the time comes. In the interest of full disclosure, no hiring manager should be unaware of my family situation.
I believe context is key to understanding who a person is, where they come from, where they’re going, and what they’re capable of.
When you’re a one-person business, there’s no one to blame or hide behind when things go wrong; accountability is your backbone.
I live for feedback, constructive criticism, and constant experimentation; resilience is my byword.
And the reason depression didn’t kill me.
Still being alive may not be a unique selling point but I’m hoping that what it took to get there and stay there may be valuable to people-focused businesses sowing words to grow, be it in well-tended fields or in the wilderness.
Unlike anyone who’s never been self-employed, freelancers are resourceful, tenacious, and focused by default; we don’t fall apart at the first hurdle or become incapacitated by the first roadblock.
We’re used to shipping, which is precisely why we make ideal employees.
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.