Just because you’re working in fuzzy slippers, does not mean that you are stress-free. Freelance writing has unique pressures just as other jobs do. Let’s look at a few, and some strategies for dealing with them.
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Feeling ambivalent about the job:
Some of these stresses are inherent in the job’s very nature. Freelance writing usually serves as a problem solver for its practitioners. Perhaps caregiver responsibilities, or cultural/religious constraints compel us to work from home. Perhaps a job lay-off freed up time and made space in our wallet. In any case, it may not have been our dream career.
The very word freelance has overtones of embattlement. The word originally referred to a lance for hire in the late feudal era, a sort of courtly mercenary. Modern usage still retains some whiff of the solitary warrior. This can make us feel less worthy because we lack a regular salary with benefits and coffee club.
These understandable feelings are based on a short term view of writing. In fact, freelancing has been the writing norm, for most of history. With the rare exception of court poets, or the scriptural translation projects undertaken by Ptolemy in the 3rd Century B.C.E. (the Septuagint), and later by King James of England, it is tough to think of any full time gigs. Newspapers and magazines did were unknown until the 1700’s at the earliest!
If ambivalent feelings plague you, stop and take the long, historical perspective instead. Writing happens in one person’s head, and always has. Embrace the fact that you are a part of this tradition of independence!
Distractions are legion, and can steal our pay if they cause a missed deadline! Some are matters of life and, if not death, then at least health and security. Care-giving, housework, our other paid jobs, and obligations to spouse; these cannot safely be long ignored. Other distractions are literally addictive. Online games, inappropriate online stuff, news, Ebay, the television, and social networking, although appealing, are particularly hard to pull away from when our progress on an assignment is stalled.
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To deal with the stress of distractions, we can try to enlist our household, our technology, and our own habits to work for us rather than against us. First, we need to be sure that our work time is sacrosanct. This requires that others support our work. Refer back to the first point for some ideas on freelancing’s legitimacy.
Post a schedule around the house listing writing times. Of course, with a 24 hour clock and deadlines which can come at any hour, this does not solve everything. However, if the household knows that we are writing between 10 and midnight, without fail, we may avoid interruptions. Phone answering machines are another asset: record a message which graciously asks callers to try again when we are not writing.
To help address the problem of self-inflicted distractions, try to limit rather than eliminate them entirely, at least at first. Computers usually come bundled with some sort of calendar function, which generates reminders via email. More elaborate products are available as well, but this writer is still too low-tech to speak of them knowledgeably. Even more basic is the cooking timer; widely available, perhaps already in place in the kitchen, modestly priced, and infinitely variable. Try setting it for 15 to 30 minutes of playing hooky from the screen, and see what you can accomplish.
Choose activities which you would habitually be drawn to anyway. A basin of dishes, hanging laundry, “one more bedtime story”, a full email review, a walk around the neighborhood, or a set of abdominal crunches; all can be finished in that span of time. Such deliberately undertaken actions offer a sense of release, and achievement which allows for resumed concentration.
A freelance writer often deals with faceless bosses and customers who are mere numbers. The resources to complete the assignment are often incomplete, and without a friend/relative with access to an online library, full-text references are hard to come by online. Customers often don’t really know what they need to fulfill the assignment (if they were competent, would they need help?), and may not have the language skills to explain their ideas. Formatting details bounce a paper back and make it late, and these are just a few of the irritants writers face. Space does not allow for a fuller listing. What about this job is NOT frustrating?
Try this Close the eyes, sit with straight spine, and exhale completely. Use abdominal muscles to draw in breath through the nose, as slowly as possible. Exhale as slowly as possible through the mouth, counting silently and being conscious of heart rate and feelings. This mini-yoga move solves no problems, but feels remarkable revivifying.
Be proud, be assertive of your right to uninterrupted work time, and take a moment from time to time to cleanse the mind and the body of tension.
