Articles - 21st August 2020

How do freelancers have fun?

Words by Ralph Jones
Illustration by Jon McCormack

I’m worried I may have forgotten how to have fun. As a freelance writer, the deal you make with the devil is that you do the work because you love it, but it will muscle into your life’s every cranny. If you love it, why would you stop doing it? Why not just carry on into the evenings? The problem is that fun time then becomes work time, work time becomes not-so-fun time, and fun time becomes a lot more work.

I am so eager to fill my hours with writing, and so keen to harvest my life for material, that I’m beginning to think I don’t reserve anything exclusively for fun. This is even truer since having a baby, a change that has cleft my life into work and the work of childcare. Have I forgotten how to have fun? Am I still fun? Where is fun? What is fun? I spoke to five freelancers about whether they know the feeling.

Author Nell Frizzell thinks that her writing career is basically a by-product of her doing things in an attempt to get laid. I think she’s only half-joking. The creative industries are packed with people who carried on doing things because they enjoyed them, and then found that there were people who would pay them to do them (if they filled in eight invoice templates on twelve different online portals). She agrees that it’s difficult to silence the voice telling you that you ought to be looking at everything through a creative lens. Her ex-boyfriend used to tell her she was terrible to watch TV with; half-way through she would start cooking or making a dress.

So her approach is twofold. When she was pregnant (her son is now two) people kept telling her to rest. She didn’t know what they meant. When she has a break she does something that other people would consider a job: she gardens; makes clothes; bakes bread. Like a shark, she has to keep moving. “I don’t think the human body is designed for a huge amount of flaccid time,” she says. Her other reprieve is nature: she is up at 4.30am to go for a run, a cycle, or a swim. The joy of running, she says, is that she can neither carry her child nor reply to emails while doing it.

For Frizzell, striking a balance between nature and culture is key. A few days after our call, she is due to put her son to sleep, cycle out of town, sleep in her tent overnight, swim in a river, and get home before he wakes up. “The ability to completely switch off is great,” she says, “but nature abhors a vacuum. If you switch off, something else will just whip in there.” I feel as though this is probably truer of the freelance mindset than of others. Some freelancers, certainly those with a Twitter addiction, will spend this “unstructured time”, as Molly Conway puts it, staring gormlessly at their phone. But for those I interviewed, edifying hobbies – and children – have plugged the gaps. Unstructured time, after all, could easily describe a freelancer’s working day. We have become adept at filling it.

But what if we can’t resist the urge to write about how we’ve filled it, thereby permanently turning fun time into work time? Journalist Stuart Heritage, who has worked from home for 15 years, used to have a Guardian column about his kids, and one about exercising. Work tended to loom large over his fun. When his mum died, he immediately did a sponsored walk around the Isle of Wight. “Retrospectively,” he says, “that’s not the most healthy mindset to have.” Baking bread seems to be the only hobby he hasn’t written about – although this is only true at the time of writing. As someone for whom the line between work life and personal life is particularly blurred, this is the small price he pays. “But you have to keep something for yourself,” he says. “You have to. You can’t wash all of your dirty linen in public.”

An unease about relaxing entirely is a constant in the freelancers I interview, and therefore perhaps inextricable from freelance life. Before lockdown actor and writer Natasha Hodgson learned archery. “It’s really lovely to have this safeguarded little evening a week where it’s two hours for something that is in no way connected to any other part of your life,” she says. She did it for its own sake, it was just for her, and she was blissfully bad at it. Lockdown has replaced archery with the Couch to 5k challenge and sign language classes on Zoom. Having been self-employed for almost a decade, she – like other freelancers – has trained herself to segment her day “because otherwise it all just merges into a grey sludge”.

In part, this grey sludge is the danger that prompted journalist Joel Snape to use the Pomodoro technique (working in 25-minute chunks to the exclusion of everything else) not just for work but also for down time. “It sounds really weird to have such a disciplined attitude to having fun,” he says. But, perhaps because Snape’s attention span has been ruined by the internet, he no longer finds it as relaxing to play video games or watch films. Instead, he plays the piano – for ‘a Pomodoro’, as he says. He uses the Google application KeepNotes to keep track of films and articles he needs to catch up with, helping to keep aimless indecision to a minimum.

I was certainly comforted to learn that many other freelancers feel the same way as I, and that trying to enjoy free time can be like wrestling a pen from the grip of an octopus. We feel awkward completely letting our guard down, so we look for hobbies that feel like self-improvement. I realise there is a lot of truth in Frizzell’s comment about running, and have found myself using exercise as a way to unwind because, unlike TV and reading, it is so difficult to be distracted. But in fact I have also begun to enjoy reading more, even if it may only qualify as 80% unconnected to work. The fear of becoming someone unable to enjoy little pleasures like this was a motivating factor here, I think.

There is a coda to this piece. A few days after speaking to me, Frizzell returned from her overnight camping sojourn away from her son. When she posted about it on Twitter, an email popped up in her inbox from a newspaper editor who had seen the tweet. I was just wondering, said the editor, whether you’d like to write about camping for us?

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