Surviving as a Freelancer
by Yvonne Hewett
I'm a writer, director, and producer (and line manager and researcher and tripod carrier) and I've talked to editors, DPs, sound people and PAs about the problem of down time between jobs. No matter what we do, we all have the same trouble with going crazy when we're not working.
I've been freelance for a while, and I love it. But, like everyone else, I don't work constantly, and after years in full- time employment it took me ages to get used to the irregularity.
I realised that the stress that built up during the not working periods was taking a lot out of me, and about three years ago I started to examine the mental processes I go through when a job finishes and there isn't another lined up. I began to keep a diary, and sure enough there's a definable pattern. This reassured me that horrendous as these periods are, they do eventually pass.
Most of my day job is on documentaries and corporates. As with all production, there are periods of intense concentration, followed by a break, then another intense period and so on until the job's finished. At the end of it I can be pretty wiped out - if I've got the time and there isn't another job on the doorstep. A full break or a holiday would be the answer, but I don't always have the means or the opportunity. My husband also works for himself and our cycles of busy-ness rarely coincide.
After six weeks or so on a documentary, if there's no new work, the first week goes pretty much in sleeping, getting back into my own skin, paying the bills, catching up on laundry and urgent correspondence and getting re-established on the Net. I do try to make a few phone calls to potential clients to say, 'Hi, I'm back, what's doing?' and plan a marketing strategy, but it doesn't always work.
Then follows a few days of what closely resembles a hangover. Random activity, inability to concentrate, a tendency to watch daytime television or read newsgroups that I wouldn't ordinarily go near. It's strange what you can find, netsurfing.
Now that I know it's normal, I let my system do what it wants and don't try to force it into anything. I catch up on the latest films on video, go for long walks, rent soundtrack CDs and listen to them over and over. Other people have different remedies - for one friend, it's chocolate chip cookies, and for another (female) it's women's magazines. A third goes in for movie-going marathons. The answer is to do whatever works for you, and don't bother feeling bad about it.
The problem with this stage is that it can go on indefinitely if it's not brought to an end. After about a week, I force myself to make a list of all the production companies for whom I've worked, followed by the ones where I know someone, then the ones who are known to be busy, and the rest. Then I go for a walk.
The next day, I hit the phone, send out tapes to those who ask for them and CVs to everyone else. Calling is killer work and we all hate it, but it's the only answer in a business where everything is word of mouth.
While calling, I set up as many meetings as I can. This has two benefits: meeting producers, obviously. But talking about work, and being taken seriously about it, is the best antidote to the terror that sets in at this stage: that I'll never work again, that I have no reputation, no one will ever want to hire me, the last film was the last film ever, and so on. This terror is dangerous and it's very corrosive.
If it starts to get bad and I think I'm going to muff an interview through lack of confidence, I dig out a tape of my favourite work and watch it all the way through. Inevitably I find new things to criticise and the faults stand out like beacons, but the process never fails to restore the soul.
I get back in touch with friends and former colleagues, and I also go to every industry get-together in sight. It takes me out of the house and I never know who I'll meet, or when it'll pay off down the line. I do try to avoid talking about working/not working with direct competitors who may or may not be in a similar slump. If they are, they'll certainly lie. Close friends I can trust I do discuss the work situation with; but a competitor murmuring to a potential client, 'I heard she's not doing much these days,' is the kiss of death, implying as it does a loss of touch, or at least alcoholism. It takes a long time to get back from Siberia.
Then: slothfulness over, marketing stage one over, I get on with my fallback: writing fiction and screenplays. Almost everybody I know has some activity that keeps them sane when they're waiting for the phone to ring. It can be car maintenance or gardening or cooking or playing with the kids, but whatever it is, it has to be enjoyable and engrossing. One of my favourite cameramen goes in for massive decorating - he's now a pretty good plasterer. A good fallback absorbs time and attention so thoroughly that it becomes a source of energy, and with writing I actually the phone when it does ring.
However, the marketing's not done. I don't have an agent, but those who do say they phone the agent at least twice a day. I phone everyone I've contacted. A week after I've sent out a CV I do a follow up call. It often doesn't get past the receptionist/ secretary/PA, but I work on the principle that left messages are read if not replied to, and there's only so much you can do to attract a producer's attention without being a downright nuisance. I also get to know PAs and receptionists, whose response to a voice can determine whether the producer takes the call.
Then I go back to the writing. After fifteen futile phone calls, I need the reassurance that I do still exist, and it's a relief to be in charge of the lives of fictional characters at a time when real life is careening beyond control. Several freelances I know put their down time into research, writing proposals, making contacts and starting new projects. Like my speculative writing, the pay-off may not come next week, but doing the ground work when there's time to do it properly will have benefits in the long term. It does mean paying for travel and phone calls when times are tight, but it is a hedge against the future.
Some people regard themselves as craftspersons and nothing but. There's nothing wrong with that; but there's a real danger, as the days pass and the bank balance plummets, of getting stuck in the junk living and junk food stage.
Confidence for me and many of the people I talked to is rooted in our working identities, and that confidence is fragile. We've all seen the results when people lose their self-esteem, and what bad selling jobs they do when an opportunity does come up. One way of keeping the spirit alive is by talking to others on the Net. A friend I've never seen is also trying to break in on selling spec fiction and we've formed a mutual support group, and many of the correspondents on a list where I hang out are in a similar state. It's tremendously comforting to know you're not alone.
Meanwhile, I'm still using the phone, following up on the letters and the tapes and the CVs. There are times when the sound of another human voice is a life saver.
Spouses or significant others can make a tremendous difference when nothing is going right. They also know when to listen and when it's time to hit the pub. The singles have a line of support on the phone or with a relative or a friend: a relationship that's necessary to keep from perishing.
Constantly chasing work in a crowded industry gets very wearing, so it's useful to establish an identity separate from the craft. For many of us what we do in the down time is a way of defining ourselves that's independent of the vagaries of the market, and it should help to keep us sane.
So, it's a case of knowing the stages, being prepared to roll with them instead of going in for self-flagellation or guilt, and using the free time effectively. It takes discipline and dedication, but those are the attributes that make us good at what we do professionally. Turning them around and applying them in our non-working lives takes practice, but it pays off in the long run. And hopefully, just as we're getting started, the phone will ring...
(I first wrote this in 1996 for the Cyber Film School. It's brought me a lot of email from freelancers in the same predicament. In the intervening years, I've moved from TV production to website development, still as a freelance. The work scene in both areas is tough and getting tougher, and anyone who's going to make it needs a lot of drive and adaptability, and a sense of humour.)
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Last Modified August 28, 2005