On turning 33: Inescapable reminders of being a thirtysomething…

The only things that can keep you awake until 4am anymore are a sudden death or a snap election. The closest thing you have to a celebrity crush is watching Nick Clegg look sad about Brexit….and someone his age could conceivably fancy you without their fitness for high office being disputed. People are asking you difficult personal questions, with difficult personal answers. You’re young enough to count amongst your friends people you know from Twitter or blogging who live less than an hour from you and have met you no more than once or twice in years; but still old enough to find this strange and wonder whether you really should. You’ve actually written a book – one which Arts Council funding is going to help you try to sell – as opposed to the very “Twenties” thing of the perpetual work-in-progress. Being able to drive has moved from a nice-to-have to an essential. Your writer friends quote Bridget Jones in the solemn manner of believers quoting the Bible (TBF, I’ve been called things like “the indie Bridget Jones” ever since I started blogging in my late teens…). You own cookbooks, which you may or may not use. You’ve considered opening a separate savings account for the cost of going to weddings. You got a slightly iffy head from the bottle of supermarket wine you drank by yourself because your married friend announced her pregnancy at the start of a long weekend (TBF, I’m not complaining – big fan of babies, big fan of wine…). Birthday money is less for treats and more for those expensive bits of admin you keep putting off because they’re expensive. Being skint is no longer character-building but soul-crushing. If-onlys and might-have-beens are genuinely serious with implications not only for you. At Christmas you can hope to sink them with cheeseboards, word games and films. A birthday offers fewer distractions. You quite fancy seeing The Killers because you never got around to it back in the day, but thinking of the sorts of people who’d go makes you sigh too heavily. You’re going to the opera for your birthday because mum wanted the family to go for your dad’s birthday but couldn’t get tickets in time, and you’re the right age for it now. You observe that over the years many people you have known have significantly struggled to find their feet in one way or another but most now seem to be doing so. You’re old enough to have known several people die horribly, but still young enough to be in the minority for it – therapy and long-standing friends are great and you are extremely lucky to have both, but it would be great to have more friends who “get it” too. Adversity breeds achievement, a thirst for trying new things and a rush to help others. It also breeds anxiety, moodswings and flipping out over minor inconveniences. You don’t very often look forward to blogging these days, but you miss non-business emailing. Practically the best birthday present you could get from anyone would be a long chatty email; the sort people used to write to each other fifteen years ago. Or even a letter. You still remember actual letters. You’re not sure what you’d actually say in response to one, but you’re sure you’d think of something. No matter how old you are, and for what it’s worth (not very much, apparently…), you will find the words for whatever life hands you and write them down. You’ve been variously told you’ve gone through as much in your thirties as some people have in their fifties. But no-one’s told you how to reconcile with such a fact. You just have to busk that one. Well, we’re all just busking it really, aren’t we?

Never too old for a cause or a sloganed t-shirt: At Canary Wharf and Waterloo last week for CALM’s ‘Mind The Chap’ campaign: https://www.thecalmzone.net/2017/06/mindthechap_june2017/

I actually finished writing a book! And nobody died!

A celebratory hedgehog.
Not actual printout.

Eight years ago my then-boss advised me to write books and do crisis comms rather than continue in that job. Quite perceptively, it turns out. I’ve done plenty of both since. If by writing books you mean writing incomplete books, and by crisis comms you mean talking about my life.

It’s much easier to be writing a book than to have written one. Who knew!? But I’m now extremely delighted to be able to say that for the first time I’ve completed a first draft, which I intend to edit later over the summer and send out into the world early next year. You may or may not have known I was writing it, as I’ve been fairly quiet, or at least, fairly vague about it. Because previous attempts to write books have taught me writing about writing is the best procrastination there is. And getting hung up on what people think of you or it is the best way to get absolutely nothing written.

I abandoned my first proper novel in 2015 after several years of stop-starting. The concept wasn’t sellable enough anymore, I enjoyed the research more than the writing, and above all I often wasn’t in the best of emotional health for doing much at all. For various historic reasons, plus because people kept dying. The book-interrupted-by-death thing became a bit of an in-joke (my friend’s boyfriend quipped: “Have you tried writing novellas? They’re shorter. It might be safer…”) although obviously not ultimately very funny. Cumulative bad experiences put me in a permanent state of waiting for the shoe to drop. I became convinced I shouldn’t write books because it was a bad omen. Which is bollocks, obviously. Although quite fitting too, because many of my previous assumptions about both writing and tragedy have had to be challenged in recent years. I used to assume it would be easy for me to write a book. I was wrong. I used to assume wanting and being able to talk openly about difficult things was the norm rather than rare. Also wrong.

