A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.
I remember the first day I got back into a newsroom – it was like being back at my college newspaper, truly one of my happy places. Newsprint has a very distinct smell, the ink specifically, and when it is piled and stacked everywhere it can have the same effect as walking into one’s favorite coffeeshop. It hits your nose, and you just perk up a little, and the buzz around you of many people all working on different parts of one specific goal gets under your skin a little bit. As enlivening and wonderful as this feels, however, being in that newsroom was not just about a higher calling to serve the fourth estate in my little corner of the world. I was, at the end of the day, in it for the paycheck. Between graduate programs and bored with my shop-job, I was so happy when the opportunity to do something I loved appeared, but precarity is a real problem. Labors of love and duty and purpose can take a long time to show dividends – if they ever do. And so, even working two jobs I needed to supplement my income, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to add yet another set-but-variable-weekly-schedule.
Adding some freelancing seemed the obvious choice. In theory, I would have control over my time, my assignments, my rates – I could decide what my time and knowledge were worth. And after all, so many people constantly seemed ready to ask questions about writing or editing or social media, or ask for favors, or a quick look at something, well, of course there was a market waiting to be tapped, right? Well, let’s just say that early-enquirers reactions to the lower end of the Freelancers’ Union’s suggested rates were as good as cold water to the face to break me out of any illusion that adding this on to the rest of my life was going to be easy. But like with anything, you have to decide what you want, and how much it matters to you – so you learn to face those moments and make the negatives, positives. You pivot; instead of trying to argue your worth, you learn to answer the “why should I pay you for something that I can do myself” with, “okay, then do it yourself.” Instead of chasing private clients, you learn how to network online and look for calls for pitches. You stop being scared of rejection, of being wrong. And for me, the biggest thing, was learning that actually, I did have things to say – things that I needed to pull out of myself after two other jobs, after long days and being devalued by others, and that writing and engaging with the world and being able to work on my own terms was a certain kind of self-care. One of the hardest things about freelancing is that it is not necessarily a cure for precarity – in some ways, the fine line between supplemental income and the gig economy, and the even finer one between the gig economy and exploitation, make you even more precarious. People don’t pay – individuals or companies, so it can become a drain on both your time and your own money chasing what is owed. You become mentally drained and exhausted because downtime from the work you do for other people starts to feel like time you should be spending working for yourself, in order to build something that gets you out of the precarity and somewhere more financially stable. While sometimes you find that moment or project that makes everything worth it, more often than not, the grind of both the 9 to 5 and the freelance hustle would just wear me down.
And yet, I would not trade it – even now, even having moved on from that life, of being torn between a shop and a newsroom and other gigs and still trying to find the time for myself. There’s something about doing a job well, doing it quickly, and cleanly, and seeing it put into the world, that is absolutely satisfying – a small way to break up the routine, a way to find a piece of satisfaction (however fleeting) in the routine of survival, a way to always, always know my own worth and that, actually, I can say know to things that don’t honor that. As the economy continues to shift to nonpermanent labor, it is really easy to be convinced that freelancers are somehow expendable because there are so many of us, that there will always be someone with a lower rate and you don’t want to lose the money. But I think that is what makes ‘making it’ whatever that means to any freelancer even better. Because when you hit your own personal metric, it has nothing to do with anyone’s standards but yours.