One year ago today I sat at my shiny new green desk, sharpened my pencils and switched on my laptop. I was terrified. Not just nervous, but knee-tremblingly petrified of how my first day was going to go. I put a Dream Theater CD on (which has become one of my best work buddies this year) and opened my emails. I started to write, nervously, my heart beating fast with every keystroke.
I’ve written every day of my adult life (almost every day of my whole life, actually, since I was four) so I shouldn’t have been scared of what I was doing. So why was it having such an effect on me?
I had pretty high expectations of that day. Ever since I’d announced a few months earlier that I was planning to ditch the 9-5 and go solo, people had been applauding my bravery and telling me how they wished they had the courage to follow their dreams and do what they’re passionate about. If I hadn’t already been nervous, I definitely was after hundreds of people making me out to be some kind of career hero.
My view of taking the leap to freelancing was actually more pragmatic than it might seem. Sure, I love writing and, like millions of other people, had always dreamed of working from a remote cottage on a lake somewhere, with a pencil in one hand and a coffee in the other (think Colin Firth in Love Actually). But I’m a bit too sensible to do something just because I love it. I did my research, and it actually made better business sense than staying where I was.
I came home from work late one day and my husband was sitting waiting for me with a cup of tea. “I need to talk to you about something,” I said. The colour drained from his face. “No, no, it’s nothing like that, I’ve had a mad idea.” Now this was far from unusual – in the five years he’s known me, my mad ideas have included getting pet bees for the flat (I’m still working on this), running a half marathon five months after running my first ever 100 metres and turning our dining room into an indoor allotment (we got two cherry tomatoes). So when I told him I was thinking about quitting my job and going freelance, he agreed without hesitation and made me a spreadsheet showing how much I’d need to earn to survive.
That was my first lucky break: the most supportive husband in the world. This year, he’s cooked, cleaned, made me thousands of cups of tea, kept me awake, made me go to sleep and made me smile when I was ready to cry. There aren’t enough words in the world to thank him enough.
I leant on a lot of other people for advice before I resigned. I called mentors, friends, colleagues and family, especially people I knew would tell me not to be stupid. But nobody did. The clincher came when my good friend and long-time advisor Myc, who taught me everything I know about science PR (and wrote a brilliant book about it) said “I’ve been waiting for you to say this, it’s a brilliant idea. Say yes to everything in your first year.”
So I quit. I spent every available moment planning the next few months, making sure I’d have enough work to get me through the remainder of 2014, at least so I could enjoy Christmas, even if I ended up having to get a proper job in January again. My colleagues gave me a great send-off and I felt thoroughly loved, appreciated and sad to be going.
Two days later, there I was, green desk, pencil and laptop awaiting my input. The first few weeks were liberating and fun – I was still terrified, and learning how to pitch, quote and wrap up projects. It felt like I was running on adrenalin, and I was enjoying every minute of it. I had time to think, plan, clean and go for a run. I really was living the dream.
I suppose reality hit home the first time I worked through the night. In an office job, you can manage your work and say no without any financial implications. As a freelancer, I could manage my work around other people’s deadlines, and saying no would simply mean not getting the job and the money that comes with it. So, following Myc’s sage advice, I said yes to everything. Somewhere around March, I started to realise I had more work as a freelancer than I’d ever had as an employee – was I going to make it?
As spring turned to summer, I spent more and more nights tapping away at my keyboard, rather than sleeping. I missed parties, concerts, coffees and trips to the zoo, but I did all the work, and I’m proud of the results. It seemed the more I did, the more work came in – I was getting emails and calls from friends of colleagues of friends, with all sorts of assignments, from writing press releases about flower bulbs to sustainability website copy and feature articles on theoretical biology.
I was exhausted, but ecstatic.
People liked my writing. They enjoyed reading my articles, thanked me for helping them improve their websites and called to tell me how happy their professors/managers/editors were about the work I’d done for them. For the first time in my life, I felt in complete control of my professional success, and I knew it was going well. I was in The Zone, writing thousands of words every day on eclectic topics for various different channels. It was exhilarating.
But it was also eating into the rest of my life. I was missing my husband and the kids, even though I was sitting in the same room as them. My mind was on the next deadline, not the film everyone was laughing at on TV. I might have been happy professionally, but I was missing out personally.
Then something changed: I got pregnant. It was planned, of course, but we didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly. I’d decided long before that I would just carry on as normal until it was time to push – after all, writing isn’t exactly strenuous. But the baby had other ideas. The baby made me very sick. So sick, in fact, that I could hardly look at my computer screen without having to run to the bathroom. A tiny embryo had effortlessly fixed my dilemma: no more all-nighters, no more forgetting lunch, and no more staring at the screen for 14 hours at a time.
For six weeks I took my foot off the throttle and did only what was necessary. I still worked my A game, just for fewer hours every day. I even took the odd day off at the weekend. That was a few months ago now – little Escapea is 5 months and counting – but I’ve learnt a lesson. I can only enjoy my work if it’s part of an enjoyable life, and for that to happen I need balance.
It’s been a year, and today I’ve taken stock of what I’ve done. Since 1 November 2014, I’ve written more than 140 articles (check some of them out on my website), completed 123 projects (with 17 more currently underway) and given six training sessions. I’ve taken a 10-day holiday, and had a day off for our first wedding anniversary, but have worked the other 354 days of the year. I’ve generated almost 10GB of files (which is quite a lot for someone who’s not a designer) and edited three books. I can’t even begin to work out how any words I’ve written, but I’d say a (very) conservative estimate would be 200,000.
So what’s next?
I’m excited about year two. It’s like year one, but without the terror. I’ll have the added challenge of a baby, but I can tell little Escapea likes writing (judging by the kicking I’m getting right now) so we’ll have some fun.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be treated to a tour of the rare books library at Teyler’s Museum (thanks to my wonderful husband), which has given me some ideas. I want to carry on bookbinding and actually get good at it. My lovely family gave me a quill as a first anniversary gift this morning, so I intend to use it.
I’m already having a fantastic time writing for The Canary, an awesome new media company that’s free, fair and fearless, and I’m carving out some time to get stuck into my bee book again (I swear I’ll finish it one day).
I don’t intend to work less hard, or get less done in year two. In fact, I think I can improve my productivity and efficiency and probably get more done in less time. But after a year of saying yes, I’m now giving myself permission to say no to not sleeping, not seeing my family and missing the fun stuff.
I don’t think my decision to go freelance was brave. And, looking back, I don’t think it was as mad as I’d expected. It has shown me what I’m capable of, and where my limits are. It’s given me the confidence to try new things and write about what I love, and it’s taken the breaks off of my ideas (which may or may not be good for me).
Last night, after a week of 16-hour days, my Mum asked me: “Are you still enjoying it?”
“I’m living the dream, Mum,” I said. And I am. I do what I love every day (and get paid for it), I’m in charge of my own professional joy and now I’m giving myself permission to say yes to the things I love and pass on the things I don’t. And because I’ve spent the last year building myself a solid base, I have the freedom to put some balance back into my life. For starters, I’m switching off my laptop and enjoying the rest of Sunday.