Freelance not free lunch

I seem to be angrier or more upset or just driven to blog this week than any other week. But this one has been a long time coming, and it was finally propelled onto the page because someone tweeted my wife Stella, saying she is privileged to do what she does. She’s out there, in the public eye, speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak out, or are not given the chance to speak out and the person said she should do more of this, spend more of her time speaking out, for them. But she’s a writer, and she has to write in order to be where she is, and try and make a difference.


She really isn’t privileged. Neither am I. I can only speak for me, so for those of you who think me (and she) might be privileged, here’s a brief history of me!

Left my secondary modern with three o-levels. First job ever, age 17 at Her Majesty’s Theatre as a dresser. I was earning the grand sum of @ £34 a week, plus tips! I LOVED MY JOB. I got it by sheer determination, I made the phone calls, wrote the letters (yeah, we had to do it the old-fashioned way, and it took time and patience, the latter of which I have very little of these days, technology has made me impatient). I did that work for some time, went to drama school, worked during all my holidays as a dresser and later as a receptionist at the Pineapple Dance Studios, and as a motor cycle messenger, (albeit for one day), and in my local chemist and then I thought PR looked like fun, so managed to secure a job with a technical PR company (I know what ball valves and actuators are, do you?). Then I worked for Townsend Thoresen (I was there when the Zeebrugge ferry disaster happened), then I worked for a woman’s magazine (where I had some short stories published – and rejected), worked my way from secretary to assistant fiction editor, left (actually was forced to leave), returned a year later to be fiction editor of another title (YES!). Did this for ages, worked in casting, as a casting assistant, which I had actually done before (in a small office in Soho with Beth Charkham, while her sister Esta was casting something big).

Applied for an English degree at Birkbeck, did that for four years (all paid for by me!) while working full-time. On to an MA in Creative writing, applied and received an award for my fees and maintenance, though I was still working full-time. By now I was in my late 30s. I started writing, but worked full-time, and gradually gave up the full-time work to write. And I have been freelance for about 15 years.

The word freelance makes some people think you don’t actually have a job, while others think, ooh, you’re so lucky, you can do what you want when you want, you can choose to get up late and go away when you want, you can watch day time TV (I never have) you don’t have to shop with everyone else at the weekend, when the supermarkets are packed with tired people with proper jobs. You can welcome the washing machine, dishwasher (we’ve only had one for 3 1/2 years, we’re not that posh) central heating repairman whenever it suits you. Yes, granted we freelancers can do all of this, and we do. But we don’t get sick pay or holiday pay or compassionate leave, or a guaranteed wage or a pension (my total pension will I think last 6 months). And if we wait for the washing machine, dishwasher, central heating repairman to turn up when he says he will, and mostly they don’t, we still have to do the work, we still have to create and finish our work in order to hope to be paid. And can I just add that often the pay comes months later.

I work whenever I can. I had intended to work on a play when I returned from university today, but I had some family business to attend to and then decided to write this blog!

I like continuity, I like to wake up, have two cups of tea, some breakfast, check my mail, tweet and Facebook and then work. All of that is a warm up for me. I prefer to have everything clear before I write and I like peace and quiet. So when we had major building work next door (six months on one side and three on the other), it was at times impossible to think, let alone write. But we did. Because we had to.

For the past two years I have been in the fortunate position of having a guaranteed income, not a great amount, but it has made an enormous difference to my otherwise financially unstable working life. I have a job at a university two days a week, and I love it. At the end of May, this job stops, and then I’m back to my financially unstable working life. Right now, apart from this lovely job, I am waiting to hear about six projects all in some stage of development, a mix of theatre, radio and TV and all with no money yet. I am also working on a new play, written on spec – that means with no advance, commission, with no money yet. Many of us do this all the time. It’s just the way this profession is for some of us. Some of you may ask why, why would you work for no money? Because the possibility of making some proper money is always there, and things could change for me over night. And mostly, I love what I do. And I’d rather do the thing I love which has the possibility of making it big, than settle for less with no change to my working life or finances. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

And yes, there are writers who get huge advances and rolling commissions, but they still work hard and they had to start somewhere. So next time you have a paid day off to welcome the washing machine, dishwasher, central heating repairman, think of me, who is not getting paid to welcome any of these workers into my house, who does not have a technical department to sort out my computer as soon as I ask for help and not have to pay for it, who has to fit in other work around my actual work, teaching and talks and talking to new writers who want advice and events which we all have to go to, it’s just part of our job. And sometimes the events are glorious and sometimes they are dull, but it is part of what we do, and making an effort counts.

I know everyone thinks we have a glamorous life, (right now I am sitting in my claret dressing gown and pyjamas) and occasionally we do, we meet inspiring people and go to wonderful events. Most writers, book writers particularly, have to go to great lengths to promote their work, which include library talks, readings and interviews and sometimes TV and radio appearances, occasionally at very late notice, (sometimes for little money, sometimes for no money, hey it’s publicity, you want them to be paid as well?).

And then there are the meetings, ones which take up a whole morning or a whole afternoon or a whole day, which put an end to any real work, because when you return home you think about the meeting, and write up those great ideas you talked about, and answer 101 e-mails. Often those meetings could be taken on the phone or Skype, but the people with proper jobs like to go out and have a coffee or a glass of wine, it’s time away from their work, why wouldn’t they? Do you know how many meetings I’ve been to which have taken up so much time and amounted to nothing?

