This is a Building Blocs piece on checking oneself before one wrecks oneself.
If you write from home, chances are, things get a little weird sometimes. Most of the time it’s just you, your big old brain, and a computer. There are probably half-empty cups of tea everywhere, and your version of ‘getting ready’ in the morning is simply having a shower and changing into a different pair of trackies.
I’ve been doing this freelance thing for nearly two years now, and that is a fair description of most of my days. It’s an absolute delight, and a terrifying existence. You get to make your own hours, pick and choose your work, and be your own boss. You also often don’t know where rent money will be coming from that month, have to be incredibly self-motivating, and it’s all too easy to become a strange little hermit.
So, as someone who’s been there, done that, and is currently wearing pajamas, here are some hot tips on how to look after your mental health along the way.
Figure out what works for you
Finding your groove is one of the toughest parts of kicking off your career as a freelancer. You’ve just left your day job, and you can’t wait to live a life where you work whatever hours you like. I seem to remember that my first few months freelancing included a lot of lengthy brunches and not much work. It took me a while to figure out that I work best to some sort of schedule.
The structure that works best for me looks terrifyingly like an office working day: to-do lists, vaguely early starts, sitting at a desk. If I don’t follow it, I get listless and anxious, frustrated with not knowing what comes next. I know other writers who can work well with far less structure, and some who require every minute of their day mapped out to a tee. Just remember, if you’re a fan of structure, that freelancing is a fickle game and you need to be prepared for anything. Spend some time trying out different working days to figure out what works for you – you’ll be more productive, and your mind will feel more settled.
Create space and boundaries
You need your own space - whether you work in it full time, retreat there when you need to escape housemates, or only wander in to quietly practice your Miles Franklin acceptance speech. If there’s a study in your house, claim it. If there’s an unused bedroom or a cupboard under the stairs (yer a writer Harry! Sorry.), claim it. It’s all too easy to think that you’ll be able to work from the couch or bed - and sometimes, you can - but having your own space to escape to is absolutely vital for your mental health.
Once you’ve got your space sorted, create boundaries. One of the strangest things about working from home is that often people don’t realise that you are actually working. You need to set down some ground rules with whoever you live with, and with yourself. Tell your housemates that they can’t just wander into your study to chat about the weekend, tell your significant other that the middle of your working day isn’t the best time to discuss what’s for dinner, tell your Mum that you’ll call her back later. There’s a weird guilt that comes with being a freelancer; because you’re at home, you sometimes feel like you should be able to do the things that usually come with being at home as well as work- but take it from me, you need to resist it!
Find out what makes you feel shit and work with it
Working as a writer can be hard and draining and scary. Every writer or creative person will have different stressors, but in the freelance world there are two major problems that we all face: financial insecurity, and lack of work.
One of the biggest things I have learnt along the way (and believe me, it’s a hard lesson!) is that to survive as a freelancer, you have to let the scary shit motivate you.
Don’t know where your next pay cheque is coming from? Pitch some new stories, and try to push that fear away. Clients dropped off or editors not responding? Go elsewhere, start cold-calling or emailing companies, pitch to the editor you’ve always been terrified to talk to. Totally burnt out or overwhelmed? This is your gig, friend. Push deadlines back, ask for help from editors, and take some time off if you need to. Working alone means that you can’t ignore anxieties and fears - you have to find a way to work with them or through them.
Go outside sometimes and don't just eat chips
Look, everyone knows that chips are the best and most nutritious meal in the world. But, all chips and no vegetables makes you a dull writer, or something. It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of not looking after yourself when you work from home - societal standards go out the window, and the rules you create for yourself will initially often look like those of a teenage boy who has been left home alone (Pizza! No pants! Netflix until 2am!).
When you’re a freelancer, you have to work harder to look after yourself physically and mentally. So, get up from your goddamn desk and go for a walk, your muscles are now just weird lumps of useless jelly. Work in a change of scene where you can: work on the patio, in a library, go sit at a cafe and order a coffee every hour so they don’t throw you out. Go stand in the backyard - feel that warmth on your skin? That’s the sun.
Find a community and ask for help if you need it
One of the most difficult parts of being a writer is the isolation that comes with the job. There are many days where I don’t see another person except for my partner, and days where I yearn for the comfort of a crappy office job with a real salary. So, you need to find a community. Writers, non-writers, people online and in real life, people you can call when the days are long and your brain is exhausted and it feels like you will never be able to write another word.
Ask for help when you need it: push deadlines, explain to editors that you need time away, talk to partners and housemates, take a mental health day whenever you can. Find work that may not inspire you but will pay the rent to subsidise the work that comes from deep in your bones. Check in with yourself, regularly, and remember that you’re doing a job that is harder than most other jobs. Read a book, go see a therapist, talk to your Mum. It’s going to be alright.
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Chloe Papas is a writer and journalist living in Victoria via Perth. You can find her on twitter @chloepapas