Homeless, and the Cost of Creativity // A Freelancers Nightmare
I have been debating with myself for the last hour or so as to if I wanted to write this. Actually, moreso if I should write this (now). I was always going to write about it at some point but I figured that point would be best left for when the other half of it eventuates and there’s a happy ending to it wrapped in a pretty little ribbon of security. But something the ever tuned of mind Lauren Orrell said to me the other day made me sit my ass down and start typing. She said “so often we get the victory with the process being skimmed over”. A lot of the times I write things like this and about the industry because friends outside of it like the glimpse into it, what I’ve discovered from the kudos I get for ‘chasing the dream’ is that Lauren is right, the other side of it is rarely talked about openly or outside of hushed whispers and nervous conversations in the corner. So here it is…
In three days, I will be homeless.
It’s not a possibility, it’s gut-wrenching, worst nightmare fact. Being homeless is my single worst nightmare, it’s the one thing I am the most afraid of. To make matters worse, it’s a result of my best dream — what I do for a living. Obviously not literally, the industry didn’t bust through my front door and kick me out of my apartment…but right now it’s not keeping me there either.
Let me backtrack a bit. I’ve been a storytelling since I was eight years old; drawing and selling comics for 50c at Primary School, and a filmmaker since I was 14 when I first picked up a $200 DV camera that I used to shoot and act in one man band short films (that’ll never, never see the light of day). So I’ve been making stories for twenty years now and in some way associated with the film industry for about eleven of those years; starting as a film critic, to publishing short stories in horror zines, doing set visits by playing journalist, going to Uni and becoming that weirdo filmmaker before making the final and first step professionally by moving to Sydney and getting my first job at a production company as an editor and graphic designer within weeks. I’m not blind to the fact that I’ve had an unusually quick and solid career despite only having five years pro under my belt. I stepped out of school and into a real industry job immediately and it’s been mostly non-stop since. I’ve worked on multiple films back to back and quickly build somewhat of a recognisable name for myself — within circles at least — and a body of work that’s nothing to turn your nose up at. I’ve been to space twice, survived a zombie apocalypse and the end of the world, been on ground zero of a terrorist attack and met a woman who cannot die. I am incredibly lucky, and I worked incredibly hard to get there. Not bad for a dirty poor trouble making teenager with a roller-coaster of a childhood and a rough personality to boot.
The bad news is that nothing lasts forever…
Late last year, work started to slow down. Not unusual, the end of the year is notoriously bad for freelancers. We know we have to be prepared to hunker down and weather the cold freeze (boiling hot) production schedule of the New Year/holiday period — I normally try and make sure I nab at least one chunky sized job around the November/December time to be safe and coast the New Year until work picks up again and I’m instead complaining about being over worked, the chronically unsatisfied chump that I am.
But work didn’t pick up this time, and in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I’ve been working professionally for some five plus years now and in that time had a few dry spells, but this time around it wasn’t that I wasn’t getting work, it’s that one after another jobs were being pushed back by months out of reach or canned all together. Every week I’d watch another chunk of my savings disappear down the rent hole, look to the money oasis that was there just a minute ago only to see tumbleweeds. Rinse and repeat, week after week, dollar after dollar. Getting more and more anxious by the day. What was already a great source of stress got so much worse when somewhere in the middle of February; the graphics card in my laptop shit the bed and I became startlingly aware of how much I relied on it to get shit done — it was what I edited with, it was what I did all my graphic deign and poster work on, it was what I take to set to data dump video and photos, it was the tool that allowed me to multitask on the run day in and day out — it was dead, leaving me to dust of my old 2009 iMac as a very poor replacement and realise I was now unable to do any real editing work…oh, joy…
So I’m edit-disabled at this point. Not that it mattered all that much because by mid-February job number nine had been pushed back to June. Silver linings I suppose, the jobs still there and hopefully I’ll have fixed my computer and can still do the damned thing. Aye! Tiny lights in the dark.
My debit card was churning toward the red line and my credit card maxed out, I contacted the bank to get an increase on it to try and survive a little long — bolstering in my credit debt for the first time in the four years since I got it, and entering the dreaded world of grown up debt. Dear friends in their mid 30's…I understand now, I finally get it.
The bills started stacking up — they had been for a while — and pulled out every trick in the book, including the good old fashioned ‘wait until the bill says “Final Notice”’, and oldie, but a goodie.