In early 2015 I took up running on my mum’s recommendation, which essentially saved me. In spite or because of it being so utterly alien, running was also immune from my usual self-doubt, to the point I believed I could run the London Marathon. Yes, while telling me I couldn’t even do my job, my brain also told me I could run 26.2 miles. Brains are such a lark, aren’t they. With my writing career seemingly stuck down the toilet, while Marathon training I fell into working as a freelance proofreader (in a very flukey and unsustainable manner I would not recommend, BTW). Marathon running taught me so much more than I’d ever have anticipated about how to approach a big project. So afterwards (with a little slumpy interlude of anger over work and politics) I fell back in love with writing and decided to approach a book like a Marathon. A writing schedule like a training schedule. c.90,000 words, from January to May. And it actually worked.

I soon discovered that typing morning until night seven days a week is not good for your mind or body, that writing can injure you worse than a marathon, and that physio is brilliant but expensive. I bought a laptop stand, enforced bedtimes and an evening laptop curfew and started being kind to myself, similarly to how running taught me to. The book is not all about running or mental health as some have guessed, although it does touch plenty upon them. Besides a lot of running and a lot of therapy, what’s really spurred me on is winning a bursaried read of the opening chapter with TLC, courtesy of the Arts Council and New Writing South. That was at the end of 2015. When I got in touch with TLC again this year with a progress update, to my unexpected delight they said I could have another bursaried read of the final manuscript. There’s still a very long road from here. As I said, I’ll be doing edits in June and July and won’t be querying until January. But under the circs, just having finally got this far without catastrophe is immense enough.

As far as my day job goes, I’m still officially a freelance proofreader but due to a lot of client heartache over the past year I’m rethinking this pretty urgently. I’d like to do more journalism again but wouldn’t everyone; I’d also like to pass my driving test first time in August and have a holiday in the tropics but I doubt either of those will happen. I would certainly like to do more copywriting and social media, either for mental health organisations, or for writing organisations that support underrepresented groups. It’s also partly because I spoke to the director of a copywriting agency who sensed I had baggage, asked about the TLC bursary I’d mentioned on my CV, then sent me away with: “Finish the book before you do anything else” that I decided to commit to it. It was as if I finally had permission.

My celebrations are being hampered slightly at the moment by a stinking cold bordering on flu and someone kindly deciding to clone my bank card last week. Soon after finishing, I had a lovely snotty, croaky ugly-cry at my mum (I swear I’ve done a life’s worth of public weeping the last few years; I’m basically a wandering cucumber). Then I listened to a song I used to play at university on the way to lectures and imagine I was in a film. (Did I just publicly admit that? Oh). But once the lurgy has bleeped off and my bank have sent me a new card, one of my treats for finishing will be going to the Comment Awards Conference and hearing Channel 4’s Matt Frei and the Beeb’s James Harding discuss Fake News. I heard about it through a journalist friend who told me she binge-read this blog, which even my mum hasn’t, so that’s nice.

Thank you all and thank you again.

One year on! Some advice for Sunday’s London Marathon runners…

Hey there April, month of ALL THE BIG FEELINGS. I’m currently busy finishing a big writing project (more on that later…) and trying to fend off some financial bother [nameless client] has left me in. I’ve just been invited to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee early next month on my experience in the workplace (Spoiler: My last boss advised me, without irony, to leave my media admin job mid-recession and go and write books…). Late-April is also the anniversary of when I last saw two people alive in person, in the same week of the same year. And, it’s a year since I ran the London Marathon for Mind. Which I’d solidly recommend to anyone looking for a socially acceptable outlet for obsessive tendencies and a penchant for things all-consuming. (It’s better for your mind, heart and finances than many alternatives; trust me…). 

