How Working For The Man Made Writing Good Again…

Recently, a writer friend of mine posted on Twitter that she was approaching ten years as a freelancer. I’m in a similar boat. For a touch over ten years now, I too have freelanced, lobbing in literary bombs from the relative safety and comfort of my home office, content to be a solitary figure unfettered by the constraints imposed upon any staff writer, salaried journalist. No, for over ten years I’ve existed on the edge, as it were. A renegade, an outlaw.

The reasons I began treading the freelance path, in my mid-20s, are many — I didn’t study journalism and so had no degree. I hadn’t worked as a journalist, and so had no experience. A good deal of my literary heroes were journalists, freelancers, masters of their universe. I liked that idea, being my own boss, and so given I loved to write and had a natural curiosity, I just hung up my shingle. Essentially, I just fell into it.

Initially, I wrote about music. Indeed, for the vast majority of the past decade, that’s all I’ve written about. I started contributing to the free Street Press in Melbourne, and over the years honed my journalistic skill, slowly but surely making the move from the churnalistic nature of that free medium to more respected, and better paying, publications.

I’m not a natural journalist, the perference for solitude makes it hard work, but I loved it and so I persisted and over time, built a reputation, a name for myself. My writing improved, and I was happy with how I was progressing, albeit a little slowly at times.

A little over a year ago, I started branching away from music too. I started writing travel stories, shooting back missives from wherever in the world I happened to be. I started writing about food and bars, and began to shift myself further out of my music-oriented comfort zone and wrote stories on racing drones, amateur astonomists and New Year’s Resolve.

Over the course of these almost-eleven years, as it’s all slowly grown, I, like anyone else in this situation, have had to deal with what staff and salaried writers don’t — the financial insecurity that comes with being a freelancer, the instability and the reasonably frequent bouts of self-doubt. I’ve had to fight to be paid, to be heard, to be taken seriously. I’ve endured the lows, the injustices and the outright wrongs.

But I’ve been a writer, a professional one for the most part, and even in the trying times, when an invoice just won’t get paid or I’m spending hours sitting alone staring at a blank screen, devoid of any inspiration whatsoever, I’ve loved every second of it — living on the edge, as it were. A renegade, an outlaw.

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A little over a year ago however, things changed. Rhythms magazine, where I was Assistant Editor (a position which existed nicely alongside my freelancing), was sold, and so that gig disappeared, along with its small, but regular, paycheque. The new editor, in an effort to impress and cultivate labels, publicists and artists, took on basically every story that was offered her, which she then passed on to me, now a freelance Senior Contributor — I took them all in an effort to make up the financial shortfall I’d suffered.

At the same time, after an absense of around four years, I reconnected with an old Street Press editor and began writing for them once more, again in an effort to maintain cash flow. The extra work poured in, but it was churnalism all over again — countless short stories with essentially no point, nothing to stretch me as a journalist or a writer, just money in the bank, money in the bank.

As a result, I started to neglect other aspects of my work — I didn’t have the time or energy to pitch bigger, more complex stories to publications that would pay well and offer solid exposure; my first book, which I was looking to self-publish, sat dormant, only really needing some basic re-writes to get it print-ready; the novel I’d been working on for almost two years sat dormant too; as a journalist and writer, I stagnated.

And so it went, until around August last year when I just burnt out. I didn’t realise it at the time, it was my wife, and shortly afterwards my sister, who brought it to my attention. I wasn’t motivated, they said, I wasn’t pushing myself; I was going through the motions and I was bored. I sat and thought about this, and realised they were both right. I was bored. I was lacking motivation. I was wasting my own time — in churning out stories in order to make money, using energy I should have been channelling into more worthwhile journalistic pursuits, writing had become a chore, it wasn’t fun or fulfilling anymore.

HST

Another reason for this burnout was my dad dying at the end of 2015, and it seemed, according to my sister, that this was impacting on my motivation, even six months later. He wasn’t there to bounce ideas off, to argue points with, to impress. I’d dealt with his death emotionally, but it was obviously impacting in other ways.

So I stopped. My wife, in her infinte wisdom, told me to take some time off. Just stop for a couple of weeks, she said. Sleep in, walk into town, buy the paper, sit in cafes, go for a swim, have a snooze, read a book. She was in the early stages of pregnancy at that point, and was still working full time, so I felt guilty when I eventually agreed with her, but she insisted.

There was one catch though. Take two weeks off for sure, two weeks without any writing or journalism, but I had to ask, and answer, this question — what is it, exactly, that you want to do?

