The Secret Life of an American Freelancer: When the Magic Runs Out

Magical moments I am certain that I was born to be a writer. Words are magic to me. They bring life to experiences and emotions that are otherwise beyond my reach.

My brain is always in storytelling mode. When I meet someone new, see an interesting photo or simply observe humanity in action, my mind instantly crafts a narrative to complement the visual. I crave the background information, so when it’s not readily available to me, I make it up to fulfill my need for an emotionally satisfying story.

[My husband often reminds me that it’s okay to allow some emotions to remain beyond my reach. According to him, I don’t need to create a life story for every elderly gentleman sitting on a park bench or get weepy over a baby bunny that looks lost in our backyard.]

Naturally, I assumed that writing for a living would simply enhance this whimsical world of wordsmithery where my mind seems to permanently reside. And for the most part, it is pretty magical.

When I find the right words to describe a company’s vision or the perfect tagline for an email marketing campaign, it’s like that delightful moment when an illusionist produces a rabbit out of thin air and I have no idea where it came from.

[This could explain how the one in my backyard got there … and why he looks so confused.]

Speaking of magic, my family celebrated Christmas at Disneyland a few weeks ago, and after 14 hours of crowds, $8 churros and cartoon-themed jingles over the loudspeakers, even the Happiest Place on Earth was, well … not that.

Every “magical” experience has its limits. Whether it be personal or professional, the fairy dust disappears and we are faced with reality. That’s the trickiest part about doing what you love for a living. How do you keep the fire burning without suffering from burnout?

I identified a few of the highly flammable factors that threaten my sanity:

Writer’s block

The struggle is real, friends! My job depends on producing creative verbiage, and sometimes the words just won’t come. I try to get the creative juices flowing by taking a walk, (attempting) a little yoga, maybe pouring a glass of wine (hey, it worked for Hemingway) … anything to remove the mental brick wall separating me from compelling content.

Not being able to find the right words when I love words so much is sometimes a joy-stealer. It drains my passion.

Never saying ‘no’

Everyone seems to be riding the “yes train” right now. I have a five year old daughter, and I spent half of her life trying to undo her “NO!” habit. Not for her benefit, but because my life would be easier if she’d say “yes” once in a while. And TV producer Shonda Rhimes just wrote a best-selling book titled The Year of Yes (of course, Shonda also killed off McDreamy, so her judgment is a bit sketchy, if you ask me).

So as a new-ish freelance writer, I sometimes feel obligated to accept every project a client offers me, regardless of my comfort level with it.

For example, a client recently asked me to help with some of the back-end development of a website I write content for. This type of work is pretty far outside my wheelhouse.

[I’d say you could ask the web developers I have worked with in the past to vouch for this, but I’d prefer you didn’t.]

However, I definitely needed the money, it would look good in my portfolio, I could add a new skill on LinkedIn (clearly a priority) and truthfully, I didn’t want to give my client a reason to dive back into the shark tank talent pool to find a replacement for me.

So I jumped on that Yes Train, hanging on for dear life the whole ride. I spent 14 hours attempting to reacquaint myself with WordPress and widgets, desperately trying to get the job done well and on time.

Consequently, I ended up with a deliverable that I was unsatisfied with, further dousing my flickering flame.

It is important to challenge myself and broaden my skill set. But I am discovering it’s okay to say no to projects outside my scope. Or at least take a step back and tell myself, “Slow your roll, sister!”

So, I hereby declare this “The Year of I’ll Think About It and Get Back To You.”

The voices in my head

I write for businesses across a wide spectrum of industries. I am responsible for crafting original content for each client, whether that be describing the long-term benefits of a luxury mattress or exploring the devastating plight of homelessness in a specific region.

As it turns out, my clients prefer that I not make up stories about their companies like I do for lost bunnies.

Who knew?

So I research and fact-check and then try to create a narrative in a way that reflects the true voice of the business. It is critical that I maintain brand integrity for each client with the words I choose and the content I curate. I take great pride in that …

… and I also recognize that when all those voices talk at once, it’s time for some yoga
… or that wine (I don’t recommend the wine before the yoga, though).

Keeping the flame burning

Whether it be a struggle to find the right words, a lack of specific skills or a dizzy spell from juggling multiple projects, there will always be factors that threaten my Happily Ever After as a freelancer. But I am learning to break each obstacle down into tiny bite-sized decisions.

Sometimes that means I type out some words – even if they aren’t the right words – just to push past the writer’s block. (Shout-out to my editor; she deserves wine more than I do!)

Other times, I pick up the phone and call a client to clarify a project or to confess that I am all sorts of wonderful, but a complete disaster rookie at coding.

Baby steps.

And each time I take one, I am more confident about the direction I’m heading and my ability to get there.

Trading rabbits for hedgehogs

The key to success is finding the hedgehog.In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the Hedgehog Concept, which is the intersection of three circles labeled “what I am most passionate about,” “what I can be the best at” and “what drives my economic engine.” The overlap in the center is the hedgehog – or the spot where a person is most likely to be in his or her zone – the secret to success.

I know I’m most likely to pull rabbits (as well as doves, kittens and baby ducks) out of hats when I find that hedgehog. It helps to provide clarity, allowing me to focus my time and energy in areas where I can have the greatest impact.

Despite the challenges that come along with it, the chance to be a professional writer is still a dream come true for me. If that means sometimes I must depend more on one circle than another in order to put food on the table, I’m willing to accept the compromise. But I’m always on the lookout for those moments when I find the hedgehog. That’s when the flame burns brightest.

That’s when the magic happens.

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