I’ll be at this year’s Marathon on Sunday. Thankfully not running, but with my family and some of the other Mental Health Mates, to cheer on the lovely Bryony Gordon who is running for Heads Together. If you haven’t already, go and hear her Daily Telegraph interview with Prince Harry and subscribe to the Mad World podcast. 

For anyone running this year, or considering it for the future, some tips for the day…

  • Look after your feet. Slather them in Vaesline before you get dressed, clip your toenails to whatever length is most comfortable for you, and wear your best running socks. I was so worried about ruining my feet that they ended up looking better after the Marathon than they do after half an hour on the Bakerloo line in summer…
  • Be comfortably early.  Your Final Instructions magazine should guide you on where you need to be and when.
  • Stash some tissues and plasters in your bra, or whatever the male equivalent is. Mine had a handy front pocket for them. (I had a cold, so I soon ran out of tissues and had to ask the St John Ambulance people for extra, which meant queuing behind a load of people clutching their legs…).
  • Have some spare safety pins on you in case your race number falls off.
  • Keep a couple of paracetamol on you, and any medication you might need This is really important, because the medics on site aren’t allowed to give you any pills. Take them out of the foil or cut the foil so that the corners are round or flat and don’t dig into you.
  • Start slowly. Everyone tells you this, but it’s deceptively hard to do, even in a crowd! Because you’ll have lots of energy from tapering, plus nervous energy, it’s difficult to tell how fast you’re going. I looked at my Fitbit after the first five minutes and saw I was running a five-minute mile. Unless you’re aiming for a three hour finish, you don’t want to be doing that.
  • Use the loo beforehand whenever you can. My dad went to a boarding school where needing the toilet at a slightly inconvenient time was considered a character flaw, so I always try and go if I see one. It’s a helpful approach at running events as the pre-race loo queues are huge. Last year, the Travelodge near Greenwich DLR opened up their ground floor toilet for runners. Don’t panic, though, there are plenty on the route where there will be less of a queue.
  • Keep warm while you wait for your start. The usual advice is to wear bin liners or some old trakkie pants you’re happy not to see again over your kit and just chuck them to the side at the start, where a band of volunteers clear them up and recycle them. If like me you doubt your ability to disrobe quickly in a crowd without panicking and whacking people in the face, just wear a thin long-sleeved thermal top under your vest.
  • Smile hard and enjoy it, but prepare to be bored at times too. New parents always say “No-one told me it could ever be so boring.” As your more experienced equivalent in this situation, I’m telling you, bits will be boring. You will run across Tower Bridge, down the Mall and all the iconic bits you’ve seen on TV. You will also run past endless chicken shops and Deptford retail parks feeling decidedly meh.
  • The pain will be awful at the time but you’ll forget it afterwards. Women who’ve given birth say it’s similar in this respect. I wouldn’t know, but if you have, this may help.
  • Think of the physical pain as a substitute for your emotional pain. Enough said.
  • If you run with music, save it until the second half, when you’ll really need it.
  • Drink your energy drinks gradually from the halfway point onwards. Before that if you need to but certainly after halfway. Don’t wait until you hit the wall.
  • Not everyone hits their wall at Canary Wharf Some do it earlier, I did it later. Canary Wharf was actually one of my favourite bits.
  • Drink plenty of water, not just the energy drinks You’ll want to balance out all the sugary glucose which makes your teeth go fuzzy. For most of the final third, I carried a small bottle of water in one hand and bottle of Lucozade in the other and took small alternate sips. There are plenty of drinks stations as you head towards the finish so you’ll never be short.
  • Don’t try and run the whole thing. If you want to save some energy for the finish line, walk for a mile or two. I had my walk at about Mile 19-20 during one of the dull bits. Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know came on my playlist, and it rained…
  • Know where you’re going to eat afterwards. Everywhere will be full. I booked somewhere weeks in advance, told them I was running, chose my dish from the menu and made sure they’d have it.
  • Be proud and look forward to finding small-talk easier for the next two years.