I thought, initially, that this was an easy question. I wanted to write, of course. But it wasn’t that simple. I had been writing, for a decade, but it had lost its lustre, its allure, because I was going about it the wrong way, falling into old traps and cultivating bad habits. It was no longer bringing the joy it once did.

It took me a while to really answer the question then, and answer it properly. It took most of that two week break, it took me switching the writing part of my brain off completely, not even thinking about sitting at my desk, opening my laptop, sifting through emails, generating story ideas, writing, writing, writing.

What I wanted to do, I concluded as this break wound down, was to write about things that mattered. I wanted to write long feature articles and books, about things that mattered.

No more little, pointless stories. No more churning stuff out merely to make money. No more writing about things I wasn’t interested in. No more treading water. No more wasting my own time.

I wanted to write about things that mattered, both to me, and other people.

That was the answer to the question, at least in essence, and so a change needed to be made. And it needed to be made right then.

Up until that point, I was basically a short-form journalist. I’d been writing short profiles and medium-length features, nothing more than 2000 words, at least not regularly. The switch I wanted to make to longform then, would require time and effort, it wasn’t going to happen over night.

Further, I was well known to editors in the short-form realm, not so much in the longform. I’d need to cultivate a new batch of editors, and this too would take time. I wasn’t short of ideas, but these ideas would need to be fleshed out and researched prior to pitching. Again, time.

Given I’d sworn off short-form though, time was something I’d have, but this presented another problem — money. My wife would soon be off work and therefore her full wage. Her materinty pay was to be half her normal salary, and I’d need to be bringing in my share, so perhaps the hardest part of this transition, needed to be addressed — as I sought to change my writing model, I’d have to find a way to bring in more money in the short term.

That meant getting a job. A non-writing job. Working for The Man.

At first, this depressed me. Did it mean, as I had to suppliment my literary income, that I’d failed as a writer? The self-doubt rolled in like a black thunderhead and sat around for weeks. All I wanted was to make enough money from writing, but I knew that in order for this to happen, in order to achieve the new direction I’d set for myself, I’d have to take the plunge.

At first, I did apply for writing-related jobs. Weekend reporter at one of the local papers; copywriter for a non-profit; staff writer for a specialist (non-music) magazine. I came close to all three, but ultimately lost out. And so I stepped out of the writing box — admin at a local caravan park; teller at the local bank; register jockey at one of the big servos in Byron.

I got the last one. Filled in the application, got an interview, obviously impressed, got the gig. Now, I was a writer, but also one who sold petrol — slingin’ petty, as it’s known in the trade. The change, the initial change, had been made. I was now working for The Man.

It turns out, as far as my writing is concerned, that this was the best thing I could have done.

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I now work four six-hour shifts a week. For that 24 hours out of 168, I’m in a different mindset — I chat with customers, I interact with my new workmates, I stock shelves, I take sneaky smoke breaks, I mop floors and I take out rubbish. I’m in a different world that doesn’t involve writing.

It’s a break, it resets me, it lets that part of my brain rest.

I’m lucky in that, despite the fact I am working for The Man, my immediate boss is sympathetic to my reasons for being there. As long as I give him ample notice, he’ll bend the roster to my writing needs. He turns a blind eye to me, solo on night shifts, sitting in the back office with my laptop and notebook. As long as I’m working properly, then I’ve got ample leeway.

The money is good. I no longer even think about churning out small, pointless stories and articles. I don’t have to. As a result, my mental energy, now preserved and protected and rested four times a week, is at a new peak — my focus is on the bigger picture, on telling bigger stories, on moving on to bigger things; after a servo shift, I get back to my desk and am humming with an energy I haven’t felt in ages. My mind is ticking quickly and the writing which for such a long time was dull and lustreless, is bright and hot and exciting.

Not everything is pure gold, of course, but the energy is. And it’s because I let go, made some tough choices, got over myself, got things done, and now I’m on a good wicket.

Sure, I don’t like getting up at a quarter past five a couple of mornings a week in order to tend to a register and deal with people’s foibles and fuck ups, but things now are about the bigger picture. And so driving in the dark into Byron to put on the smile and the good attitude and sling petty and make money for The Man, well, that’s just a little side-step… I’ll be back at my desk by lunchtime, living on the edge as it were. A renegade, an outlaw.

Albeit one who occasionally wears a nametag a few times a week.

Samuel J. Fell is a Byron Bay-based freelance journalist. He can usually be found here (www.samueljfell.com), or here @SamuelJFell