Creative writing is mother’s milk for some and fingernails on a blackboard for others. Nonetheless, sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and generate a short story, poem, or other creative piece, no matter how painful the process. How can you generate ideas, and then execute them in powerful, evocative words?
These are my personal strategies for any creative piece when not previously inspired. Inspiration is almost magically effective at overcoming mental obstacles, but we are not always so endowed when presented with an assignment.
Figure out what is wanted, and find an exemplary model:
First, look at the assignment, in terms of what principle is being conveyed by this exercise (e.g., use of metaphor), or what purpose the piece will serve (e.g., advertising project proposal). Next, think of an existing example of such a piece, a well-regarded one, and analyze briefly, as you read it, what made it effective. Note these characteristics down for use later.
Consider the structure, as for example, of a poem, and try to describe it in a way you understand. Take the case of the exceedingly distinctive poem by the American poet, Carl Sandburg, in praise of the city of Chicago, (http://carl-sandburg.com/chicago.htm). Do you hear in this poem the rhythm of the railroad, and the repetition of hammers on steel, with an almost Psalmic lead-in to each line (“And they tell me…)? Note also the initial ‘in your face’ use of the indelicate phrase “Hog butcher to the world…” which gives the impression of rowdy rough and readiness.
It is perfectly legitimate, without plagiarizing, to use such a structure as a way of stimulating your creative response to a person, place, event, or other phenomenon. If you are examining a topic closely, and you present your impressions in a rhythmic structure such as Sandburg’s, you will have created what is truly a poem. It would be politic to acknowledge your creative debt in the following accepted form: “With thanks to Carl Sandburg”.
Find the ‘edge’ and follow it:
In any creative endeavor, to avoid sounding hackneyed and immature, your goal should be to identify something that is not obvious, and focus on that. Look at the topic and write down your immediate responses, and keep on going with the list. Look at the items (sensations, emotions, connections, implications, insights, etc.) at the bottom of the list, those that were not the first to pop up. Follow one of those to its logical conclusion, and see whether that leads to an interesting story, poem, or non-fiction essay.
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Make it personal:
Wherever allowed, use your own life, family, and locale around which to set your creative work. Your descriptions of your surroundings will be, at the least, accurate. One hopes they will be more vivid than any attempt to describe entirely unfamiliar people and places. This is not original advice, but quite well tested.
Bore your family first:
Take advantage of your household/friends to get their feedback. If they don’t understand what on earth you are getting at, or their eyes glaze over, rewrite and clarify, or choose another direction.
Grab language by the horns:
A recent interview on National Public Radio with Roy Peter Clark was a refreshing and reassuring reminder that the grammar checker in MS Word is just that; a checker! (http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wamc/news.newsmain/article/231/0/1694800/The.Roundtable/Roy.Peter.Clark.-.The.Glamour.of.Grammar )
Mr. Clark is the author of a book titled The Glamour of Grammar, which is available online (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=142451). Among his slightly iconoclastic notions is the idea that grammar is a tool for our service, rather than the other way around. Mr. Clark urges us to be masters rather than slaves to grammar.
He reminds us that grammar and glamour once had meanings much closer together. In the Welsh Mabinogion, a cycle of myths and legends filled with the numinous, the term glamour refers to the spell which a troubadour weaves with his words. This glamour actually was regarded as powerful enchantment (http://www.mabinogion.com/). Grammar, the study of ordinary words was a bit later in becoming an area of study, but glamour and grammar are connected, just as spell (meaning the letters in a word) and spell (meaning an incantation) are related.
When undertaking a creative piece, we need to re-capture the mystical, and the magical in writing. Writing is such a recent human activity, and still can weave a spell in our readers. Take a few minutes to delve into Mr. Clark’s new book, and be utterly fearless. When the grammar checker flags your writing, look on it as a challenge. Find a way to say the same thing without raising the red flag, since your work must pass a Quality Assurance check, but don’t be disheartened. You are the heir to all the magi of ancient times.
Creative writing can be a thoroughly therapeutic exercise, if we look on it properly.