On being thirtysomething and single by choice

I’ve hesitated over writing this because I hate the massive market for articles by people – overwhelmingly women – justifying their lives to the public. Justifying myself to other people is something I’ve done too much of throughout life and am trying to do less of. And there are about seven more important things than this I should be writing right now, including circa 37,000 words by early May. But an event last week twisted my arm. A playwright friend of mine, Nicky Werenowkska, has just written a relationship play, HIDDEN, which is about to go on tour. It’s semi-autobiographical, and centres around a woman who is diagnosed with dyspraxia whilst adjusting to being a new parent and coping with her husband’s redundancy following the 2008 financial crash. To help bring the play to life, and add another perspective, she asked me to do an informal Q&A about dyspraxia with the cast last week during rehearsals. Nicky is in her 40s, married to a former City lawyer, and has three young children. I am emphatically none of those things so my perspective on dyspraxia (and life) is a bit different to hers. Inevitably, during said Q&A I was asked about my own relationship history and attitude towards relationships. I decided afterwards, having been asked and answered that I am essentially single by decision, to put some of my thoughts around it down here in writing. Also, doing it specifically off the back of being asked professionally feels a bit less like a self-indulgent random ramble…

It’s generally thought that there are various “windows” in life for finding love and if you don’t manage to succeed in one, never mind, there’ll always be a next one. Unlucky as a teenager? Well, aren’t we all, dear. Wait until you get to university. Nothing good going on there? Never mind, you’ll meet someone at work. Or try online dating. Forget running bores; online dating evangelists are the worst. “Have you tried online dating? Everyone does it these days!” they chirp, as if its existence might have escaped your notice. Yes, thanks. I spend half my life online but there are plenty of things you can do online that I don’t want to. I know people who’ve met partners on Tinder/Match/Soulmates and whatnot. I know people who’ve met their partners on dearest Twitter, but my own impression is that it’s basically a dating app for people who are too dysfunctional to be in relationships, already in one, or both.  Through my twenties I progressed – if you can call it that – from unrequited boarding school-type crushes on people I didn’t so much want to be with as be like or be fixed by, to mutual but hopelessly messy attractions to larger-than-life but vulnerable men. The bottom line is that at pretty much every life stage I have consistently attracted people in the wrong circumstances or for the wrong reasons, and now, at nearly 33, I’m just too, too tired of it. As a teenager I used to look at single people in their 30s or 40s and think “What’s wrong with you?” Now, I think: “What happened to you?  And who are your might-have-beens?”  

There was one time, one little window, in my late twenties – this time about six years ago in fact – when I felt on the verge of something big, which might eventually include a serious relationship, along with other watershed-type things. I was newly-freelance, work was progressing rather well and certain people who appeared at the time felt like an affirmation of that. It prompted a lot of big questions, but, you know, my mum defied the Berlin Wall to marry my dad, so big questions are rather in the genes. With a heritage like that, I suppose I was never likely to make things easy for myself and fall for the boy next door. Suffice to say, unlike for my mum, there was no happy ending here. There really is such a thing as an extraordinary meeting in the wrong universe…

As things currently stand, I don’t want a relationship where someone sees themselves as my carer and me as a person to be micromanaged, or where I’m a carer for someone, and vice versa. Hypocritical as it may sound, I no longer want to attach myself emotionally to men with mental health issues. This is not because I believe they’re unloveable, have nothing to offer or anything offensive along those lines – quite the reverse. Most halfway intelligent and empathetic blokes are somewhere on the spectrum of anxiety or depression. But it’s a pattern that hasn’t previously served me well, and I don’t want to get into a repetitive pain sequence where each reminds me of the last. I’ll always be a passionate mental health campaigner. I will lobby, letter-write, chat, tweet, run and walk for the cause. And the affected friends I have will always be dear ones. But I now step back from situations where I’d have leaned in before. It’s not selfishness; it’s self-care. I prefer the word “decision” to “choice”, incidentally, because choice is complicated. Choice suggests complete autonomy, and nobody really has that. “Decision” is more about reacting to circumstances you have varying amounts of control over.

It’s very hard to feel this way at the exact point in life when you are assumed/supposed to be feeling the exact opposite, and society is organised around that assumption, with little empathy for those who are going off-script. Even if you’re not the sort of person who’s planned your wedding, named your kids and can picture your future partner like an e-fit before you’re 25, you probably don’t picture what not being with someone when others are will look like. There are various forums and support groups for the infertile, disabled, divorced, widowed and all sorts. But I don’t fit neatly into any of their tragic boxes. The fact that I actually like and would like to have children is another complication. But if life so far has taught me anything, it’s that growing up and into yourself is about so much more than the accumulation of people and stuff. I haven’t grown or matured by having things. I’ve done it through losing things, or not having things. Or dealing with David Lynch outcomes in a society of Disney aspirations. And maybe the root of preferring to be alone is in what I said at the beginning: “Justifying myself to other people is something I’ve done too much of and am trying to do less of.”