And then my health started to be affected — this isn’t a pleasant thing. See, I’ve lost a lot of weight since mid last year, and true enough a great deal of that was purposeful, but let’s be honest. 50+ kg’s in less than a year with my workload (last years anyway). I went from 120kg to the 70kg I am right now, that wasn’t all weights and running at 1am. It was a single tuna sandwich and a cup of brown rice a day for three months. Christian Bale in The Machinist kinda shit.
It came to ahead three weeks ago when I was on my way to the train station, I was walki-…why am I in the hospital?
I had blacked out on the way there, and thankfully hadn’t looked like a junkie that day so the good people of Ashfield had done me a solid and got my ass to emergency ward. I hadn’t noticed the signs of malnutrition in the weeks before but could then recall many dizzy spells in my apartment, not unlike when you get light headed from standing up too quickly. Except that they happened often and my vision would blink out for a second or three…the things you ignore when you’re desperately hoping they aren’t a thing.
I wish I could say that was the only time that happened but a week later I got to the bottom of the stairs in my apartment building and woke up ten minutes later. It’s kinda like narcolepsy, only you’re starving to death…literally. I took the doctors advice and upped my grocery budget, not enough to stop from dropping 2kg a week, but enough that I wasn’t a walking tripping hazard everywhere I went.
Upping the food budget meant watching the dollars drain quicker and quicker, my new credit limit maxed out trying to slim down the bills as much as I was every week. But the problem with bills is that they come back over time, sneaky bastards that they are — like that rash you got from the beach that one time — and with jobs continuing to tickle by balls long enough to turn them blue; it was one step forward, two steps back every week.
One of the contributing factors as to why I’m writing about this. This gross, dirty laundry that most of society tends to look at as something you deal with in the dark because it’s embarrassing — in part because it hurts the pride, and in part because everyone deals with this shit but doesn’t want to say it out loud. One of the reasons for writing is because at the Skinford screening a bit back, in chatting with all my co-workers, I realised that nobody had a fucking clue what was going on in my life. The house that I’d built wasn’t just crashing down around me, it was on fire while it was happening, and nobody was the wiser. Why would they be, it’s not cool to admit ‘I’m failing’, or, more confronting…“I’m scared”.
And I was very scared. Still am.
Most work get together conversations begin with the same ‘so what have you been working on?’ question to kick things off, and damn near everyone seemed to be under the impression that I was busy as all hell because I was posting some new piece of content on social media. From a BTS video to a poster to photography work and it was then that I realised I had been playing ‘the game’ so fucking hard and not realising it. You can’t throw a rock without hitting an article about how with the advent of social media people curate their lives, compounding on the already engrained practise of never admitting you’re doing bad, it’s worse; even when we’re going down hill in life we make everyone around us thing we’re sprinting up hill instead. In this industry, the entertainment industry, there’s nothing worse than someone tumbling downhill. Good fucking luck finding someone who’ll chase after you, get you to your feet and help you back up the hill. Those people are few and far between. I’m not even talking about two faced people who never had your best interest at heart.
A lot of the time people are scared of failing by proxy, concerned for their own standing and fearful that they’ll lose their spot on the perch of success that they stand upon oh so still so as not to rock it even an inch. Sad, but true. It’s an awful thing. More awful is how scared it makes us to ask for help. Nobody wants to look like they need help, worse still is finding out there’s few people who want to help.
Last week, I had a film that was kinda sorta expected to go into pre-production soon, and two other gigs that were tentatively on the table — one of which was a fucking dream job, straight up career making opportunity travelling to Africa too photograph the people there and their lives. They weren’t greenlit, so I was trying not to get my hopes up but I knew I’d reached the last rock on the climb. The last oasis. If there wasn’t a foot hold to grab onto I’d have to come to term with the situation and climb back down that cliff face. My savings were completely gone, my debit card had gone into overdraft and my credit card was a terrifyingly large number nightmare to behold — I take solace in the fact that I haven’t cracked five digits of debt there just yet, like most people. But still. I’m quite literally starving to death, and having blackouts. There’s a handful of bills hanging over my head like a noose and the rent monster in the basement calling out to be fed from the completely empty pantry.
I woke up on Wednesday to find out that both jobs had fallen through, and the film had been pushed back. There it was. I reached up that cliff face and found nothing but sheer rock. There was no oasis. I was going to have to move out.
