Freelance. A term first used by Sir Walter Scott in the mid-nineteenth century British novel, Ivanhoe, used to describe a "medieval mercenary warrior." A freelancer was someone motivated to take part in armed hostilities for their own personal gain.
Freelance. The word says it all. There's the free part. There's no argument that freedom is high on the favorability scale. But the lance part? A lance is a spear, a sword, a weapon used in battle. So the etymological roots of the word also suggest something violent or risky, putting one's life on the line in order to sustain and defend it, to fight for something worthwhile. This might not fit the picture of a freelancer in 2016, at the coffee shop, armed with an espresso and a MacBook but the roots of the word certainly hold true to the meaning it has in my life.
Ever since grad school dropped me at the door of the real world I faced the puzzling dilemma of having to find flexible work that would allow me to pursue my dream. I wanted to be a working actor. More specifically, I wanted to work in the theatre. Acting in New York City was a risky endeavor but that didn't stop me. I was young and optimistic, full of fear but going for it. This meant I had to find a day job that was flexible so I could attend auditions, pay my rent, afford my biweekly acting class, and my pre-packaged vegan sushi habit. Preferably, this job would not completely soul- suck, degrade or depress me - that's what auditions were for.
This led me to a host of non-traditional jobs. I worked in museums, restaurants, bars, trade shows, an auction house, a hospital. I had my real estate license for a few years, and I hate to admit it, but one of my favorite day-jobs was for a catering company aptly named Jaded Waiters. The owner, who was a performer herself, hired mainly other performers. We were a vivacious crew of budding artists, classical singers, dancers, musician, actors, comedians, performers of all stripes reaching for greatness. Why there isn't already a musical on Broadway called the Catering Line is beyond me. But I digress.
As much fun as that was, by the time I hit 29 I couldn't stomach serving pigs in a blanket to academics at the same University I had just graduated from. It was bad enough I'd be paying off student loans for the better part of my adult life.
Thankfully, there were the occasional paid acting gigs, which kept my dignity and hope alive. I had a few under-fives on T.V. soaps, a couple decent commercial jobs, some bookings as a print model, and promising callbacks for movie leads. But it was the theatre work I was after, that I loved the most. Before I was in the union, these opportunities paid nothing. Although they satisfied my creative appetite, between the money lost not "working" plus the subway fare, they cost me dearly in the end.
All this was character building, for sure. But sustainable? Not so much. By the time I hit 30 I was burned out. No more pounding the pavement, no more go-sees, no more abusive acting teachers, no more pay-to-plays, no more pre-packaged vegan sushi. No more. I was done. At least in the context of "making it" by industry standards.
Maybe it was time to settle down and get a real job? Not quite. I met my husband, a freelance photographer and once married, I became part owner in his business. Yet another non-traditional work situation but this time at least the work itself was aligned with a vision and a path for our future we could build together. Now after 15 + years experience wielding this free lance, I can tell you, it's very much a double- edged sword.
First the free part.
The ultimate perk: freedom. Working independently gives flexibility with hours, and in some respects location. After having kids this became a huge bonus.
There's the variety, projects big and small, high paying, low paying, interesting, mundane, changing faces, fresh ideas, new clients... all this can be thrilling and it's deeply satisfying to see a project through to the end and move to the next.
There's the possibility. Something great could always be just around the corner. There are no set salaries, no limits on how to direct one's efforts. Being one's own boss is great. When it's good it's really good.
Now for the lance part.
There's the battle. Having to generate, fight for, promote, and defend your work can be downright exhausting. Not to mention chasing down unpaid invoices. Downtime on a Saturday very often becomes a brainstorming session about clients, projects, and finances. It can feel like Monday every day of the week. And forget about holidays... most often they feel like lost time.
There's the responsibility. It's all on your shoulders. Paying out of pocket for health care (not everyone qualifies for the Freelancers Union), quarterly taxes, accounting, bookkeeping, promotion, marketing, negotiations, pre and post project management. You're the boss and there's no one to complain to.
There's the uncertainty. I'd say that's the hardest part. A dry spell can leave your nervous system and psychological health in shambles. When it's tough, it can be really, really tough.
The great poet and literary figure, Khalil Gibran once said, "Work is love made visible." It seems more people today strive to find work they love. Whether we work freelance or not, we do what is needed to sustain our families and ourselves. Work enables us to buy homes, to keep them heated, to feed our bellies, and travel. It's how we make the world a place that works. It's an articulation of our commitment to who and what we love, even if the job is less than ideal. Even if it involves a PhD (passed hors d'oeuvre, that is).
Freelance. It requires a lot of patience and a lot of faith but it affords me the time to be with my family and to continue to pursue creative work. Now I'm writing plays instead of chasing them. After all these years I've learned that if you focus on working with honesty and heart there will be a return. It may take an unexpected form but it will come. For all the grey hairs and sleepless nights, I love the way I work. I love the freedom and I'll keep trying to turn that lance into a force for good.