Anonymous Valentines: Basically, don’t

In today’s post for me was an anonymous Valentine. My reaction was not a happy one. This is not a humblebrag, I promise you. I’m 33 years old this year. Social drama involving Valentines cards hasn’t been my idea of fun since East 17 were my idea of fun…

The envelope had a non-local postmark, and the only eligible person I’ve ever met in my life from near that area has been dead for six years, so, naturally, I’m a bit confused. Very few people alive have the address it was sent to, which narrows the sender down to a handful of longtime friends, a weird ex from a brief relationship four years ago who basically ghosted me but still sends them, or a serious creep who’s tracked it down without me knowing (FYI, it’s quite easy to look for an address – I know how; as would anyone who’s done journalism or marketing, or knows the slightest thing about IT). I’m writing this post reluctantly, because if it’s the first category, this is going to be embarrassing and awkward to someone lovely who was just trying to be nice. And if it’s category two or three, I’m giving them a public reaction, which is probably what they want (God knows what’s going on in their head – just stop and get help. Please).

But I thought I’d make this general plea to the world that if you send an anonymous Valentine (or make an anonymous gesture on any day, for that matter), please think about the impact it might have, and how differently something that seems cute and fun in a book or film might go down in real life (actually, this quite often goes wrong in books and films too – ever read Far From The Madding Crowd?). For women over sixteen who aren’t fictional, it’s as likely to be ominous as flattering. Thankfully, I’ve only been involved with people in the weird or daft rather than dangerously horrible bracket, but just imagine how scared you might make someone with an abusive ex feel (and please do not think this applies to no-one you know because you’re respectable and well-educated, innit…). If you want to send a card to flatter an innocent crush, or be kind to a mate, good for you, by all means do, but just do them a favour and put your name or some kind of clue on it, or they might not see it that way. If you feel you have to be anonymous, ask yourself why (and if you’re in a monogamous relationship with somebody else, just don’t. I won’t get into moralising here, but come on).

Forget the Valentines Day Sucks pieces about how terribly cheesy the marketing is (or, ahem, how terrible it is being dumped by phone in Durham by someone who’s panic-realised it’s next week…). Why it truly sucks is that few people in happy relationships give a toss about it, but it’s so easily used to manipulate people outside that. Sending someone a card after you’ve been told not to contact them again? On any other day, that’s stalking. But do it once a year on Valentines Day and it’s just fun, right?  No. I feel disconcerted and reminded of sad things I’d rather forget, or at least not be reminded of this way. It may well be down to someone nice and well-meaning – I hope it is. But it may be someone I don’t want to hear from, and at the moment there’s nothing I can do about it because I can’t prove anything. In short, intentionally or not, someone’s upset me. That’s no fun, and it certainly isn’t something you should want to happen to anyone you love or respect.

 

Highway Star: In which I finally find time for a driving blog post, which seems to require a Deep Purple song reference…

As plenty of you know, I’m currently 32 and learning to drive. Combined with freelancing, looking for contract work, Pilates, training for the London 10K in May, and trying to finish writing a book, also by May. (Doing things by halves, as ever. Might pop over to the IMF later and see if Christine needs a hand with anything….).

I’m now seven months (about thirty hours) into having lessons, and at the consciously-incompetent stage, which is the stage between “Yay, I drove and didn’t kill a child” and “Oh balls, not killing a child isn’t enough to be proud of anymore. I actually have to understand roundabouts and filter lanes, will I ever.” It’s the “I’ve come a long way but gosh, there’s still a bloody long way to go” stage. The stage where thinking about the sheer number of reasons it’s possible to fail a driving test is enough to make you want to move to an abandoned island for reasons other than political…

Since October, when my instructor suggested I book a test for January and I replied “LOL HELL NOPE”, I’ve been putting off having the conversation about how things are going and when my test is actually going to be, in a way that indicates why my longest relationship has lasted months. In the summer I hope, but my instructor is now being as specific as Theresa May on Brexit. Generally the very “best” learners take under 20 hours, the UK average is around 50 and the weakest can take between 80 and 100. His record is 140 hours and counting. I can’t even begin to imagine affording so many, so I bloody well hope that’s not going to be me (Oh, and a tip: Don’t look at online forums for learner drivers. They’re full of teenagers who think everyone learns in under ten hours – I had enough of that circa 2001, thanks). 

