Happy fifth anniversary of freelancing to me. Five years ago we were just back from an incredible visit to Australia (I thought it would be a great idea to spend a large amount of money just before I became self-employed). After working in the same office for eleven years, freelancing was in some ways more freedom than I could handle. I’d become institutionalised by office life, and because freelancing was so varied and interesting and fun, I often felt a bit guilty. Work was supposed to be tedious, repetitive and always tiring, wasn’t it? I could clock in and out as I pleased and for me this meant ditching the 9 to 5 as soon as I could, cycling outside the rush hour, working in every café in central Manchester, getting my hours in early mornings and late nights instead of afternoons if I felt like it. Bliss. Freedom. For a while I refused to work on Monday mornings. I would watch the commuters trudging to the tram in Monday morning rain and frost and sip my coffee and think, nope, not for me, done that thanks.
Conversely I have of course been through lots of stress and worry and (more) guilt – about underperforming, over or under-charging, disappointing people, aiming too low or too high with my ambitions, etc. This is completely normal for freelancers. Many of my roles have involved no formal job descriptions or contracts, and the lack of sick or holiday pay is a real and ongoing struggle. It’s very hard to take time off when you’re unwell. It’s hard to justify holidays when you end up paying twice as much as everyone else – once for the travel, once for the unpaid leave. On reflection, all of that is worth it for two main things – variety and freedom. If you can get those within in a permanent role you have cracked it and I salute you.
In five years I have done so many different kinds of jobs it would take all day to count them. In that time I have been unexpectedly let go more than once (nature of the job), cheated out of work, ideas and money, made to wait months for the most meagre invoices, undervalued, patronised and been given impossible demands. I’ve also worked on absolutely life-changing projects, worked with major artists and arts institutions, been valued, respected, cared for, inspired, made to feel part of a team, given complete artistic freedom, been paid well and learned a huge amount about work, life, art and myself. In short, the pros outweigh the cons by a long way.
One month I banked zero pounds and zero pence and sometimes I go back and look at that entry on my spreadsheet and think nothing can be as bad as that felt. At the end of last year stress got the better of me and I now have a work coach, someone objective and intelligent and compassionate who I can share my difficulties with. It has helped me enormously and as a professional development expense I can also claim it as contribution to myself as a sole trader. I am writing again, both fiction and criticism, and I have worked in my two main positions – as Project Manager for Superbia at Manchester Pride, and my multi-faceted role at Islington Mill – for over two and a half years and this regular work has transformed the security and quality of my life. I have learned loads of tips and tricks and coping strategies for freelance life, some of which I would love to pass on to other people. Maybe a freelance teaching workshop is my next challenge? I’m ready!