And then there’s the back ache from sitting, and not complaining (well, maybe a little) and booking expensive time with the osteopath to help your back ache so you can sit at your desk and work and get another back ache, and so it goes on. Do you know how many times people assume I can just sit down and write and keep writing, I can switch it on? I am not a light bulb. I have flashes of inspiration, but ideas have to be developed and worked on, and that takes times, and if you’ve stuck with this blog, you will see that writers often do not have time to do the thing that makes them money, the thing that will make them money. Those writers who are in the public eye, got there because of their work, and some of them do good in the world, but they have to keep working to keep their profile so they can keep making a difference. If they stopped working, the public would forget about them and that would be it! There are those who do take time to make change in the world, but we cannot do it 24/7. We have to work, it feeds us and it feeds you.

Talking of which, I might just get an hour of writing in before dinner and TV! Then again, I have just written over 1600 words. Mushroom soup tonight. Ah, privileged me.

8 thoughts on “Freelance not free lunch

  1. I love reading about the wendings-ways of people’s lives getting from A to B via Q, T, P*

    Takes a lot of courage to freelance. I salute ya Ms Silas!

    *randomly picked letters, not meant to hold any acronymic heft

  2. I’m a freelancer but in a different field – conferences. People think I just work from home, but I have to fit in the school runs, and work two different time zones, whilst my kids are playing. However, I’m working on own event which if it comes off will make me properly self-employed!

  3. Dear Shelley

    It’s great to read your stuff and Stella’s too, and I am constantly moved and inspired. I’ve always written while working full time and after 15 years at it, getting up at 5am, I finally published a novel last March….

    I am now trying to work on a new one. I’m also a single mother of two boys and it hasn’t been easy, especially since I lost my full time PA job last year. But losing the job has been a good thing for the kids who now know what it feels like to have a Mum collect them from school, take them to the park, sing on the way home, ride bikes, kick a ball, do homework and read to them. So I’ve decided not to go back into the full time work thing but to try to make ends meet based at home, as a writer. I am scared about whether I can do it, but think it is right. I have also taken in a lodger to help with the bills, and am at the point of preferring to sleep on a mattress in the boy’s room and have two lodgers so that I can be a Mum and write rather than go back to some dumb awful exploitative secretarial position.

    i should mention that I could not have done what I have done had it not been for the welfare system which has kept me afloat and my kids fed, happy and healthy for almost a year now…. But I have started tutoring in English and have decided at the age of 34, to go back to Uni to study on the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. I’m pleased to say they’ve offered me a place and I’m now looking around for funding. My 8 year old wants to send lemonade in the park to send me back to school! I’m really excited to have the place as I desperately want to be part of a group, a community of writers, to be pushed, encouraged, stimulated by tutors and students alike, and hope to be able to teach at the end of it, if all goes well. I’m going to go, funding or no, and will just work in a cafe, take in two lodgers and try to press on with the novel.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say Hello. I think you and Stella are great. And if that was the Brockwell Lido in her last timeline picture, I am going to bring my towel down and line it up next to yours in the hope that your spirits and passions rub off on me.
    My novel is ‘We all Ran into the Sunlight’, in case you’d like to read.
    All best

  4. Dear Shelley, very well written and I totally agree! There’s much more behind this “perfect privileged life” than anybody thinks. It’s the same hard work like any other “proper job”. You and Stella are doing great stuff and I appreciate both of you. Have a nice day. Kat xxx

  5. Hi

    I totally understand what you are saying about the uncertainty of living as a freelance writer.
    However, today I am researching and writing an essay on women during the Holocaust who risked their lives, not just their livelihoods, in order to steal any kind of writing materials and scraps of paper (knowing if caught they would almost certainly be killed) in order to record and share recipes with their companions, in camps such as Ravensbruck and Terezin.

    It is a huge privilege for me to get know these women and hear their voices. I know also that only a handful of people will read my work, a few tutors because they have to. I might also be seen a privileged in the sense that I can live in a beautiful part of Spain with my partner, study and not have to work to survive. But, you know what I don’t feel that privileged because I am not a writer or in the public eye, I would love to be able to be in a position that I could tell others about a few of the thousands of amazing women who don’t have a voice or who have been ignored by history.
    You however, and writers like you, are beyond privileged because you have a gift, a gift of being able to write and be able to give a voice to women and shed light on important issues, even if that is part time because you have to eat and earn a living.

    You make a difference and you change lives, so I think you are indeed privileged.


  6. Dear Shelley, I enjoyed this very much. Someone has to speak up for the interminable disposition of freelancers. Where do we draw the line and stop and say, “Now, it’s time to relax.” Even watching television (and I do understand how this may sound) can be considered work for an actor/writer. Maybe this person who said you and Stella were privileged was using it with the intention of meaning that you are lucky. In some ways, when you are doing the thing you want to do, even when it fills up most of your time and drives you bonkers, it could be perceived as lucky by a person who has possibly never tried to achieve what they wanted; or perhaps never even knew what they wanted. In that sense, I think I am privileged. Or blessed. Or lucky. Is that what the person who made the comment might have meant?

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