The good news about driving is that clutch control – which many dyspraxic people struggle with to the point they’re recommended automatic cars – is dead easy for me and I’m pretty confident using gears (well, except sixth gear which I forget exists and don’t use. Car, you’re a learner Citroen, not a Maserati; get over yourself). I was also taught three-point turns and reverse parking a lot when I was much younger, before moving north to university disrupted my learning, hence I can do those pretty fine, once I’ve mapped out the reference points and remembered which key principle applies to which manoeuvre (I can almost remember how to do a three point turn better than I can remember how to spell manoeuvre, and I’m a copywriter and journalist…).

Driving is also helping me become a more decisive pedestrian because I realise how unnerving it can be for a driver when people hover by the road not sure whether to cross, or nonchalantly stroll out without looking. And I’m better at trusting that people will stop for me when they’re supposed to, even though drivers regularly zoom up to the pedestrian crossing near where I live as though it’s a pit stop.

My nemesis in driving (and life generally, pretty much) is spatial awareness. Although it’s improved a great deal with age, thanks to a decade of walking around with music in my ears, five years of semi-often Pilates classes, and two years of road running, it is still emphatically Not My Best Feature. It manifests as clipping my elbows/knees/ankles on things more than most (although no injuries from running, touch wood). On the road it manifests as being told I’m too close to the kerb quite often, and making a hash of finding a sensible place to pull over beyond the stage when I probably should.

Specifically the most difficult bits for me right now are steering and roundabouts. I’m starting to work out the small ones OK on my own, but the big multi-lane ones are still a salad. I did some of the massive ones quite fearlessly when I was younger, or I must have done because I drove a lot and got quite close to test standard (during one of the worst mental health periods of my life, incidentally). But I had a hairy incident on a busy one last time I learned at 25, so that’s probably stayed with me. The steering issue is just odd. Apparently in my yoof I was not properly taught the proper 12-to-6 steering technique which affects a number of other things. It’s coming, but has taken lots of drilling in.

My instructor has the right combination of pedantry and nonchalance to teach me (He’s dyslexic himself, and I’ve learned to handle his occasional left-right indecision without panicking. (“Take the next road on the left – no, actually right.” “Right. Are you sure?” Yep.” “Still sure?” “OK”)  He works me hard on my weaknesses but equally makes sure I know when I do something well. And he doesn’t indulge me when I’m being a drama-llama, although, vitally, he understands why I am (Understanding anxiety without either playing to it or dismissing it is really important, FYI). I’m trying to absorb his mantra – essentially, be patient and get on with it, try not to overthink  it – even though it goes against my nature in the way that modesty goes against Donald Trump’s

Here’s to the next six months or so. With the emphasis on “or so.”

All driver tips on dealing with roundabouts gladly received.

Oh, and just to clear something up while I’m here…

Read More »

“Don’t do everything I did…” Some advice for new freelancers.

Six years ago this week I became self-employed full-time for the first time. Going freelance was something I’d vaguely expected to be doing circa my 45th birthday or some mythical point in the future when I had some sort of handle on life. I was 26.5 years old, and trying to convince myself that I was making a positive, go-getting choice, even though it felt like a choice in the way one execution method over another would. The thing is, I’m good at writing, not very good at anything else (as I was emphatically told when I tried to do anything else), and, you might have noticed, there aren’t a lot of staff jobs around for writers. What else could I do?

