Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen on how making it as a freelancer has impacted her health and reminds us there is no right way to be a writer.
I have been trying to write this piece for days. My head has been pounding. Every time I start, I stop, look at what I’ve written, hate it, hate myself. Close laptop, rinse, repeat.
A year ago, I finished a contract job. In the two weeks after, I binge watched BoJack Horseman and barely left my bed. I thought about applying for jobs. But then I thought, “no – I’m going to make this freelance thing happen. I am going to Be A Writer.”
I have been freelancing full-time since then.
This would not be a possibility without the savings I have squirrelled away since I was a teenager, for a “rainy day”, which it turns out is me, aged 28, trying to realise a creative dream.
People say that a lot. “You’re living the dream.” And I am, in lots of ways. I’m fortunate to be able to take on my own projects to my own hours, and have enough of a profile that I’m commissioned often enough. I do copywriting projects. When it rains, it pours. When it doesn’t rain, boy is it dry.
“You must be really busy,” they say, and I wonder what they’d think if they saw the amount of time I spend in bed, wishing myself away while invoices remain unpaid and work piles up.
I’m a full-time freelancer. I also have OCD, depression and anxiety. I live alone.
This is a bad combination.
Studies have shown that freelancing takes a toll on mental health. In 2007, a German study found “an elevated risk of poor subjective health among freelance workers who are exposed to adverse psychosocial work conditions”.
Chloe Papas freelanced full-time as a writer and copywriter for two years, and has now returned office work four days a week. “Although I loved so much about freelancing – the freedom, working in trackpants, barely leaving the house – those positives could all be negatives, too. I was constantly on edge,” she shares. “Going back to a part-time day job saved my bank account and brain, and I’m now in a far better headspace when it comes to writing.”
Similarly, writer Roz Bellamy has found herself in a much better place since returning to full-time work, after juggling part-time jobs with freelancing. “I was trying to manage my mental health and promote my work – those two goals didn’t suit each other,” she says. “It was terrible, mentally and socially. Now, my productivity with writing has decreased, but I find the combination of paid, fulfilling work and writing to be good.”
Sometimes the bravest thing to do is to admit that your situation isn’t working. Sometimes it’s the best thing for your writing, too.
I try to go to sleep at a reasonable hour and wake up at a reasonable hour.
I have a desk and two screens in a room that is not my bedroom. To the left of my screens are a pile of memoirs that I look at while I’m trying to write my own.
I make lists. I have a small whiteboard on my desk with all my deadlines written on it, as well as all the money I’m owed. At the moment, I am waiting on over $1000.
I try to exercise every day, or at least work in gym clothes. My body is unrecognisable these days.
On Sundays, I roast two trays of vegetables for weekday lunches. I started doing this because my self-care acts during the work day – doing laundry, changing my bedsheets, cooking – were looking a lot more like procrastination.
I see my therapist, Ben, every few weeks. He tells me I have “maladaptive schemas”. I write it down in my phone.
I try to have writing dates with friends, or go to cafes, every few days. I tried a professional co-working space once. It wasn’t for me.
I miss the regularity of going to an office at 9am and clocking off at 5pm, knowing money will be in my account soon enough.
I miss the accountability of having a job that I had to do every day. I wish I had better self-discipline and motivation.
I miss having colleagues. I look at my cat and wish he could talk.
I force myself out of bed, and start applying for part-time jobs.
I look at my publication history on my website, and realise I was more prolific when I had a day job than I am now.
I used to write a fortnightly column for Daily Life. Mostly I’d write about my own life and relationships. It was emotionally exhausting. I stopped writing the column.
Am I ungrateful, foolish, for giving up a decent, reliable paycheck and byline?
Why haven’t I finished my manuscript, when I have so much time to work on it?
I get back into bed.
I go to a job interview. I wear a crisp white shirt and make sure there are no holes in my stockings. I make eye contact and smile on cue. They check my references, then call me in for a second interview. It looks promising, like all of this is going to be over soon. I send polite follow-up emails. I wait.
A week later, they leave a voicemail saying I didn’t get the job.
I don’t want to, but I start to cry.
While freelancing has taken a hit on my mental health, for others, it’s a saving grace. I spoke to a number of writers with chronic pain and mental health issues, and they told me that the flexibility of freelancing has given them freedom that an office job simply can’t.
“I get severe anxiety around taking sick days and leaving early for doctor’s appointments, so being my own boss was really beneficial,” says Chloe Sargeant. “I created a roster that worked for me – working some hours mid-morning then at night, rather than getting up early and doing an eight-hour block – and learned not to get angry at myself for taking it easier on days when I had flare-ups.”
Deirdre Fidge has been unable to work due to mental illness for 18 months. “Freelancing reminds me to use my brain, gives me a little self-confidence boost, forces me to interact with people – even just via email – and is the only way I could be earning an income while hiding in bed,” she says. “It’s inadvertently been a vital part of my recovery.”
Anna Spargo-Ryan sees freelancing as the lesser of two evils. “Neither working for someone else nor freelancing full-time really appeases my mental health issues,” she says. “Stressing about money exacerbates my anxiety, but less than stressing about going to the office every day. Working on my own terms means I can smash it out when I’m well, and take time to care for myself when I’m not – and the onus is on me to make the balance work.”
It’s not a failure if the full-time freelance life isn’t for you. It doesn’t mean you’re not dedicated to your craft; some of us just need external structure.
Here are some tips from fellow freelancers, and me:
Go outside. Don’t compare yourself to others. Embrace the non-zero day. Have a dedicated working space. Don’t forget to eat. Join online support groups. Log off Twitter if it’s getting too much. Don’t work from bed (but don’t feel bad if you need to sometimes). Get enough sleep. Meditate. Ask for help. Make more appointments with your therapist. Call a friend. Hug an animal.
Most of all, know your limitations and work with them. If your current structure isn’t working out, don’t be ashamed if you have to change it.
Be patient with yourself. Be kind.
And remember, there is no right way to be a writer.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer based in Melbourne, and the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Feminist Writers Festival. She has had her writing featured in publications including Rookie, frankie, Daily Life and Vice, and is working on her first book.