When people asked me how it felt to be working for a boss again when I started a full time job in November, I told them, ask me again in 6 months time. Well, (whoop!) here it is.
I feel that my life this past few months has been the opposite of those “Woman quits job to travel the world and finds happiness and enlightenment” clickbait lines you sometimes see on your Facebook timeline. You know them, those stories that make you feel all crappy because you’re spending your money on mortgages and paying off your debt, instead of bashing through Cambodian jungles or living out your own version of ‘Eat Pray Love’. My headline would probably read “Woman quits a life of world travel, gets stable job and finds financial security with great maternity benefits.” (For a 33-year-old woman, that’s catnip in a job ad.)
“Woman quits world travel, finds a stable job and pays off most of her debt.”
When I gave up my freelancing career as a (mostly) travel writer to work full time at Media24, people were quite surprised. And I must admit, on social media, it looked like I was having a ball of a time working for myself. Being a rogue agent meant that I got to pursue projects and destinations that I wouldn’t normally get to work on at the newspaper. I could get on an airplane on a whim, bounce between destinations and trips with sometimes days or even hours between my next assignments. The problem is, when you’re enjoying your work and pursuing your passion, some folks think you must work for free, or that they can pay you peanuts.
When I just started out, I signed up at various international freelancing agent sites, and I got a few commissions, from overseas publications. If you’re a freelance writer or a travel blogger, you probably know the dance. It starts out something like, “We love the samples you’ve sent us/ We had a look at your images, we would love to use you as a contributor for our publication and website.” When I received this first email, from a quite large Californian publication, I did a little happy dance. Every South African freelancer wants to be paid in dollars.
I heard of those mythical, dollar a word gigs, which is like hitting pay dirt for a South African writer with the weak rand/dollar exchange.
I got sent a brief and a commission, but nothing was mentioned on payment. So when I politely enquired about their word rate, the email I got back was curt and blunt, almost insinuating that I was quite precocious asking for payment.
Sorry, but they do not pay for contributors due to a small budget. But hey, they’re willing to put in links to my blog (which is written in Afrikaans, and, therefore, no value to me.). And the exposure will be great.
When you’re pitching, or being approached by potential clients, this is about what 85% of what the comebacks look like.
As a freelancer, you work three times as hard, as every story that you write has a paper trail of admin. First, you need to pitch, and to write a proper pitch takes time. If your pitch gets accepted, you write the story; it gets send off, and if you’re lucky, the rewriting and changes are minimal and quick. So here comes the crappy part: You need to invoice, follow up on that invoice several times and when it’s tax time, that invoice needs to be submitted, along with all the faded slips of expenses that you incurred while writing the story.
Try explaining to your tax practitioner that a receipt from a coffee shop in Amsterdam is actually tax deductible, because it formed part of your research, travel and hospitality expenses.
Or trying to decipher all your faded toll slips and petrol costs, six months down the line. The truth is, I got tired of everything. I was editing a travel magazine on a retainer but was putting in full-time work for an amount that wouldn’t even cover the salary of a part-time intern. Between that, I still had to churn out other articles for other publications, manage my blog and do some mind-numbing corporate writing that paid well, but slowly ate away at my soul. And between everything, I also had to travel, because, without any trips, I had nothing to write about and thus, no work.
I had a bit of a mini-breakdown in Cape Town, in a five-star hotel, in the bathtub. (It seems like all freelancers have a wobbly sometime in a bathtub). My husband had just quit his job after working for an abusive boss, without a back-up plan and we had to make due with my crappy income and eat into our savings. I rented a car in Cape Town, but forgot my licence at home in Johannesburg and couldn’t make it to several important meetings and interviews. And lying in that giant marble bathtub, overcome by a tight feeling in my chest and an absolute inability to get up, was a bit of a turning point for me.
Shortly after that, my then old (and now again current) colleague Karla told me about a position opening at Media24 for a lifestyle and travel writer. For me, being a freelancer was almost like having Stockholm syndrome or being in an abusive relationship, where the guy treats you like shit, but the sex is amazing. As a freelance writer, I had this illusion that I was the boss of myself. The trips were spectacular, but nothing stifles your creativity than having escalating credit card debt pile up and struggling each month to pay basics like electricity and internet. And when you’re working from 06:00 until 22:00 at night, but it’s not reflecting on your bank balance, maybe it’s time to reconsider your career options. So that’s when I decided to fire myself.
I know freelancers who are acing the gig, retrenched photographers who are making more money than they did at the newspapers they worked at, a successful freelance couple that owns a content production company, who despite the oversaturated market are still getting so many cool gigs. I have old colleagues that are kick-ass independent writers, fighting the good fight for amazing causes like feminism and anti-racism and producing the most thought provoking think pieces.
I’m not slamming freelancing, and I’m also not telling you go out and scan Bizcommunity for potential job ads.
This past two years as a rogue agent were probably also one of the most useful and fulfilling periods in my career as a journalist. You learn how to develop a thick skin and how to hustle like a pro. I got opportunities to travel to places and destinations I would never have if I were employed full time. I had time to start a blog and more out of necessity than interest, I honed my social media and multimedia skills. I got better at writing in English, as most of the publications I was writing for, was English.
Got a piece published in a national newspaper? Shout it from the rooftops. An important influencer punted you somewhere? The whole world must know of your greatness. (I’m not kidding.) Had a chat on national radio? Put that soundbite out for all to hear. (I have done all of this and apologise for pimping myself out on your newsfeed.)
When I got a ‘real job’ again (as my mother referred to it) I was a bit hesitant. I was still looking back at my freelancing career with a warm, Valencia-tinted filter and deep down, I felt like I was selling out. During my first month I got a last minute invitation to a tropical island, but because we have a rigorous screening process at the newspaper for international travel that unfortunately involves a bit of red tape, that trip fell through.
However, getting my first decent paycheck again, without invoicing any clients or sending polite follow-up emails on why I wasn’t paid, felt almost as good as getting my first real paycheck ten years ago. As another freelance colleague put it, “It’s like the fairies put it there.” I also consider myself extremely privileged to work for the lifestyle and travel beat, which remains my first love. Except for travel, I write about movies, television and art, so I also get paid to sit in a cinema and eat popcorn, or veg in front of the television and binge watch sitcoms. It’s all for work. Sometimes I have to interview an Afrikaans pop star as well, but hey, you can’t have it all.
I forgot how amazing it was to have colleagues with whom you can laugh so loud that the (really cheap, subsidised R9 cappuccino from the cafeteria) coffee sprouts from of your nose. When it’s somebody’s birthday, we eat cake. Sometimes we eat cake just because it’s Friday.
The best thing about my ‘real job’ however, is the financial freedom. I paid off my credit card debt within three months. I’m contributing to our household budget again, which feels great and also takes off quite a lot of stress from my husband, who (if I have to be honest) been subsidising my freelance career.
The biggest perk from this is a peak in creative productivity. When you’re not spending a third of your energy on admin, there is more time to write, both at work and in my personal capacity for my blog. And when you’re not stifled by worries about debt or money, the muses tend to hang around a lot more often.
It’s not moonshine and roses, either. As a journalist at a newspaper, I’m painfully aware that writing jobs at newspapers are like endangered species in the career world. Retrenchment and restructuring are two realities that’s always lurking. But it’s something I’ll deal with when it gets there.