When I was a teenager, growing up in my home was rough. I had more things going on than the ‘normal’ teenage has to deal with, my mother had her demons and we had an EXTREMELY rocky relationship that thankfully has smoothed out over recent years, but at the time independence was an impossible goal. When I moved to Uni it was a liberation and moving to Sydney in a share home moreso. So when in 2015 I moved into my own little hole in the wall, a one bedroom apartment in Ashfield only one street down from the very first house I shared with a housemate four years before — it was a big deal. I cried that night. I had my own place, more than any career, that was a major landmark.
After I got off the phone, I climbed out of my desk chair. Lay on the carpet of my apartment and stared up at the ceiling for a while — melodramatic, I know, but sometimes a situation calls for a good ceiling stare. You know the kind. You aren’t even crying, you just need to find a blank surface to look at. Wether it’s a wall, or you close your eyes, just find a lack of detail for a moment of quiet. Eventually I picked my self pitying ass of the ground and called in a favour from a friend who I’d checked in with a few months earlier about crashing on his couch should it reach defcon one, red alert, emergency stage. I had run out of options and would soon be that pain in the ass I have never, ever, EVER wanted to be.
I’m not gonna pretty this picture up, it’s already candid as fuck anyway. It’s been rough on paper and in the bank account, but it’s been worse upstairs in the brainmeat. I was diagnosis with chronic depression since I was 11 (for those who don’t know, that’s the kind that doesn’t go away, ever. It just gets varying degrees of functional). The upside being that dealing with it since an unbelievable and terrifyingly early stage in life gives you an amazing amount of time to learn to handle it, and I’m disgustingly well adjusted. But christ is that son of a bitch hammering on the front door of my brain. It’s screaming to be let in. The worst kind of jehovah’s witness, only instead of preaching shit, it’s bellowing “YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! YOU’RE A FAILURE! NOBODY LIKES YOU! YOU FAILED AT THE ONE THING THAT MATTERS THE MOST TO YOU! YOU WASTED ALL THESE YEARS! YOU’RE GOING TO DIE A FAILURE! JUST KILL YOURSELF AND IT’LL ALL BE OVER! YOU’LL FINALLY BE FREE!”…real talk here guys.
Where it kind all comes back around is something that I said to Lauren in the same conversation where she sparked my want to write this. See, all of this, the last four month — actually, the last five years, hell the last twenty years, has entirely been about wanting to do this for a living — being creative — it’d be so easy to solve my problems if I just said fuck it and joined the rest of the level headed people of the world, the ones who don’t have their head up their arses hoping and praying ‘please sir, make my dreams come true’, reciting the tortured artists mantra each and every night. I told Lauren about what was going on and I explained that the best way I explain it to friends who aren’t in the entertainment industry, the ones who quite rightly look at me, hearing me talk about this shit like it’s a casual friday and give me a look of bewildered disgust; how I describe it is this…
“I go to bed every night hoping I’ll wake up not wanting to do it anymore, but every morning I’m happy to be disappointed because I still want one more day.”
One more fucking day. That’s all any of us doing this for a living wants. Don’t tell me you don’t think it, you know you do. Where I am right now, homeless, in debt, starving, jobless. It’s the nightmare of every creative, too often spoken about only in jest. We put our living stability at risk in pursuit of exercising a creative itch knowing full well the likelihood of climbing that cliff face will result in falling the fuck down, breaking bones and puncturing lungs and hoping on the way down that when you reach rock bottom you aren’t so fucked up you can’t get to your feet and start climbing that bitch of a cliff again, knowing it’ll probably happen a few more times still. It’s a pretentious, melodramatic (almost as much as this paragraph) deal we sign, the same deal that reads not in fine print but big bold letters “THIS WILL HURT AND YOU BETTER LIKE IT!” Hell, the day I realised I would have to move out I had a thought to make a documentary about the subject of this article, that’s why I was talking to Lauren in the first place. Even when shit had gone to hell in a hand basket I thought “oh, I have an idea”. Silver linings I suppose.
Like I said, before, most people don’t talk about this as often as they should. It’d sure make it easier for those who are afraid of such situations to deal with it. Life sucks sometimes, stop pretending it doesn’t. Is shit like this ugly to read? Sure, but if I’m gonna stumble on a roadblock doing what I love, then I’m gonna find a way to use it to tell a story.
I usually sign off these things with a smartarse bit at the end, but have some reality this time round…
I feel like I’ve failed, writing this has felt shameful and I’m scared. But luckily, “the bad news is nothing lasts forever, the good news is nothing lasts forever”…a filthy rich rapper covered in gold chains said that once (aye, still got it).