What Hurricane Harvey Taught Me About Freelance Writing
Business and Life Lessons Learned From Hurricane Harvey in Houston
I’m standing in my foyer at home, staring through the storm door at my front porch as water swirls less than half an inch below the threshold. Skeins of water unravel in the night, illuminated by street lamps and the lights from my neighbors’ porches.
Hurricane Harvey has made itself known, turning the land that separates my front door from the door across the street into a turbulent lake. My mailbox peeks out over the surface of the water, the only evidence that a yard and curb lie below.
My husband and I watch the rising water with a kind of wretched fascination, willing the clouds above to move, to have wrung themselves dry. The garage is already full of water, ruining wood and other items that we’ve stored there for future DIY projects, and I can’t bear the thought of everything I own inside the house meeting that same fate.
Yes, it’s just stuff. But it’s stuff that I’ve worked my ass off to buy, stuff that represents words written, clients satisfied, and fingers sore from frantic typing.
Incredibly, the rain slackens just before the water can ooze its way through my front door. As the flooding begins to recede, I’m able to breathe again.
Hurricane Harvey didn’t take my home, but it took thousands of others’ homes. It destroyed buildings, cracked road ways, and left people without food, water, possessions, or shelter. It brought people together at the same time that it tore them apart.
Now Irma follows in Harvey’s footsteps — not in trajectory, but in force and magnitude. Some of my coworkers are in its path, and I pray for their safety as well as for the reconstruction that must occur in my hometown.
People I know have lost everything in their homes — and, in some cases, their homes, as well. They’ve lost cars, beloved photographs, well-worn stuffed animals, and brand new appliances. They’ve missed work, school, and trips.
So what does any of this have to do with freelance writing? It’s not a straight line by any means. However, I wanted to get this down so I don’t forget it.
Hurricane Harvey forced me to reflect on my career as a freelance writer, editor, and project manager. It’s given me a new lens through which to see the world.
I thought I’d share those observations with you.
Every Freelance Writer Must Prepare for Disaster
When you work for yourself as a freelance writer, you’re all you’ve got. Even if your spouse or partner also works, you’re responsible for managing your income and preparing for disaster.
I can remember a time when not working for a week because of a natural disaster would have resulted in late rent, unpaid bills, and the inability to buy groceries. To have such an event compounded by financial destitution is beyond comprehension.
You have to prepare for disaster. Even if it never comes.
What do I mean by this?
Start by creating an emergency fund. I recommend having one at the bank and one at home. In a natural disaster, you can’t always get to the ATM, so you need cash on hand.
Keep the cash at home in a secure but accessible place. In the bank, keep adding to the fund every month. Yes, you have to make quarterly tax payments and pay your car note, but you also need to pay yourself. It’s security.
Next, create a protocol for responding to an emergency. You might not work from the corner office in a downtown highrise, but you need to think from the C suite. That means establishing a plan in advance.
Make a list of people you need to notify if you think you might find yourself without Internet, phone, or power. Decide what projects to prioritize in advance of the disaster if you’re given ample warning.
Last, put your family first. Your business can wait. If you’ve prepared adequately in terms of funding, you can always bring on new clients and secure new work. Focus on keeping the people you love safe.
Sometimes You Just Can’t Connect
Hurricane Harvey taught me that I rely on connectivity far too much. It’s by necessity since I work remotely, but it’s still disturbing.
During a hurricane or other natural disaster, you’re likely to lose power and Internet. There’s nothing you can do about it except wait until you’re connected again.
Making peace with this fact will help you get through a natural disaster as a freelance writer. Accept that you can’t connect so you can focus on what matters instead of the emails you haven’t answered and the phone calls you haven’t returned — to say nothing of the deadlines you’ve blown.
In my experience, freelance writers worry about every little thing because they’re desperate to keep their clients happy. That’s a good thing — and a bad one.
As I said before, family comes first. When you can’t connect, don’t waste time and energy on thinking about your career and its condition.
Did I take my own advice? Not at all. I fretted for days about my work. I thought of nothing other than the people I might let down because of my predicament.
Then my parents called. Their house was underwater. Everything they owned was ruined. They needed to get rescued by boat with their dogs.
At that moment, thoughts of work fled my mind. Every neuron in my brain focused on getting them to my house where they could stay warm and dry. When I saw my mother for the first time, I couldn’t stop the flood of tears that poured down my cheeks.
Moments like that teach us to prioritize. I wish I learned the lesson sooner.
Your Clients and Coworkers Will Understand
I knew that Hurricane Harvey would hit Houston about a week in advance of the storm making landfall. I let my boss and coworkers know about it and apologized for the inconvenience.
Part of me expected outrage and irritation. That wasn’t what happened — and I should have thought more highly of the people with whom I work every day.
They refused my apology, told me to stay safe, and insisted that I leave work in their capable hands. Afterward, they asked after me and my family. They understood when I needed to take time off to help my parents clear out their home.
It was a humbling experience that taught me something important.
As a freelance writer, you might feel disconnected from the people you work with, but we’re hardwired for connection. When something terrible happens to you, the people you work with will understand. They’ll help you in any way they can. And if they don’t, you need to find someone else to work with.
Leaders Emerge From Unlikely Places
Freelance writers can become leaders just like anyone else. They can lead teams, projects, and other writers. They can delegate tasks, become authorities, and command respect.
During the Hurricane Harvey disaster, the people at the end of our street ventured into chest-deep water to clear out the storm drain into which all of the flood waters could flow. Before long, dozens of other neighbors followed suit, working together to keep the flooding at bay.
I credit the fact that my floors and furniture remain undamaged to their efforts. Specifically, I’m indebted to those neighbors at the end of the street who took initiative to save not only their home, but those of others in the community.
We Need to Go Big or Go Home
It’s a cliche, sure, but it’s apropos.
The relief effort in Houston was nothing short of miraculous. First responders worked alongside ordinary citizens to rescue people from their homes, volunteer at shelters, arrange reunions between family members, and pull submerged vehicles from flooded roads.
When we went back to my parents’ house by boat, children in the non-flooded areas handed out free bottles of water, bags of chips, and other staples. One homeowner set four huge coolers in front of his home with a sign letting people know that everything inside was free to those who might need sustenance.
Most importantly, people started working from the moment they were able to get into their homes. They’re still working tirelessly, clearing debris, salvaging furniture, and removing drywall.
First responders and other rescuers worked on little sleep and food. They worked tirelessly to save people who couldn’t save themselves. Thank God for them.
As a freelance writer, it’s essential to bring that level of passion and devotion to your work. This is something that I hope I’ve always done, but that I will do more of in the future.
There’s no such thing as a half-assed rescue. There should be no such thing as a half-assed freelance assignment.
Every word you write should have meaning, substance, and clarity. It should help your client achieve something greater than he or she could achieve alone. It should captivate and charm the intended audience.
Why do anything at all if you’re not going to give it everything you’ve got?
I’m standing in my parents’ home, surrounded by a scene that appears simultaneously familiar and alien.
The stench of mold and mildew mixed with bleach and sewage fills my nose. I’m horrified but relieved. Energized but exhausted. Hopeful but heartbroken.
Hurricane Harvey taught me about the freelance writing business, but it also taught me about life. What’s important? What’s not? And how do the answers to those questions impact my business decisions in the future?
I’m excited to find out. And although I think great things came out of Hurricane Harvey and the destructive swath it cut across Houston, I don’t wish this devastation on anyone.
Be safe. Remember that you can’t always connect. Trust your clients and coworkers. Put your family first.
And, above all, go big or go home.