“Freelancing entails driving bargains and those who are unable to bargain well are always going to live dangerously.”
I studied and started work as a journalist. In our field of work, there has never been anything like 9-5. If you work on the desk, and if you are lucky, then you worked 3pm – midnight. More likely it was 1 am. If you were a journalist, then you worked depending on your beat. However, ‘time’ is never sacrosanct in this field. Partly, I was tempted to quit, and to keep moving within various journalism roles – fortnightly magazines, features’ desk, etc – because reportage is not something one can do part-time. It is less of a formal, organisational requirement and more of a psychological and social one. This is especially true of daily news reportage. You HAVE to be on top of things, 24/7. You have to think about your work even when you are not actually writing. You have very little creative mind-space.
I had already been writing a bit of fiction and poetry and even just two years into my career, I knew that I wanted a tiny bit of time to do more than just journalism-related writing. I could not afford to quit all at once though. So I kept working full time with a few breaks (not always voluntary! Jobs were not easy to come by) between jobs. This lasted about 7 years.
In early 2008, I signed a contract for a book (non-fiction, reportage and travel based essays). That gave me a certain sense of purpose and I felt justified in going part-time. So I worked 3 days a week at a magazine desk. I have to add here that those 3 days could mean 12 or 14 hour days. So it wasn’t quite ‘part-time’ if you do the hours. However, it was part-time in the sense that I did have at least two days a week in which I could stop thinking of office and production deadlines, and start thinking of my own work.
I worked very hard those five or six months. I imposed a discipline upon myself that I would write a little bit everyday. Even if it was just a paragraph, and even if it meant returning home at 2 am and writing until 3 am.
Then I quit my job and moved back home. I withdrew my PF and it was not much money, but it was enough to see me through a year of full-time writing, without worrying about the consequences. I did just that – writing in various forms and genres. Most of the work of that year did not see light of day (scripts did not get produced, some work was not published). However, I finished my book of essays, and wrote some short stories. Then I ran out of money and began freelancing. Except for a six month phase in-between when I did take up a job, for 10 years now, I have freelanced.
There is an old-fashioned word for freelancing. Moonlighting. Doing a gig on the side, or doing extra work at night. It sounds romantic. I used to love that word. It implied so many wonderful things – having a new life at night. Being a new person, at least part time.
Now that I have freelanced and moonlighted, I realize it is both true and untrue. You ‘moon-light’ because you work at night too. You work twice as hard as 9-5 employees. You have no benefits like office support staff. Every print or scan I need, I have to step out to the neighborhood store to get it. AND I pay for every xerox, every meeting at a cafe. No boundaries between domestic responsibilities and you often get saddled with much social and domestic work because you are always available, and your schedule is seen as eternally flexible.
However, as you go along, you also learn to become more flexible. To not panic if one particular project is not going as per plan. To meet people and say, yes, maybe I can do that too? It is hard learning new things all the time, but you are also free to attempt something new without feeling like you are committing your whole life to it. You try something on a freelance basis, and if you enjoy it, you keep doing it.
I remain excited about the news and non-fiction. I continue to do shorter bursts of reportage, even though I am not a full time reporter. I merge a lot of genres within my work.
I became a flexible writer because I wrote for a living. I wrote anything that came my way. From SEO descriptions to customized chat scripts to social commentary, comics, ghost writing. I can’t pretend that all of it was a happy choice, but it was at least interesting. One of the under-rated joys of life is learning. Learning through research. Learning through doing. Learning how other people make money (even though you will never be able to make money after that fashion).
Because there were fallow periods between deadlines, I was able to do a lot of my own creative work. I have to stress here that this is not paying work. Creative writing very rarely is, especially for those who work in English in India. However, it is part of my work in this world, my true work – making meaning of life through words, and hopefully building a more wholesome society. About 50 percent of everything I did and wrote was free/unpaid, or grossly under-paid. This has not changed much over the years.
This is not necessarily a freelancer’s problem. It is partly my temperament and sometimes my lack of experience, viz knowing industry/market rates and how to negotiate within. I often say ‘yes’ to wok because it seems like a worthy cause, or because I know that everyone else is also doing it free. A lot of what we do in theatre, for instance, is non-paying work or just token payments.
Freelancing entails driving bargains and those who are unable to bargain well are always going to live dangerously.
Freelancing has brought me both creative discipline and creative recklessness. A small measure of recklessness is critical to art. For those of us who work in artistic disciplines, a little uncertainty is anyway built into the nature of the work itself. All we can hope for by way of stability is some form of patronage. But there is uncertainty about whether we will actually be able to do the work that is expected from us. Nobody knows, not even me, whether I can actually finish a novel or find a new structure for a script. But I keep trying out new things, while feeling free to set things aside for a few months, or even years.
I have learnt to trust my own instinct, and not feel bullied into doing projects I do not want to do. I’ve walked away from more than a handful of projects that I sense are going to make me unhappy, or make me lose my self-respect. This is something very precious – a sense of creative integrity. Most of us cannot hold onto it all the time. But if you can hold onto it even some of the time, there is relief in that.
I would say, overall, rather than making me happy, freelancing has prevented me from getting too unhappy. It has saved me from boredom, prevented creative atrophy.