My preparation for this adventure amounted to a couple of how-to books, a couple of lessons on pitching during my journalism training (four years earlier), and one two-hour workshop in Grays Inn Road run by a couple of experienced freelancers. Despite the ad-hoc muddling through, things were all tickedy-boo for a while. Work built up nicely. Within six months, I was edging towards my former staff salary and being able to support myself. I was beginning to feel a bit pleased with myself – dare I say smug. Then it all changed. By “changed”, I mean “pretty much effing fell apart.”  One of my best friends died suddenly and horribly, and part of me felt guilty for having flaunted my new-found contentment at him. It’s difficult to explain exactly why and how, and this isn’t the place. Suffice to say, there wasn’t a “Dealing With Complicated Freelancer Grief  Not Long After Redundancy” module at my journalism school. Nor was there a “Dealing With Repeat Grief When Another Friend Dies The Same Horrible Way Three Years Later” module. Some things, you just gotta wing…

In recent years I’ve started to get emails from strangers asking for my advice or “top tips” for going freelance. My biggest advice is to be very suspicious of anyone keen to offer you advice. It’s highly unlikely to be anything you haven’t already heard, or that will guarantee you success. Then I realised, the advice you need most is not how to guarantee success but how not to really mess up. And I’ve got plenty of that. So here we are:

  • Be sensible. The first few months of self-employment can feel a bit like being a giddy student again with your own money (acutely so in my case, as one of my writing subjects was higher education, and I wrote for my undergraduate university’s alumni magazine, among other places, from national newspapers to teen pop fan annuals…). But just because you can drink wine at three in the afternoon and call it a work meeting, doesn’t mean treating your job like a paid Freshers Week is a good idea.
  • Make a crisis plan Stable work can take the edge off the worst personal tragedy. Work instability can add to one enormously. Remember the D’s (Debt, Divorce, Death) and be prepared for situations that might mean a big drop in productivity or earnings. Obviously don’t start dividing up your wedding crockery or writing obits for all the family, but do some quiet mulling over. It’s not just events that can affect you in themselves, but getting back into work after time off. Taking time away from a business in the first year is like starting from scratch, and a safety net of savings can store up trouble for later. Beside the obvious lack of sick pay, holiday pay or compassionate leave, something else incredibly important, and not widely known is that it can be much harder for self-employed people to get financial help from the state if work dries up. To be entitled to Job Seekers Allowance (a.k.a “the dole”), you have to be able to show that you’ve stopped working, and that this is for reasons beyond your control (i.e, due to market conditions, not that you’ve just packed it in one day because you’re bored). If you’re self-employed this can be much harder to prove, and given the dystopian lottery of the system in any case, don’t count on it.
  • Make a spreadsheet If numbers aren’t your friend (*cough*), get someone numerate to set it up for you. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it does have to make sense to you. Keep a separate sheet within the same document for a budget.  Work out a minimum disposable income by subtracting your essentials from your most reliable source of income. If you’re single, until you’re on more than about 40-50K, you probably don’t need an accountant. If you’re married and want to stay married, you probably do.
  • Manage your expectations about what “contacts” can do for you  If you’ve ever spent time with jobbing actors, you may’ve noticed they seem to hang around with all sorts of fancy-pants people but it rarely seems to help their career much. If you’re self-employed, especially in a competitive field, you’ll constantly hear “It’s who you know.” and about how “So-and-so got a job from a tweet”. Reality’s a bit more complicated than that. It could take months or years, if at all, for a new contact to win you work. Yes, a “gissa job” tweet or blog post could turn into one of those “How-I-Got-My-Dream-Job” magazine features. But it’s much more likely to win you a small project worth a few hundred pounds that takes months from first contact to payment. Even if you meet someone really “successful” or famous, unless they’re in a direct hiring position it’s unlikely they’ll be able to help you quickly. They’re also difficult people to build lasting relationships with as they’re so busy and so inundated with communications. It’s best to think of big-hitters in your address book as a boost to your confidence rather than your bank account.
  • Get used to a new relationship with time It’s extremely difficult to work to a specific time when there’s no-one there to care. It just is. You’ll probably never manage to be at your desk at 9:30 sharp. Rather than get locked into a miserable battle with yourself, accept it and be flexible and realistic. Instead of setting a specific time to start or finish work, set a window, e.g “Between 9:15 and 9:30”. and you’re more likely to stick to it. (N.B: This advice only applies to working on your own, not to things involving others. Respect other people’s time and deadlines if you want a) work b) to be liked in general). 
  • Don’t meet people at stilted “networking events”. Just meet people I’ve never been attracted to anyone on anything called a date, or met anyone useful to my work at anything called a networking evening (At one I went to, I met an unemployed male graduate posing as a Woman’s Hour producer. I sensed something was up when he hadn’t heard of the Wonder Stuff, which a BBC radio producer really should have…). Go to a couple of those things at the beginning, so you can tell everyone who suggests it that you’ve done it. Then just go to what moves you and meet people while you’re there. Conferences, talks, panels, workshops, museums, theatres all have interesting people in them. Books about networking I keep meaning to read and haven’t but that perhaps you should: Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected by Devora Zack and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
  • Do your due diligence Sadly, people you meet in business situations aren’t necessarily any more trustworthy than random people you meet anywhere else. When you’re self-employed, you need to think like a journalist, even if you aren’t one. It’s not creepy, it’s sensible. Being taken in by someone can cost you time, dignity and work. Public records are public – use them. Look people up and be prepared for awkward discoveries. Do basic fact checks and background checks before you share things online. Before you follow or meet new people online, do a basic sweep of their recent activity and who else they follow on social media (Despite thinking I’d learned these sorts of lessons embarrassingly a long time ago, I nearly got into some bother again just the other week…)
  • Know your “Night Twitter” if you’re working late… #JustSaying  Everything you were warned about late nights at the office applies to Twitter. As does everything you’ve ever been told about talking to strangers in pubs and on public transport. Social media after 10pm is like London after 10pm: it contains a lot of people whose relationships and emotional health are precarious. Very precarious, if they’re retweeting from those inspirational quote accounts run by spammers in Honalulu. (Incidentally, a good general life tip: if someone quotes: “Don’t promise when you’re happy or decide when you’re sad,” expect them to do both…)
  • Yes, talking to yourself when you’re alone is normal, don’t worry An old colleague of mine who’s recently left her job posted a Facebook status asking this question and the responses are the largest thread of solidarity and reassurance I’ve ever seen…
  • Yes, you will get past “That Stage” soon, don’t worry… Ahh yes, Mitchell and Webb’s “working from home” sketch* – referenced with a wink by many a tipsy freelancer. (*Polite warning: Not suitable for kids, workplaces, or people who aren’t on rude-jokes terms with me. Hi mum, go away…)
  • When you’re asking for free advice, know where acceptable ends and taking the mick begins Be brief and specific; ask politely; don’t ask people who can only tell you what you know already. And only ask people whose advice you’re actually interested in – if you’re just sticking a pin in Google, it shows.
  • If you pay for a mentor or coach, make sure they’re actually going to be any use  You can take general advice from anyone at all (hi…!) but you should only pay for advice about making money from someone who has it. I once used money from my savings to pay for someone so expensive and so useless I felt I’d been pickpocketed. Before you hand over a bean, you should know these things…:
  1. Have they actually worked in your field or something close enough? (In this decade…)
  2. Do they earn enough from it to support themselves on their own full-time? (if that’s your aim). If not, what portion of their income do they make from it, and where does the rest of their money come from? Have they made more money from giving advice than actually doing the job? What help from family, a partner, savings, investors, loans or bursaries have they had? You don’t need a half-hour accounts presentation, but you do need some basic honesty about this.
  3. Are they just going to tell you things you can read for free on the internet?
  4. Are they just going to tell you what you already know from university/training?
  5. If they’re passing on contacts, how sure are they that these people can actually help you, or are they really just doing it to fill time/cheer you up?
  6. If you have a disability or health condition, do they understand anything about it and what it means for your work?
  • Remember, remember, remember, that “success” is never the whole story  Self-employment is often a giant smoke and mirrors game and the people who you think are “successful” are probably hiding a lot. Nobody heavily in debt, living off loans or living off somebody else is ever going tell you that.
  • Be prepared to become a lot more cynical. And a lot more excitable. Sometimes at the same time “You see the best and worst of human nature” is a true cliche of many jobs. I was never a rose-tinted specs woman. I am now so cynical Halfords could bottle me and sell me as battery acid. But, I am also capable of finding joy in tiny things like pepper mills and parmesan cheese dispensers. (Which, for a writer, is a pretty useful skill. You’re lucky if you get paid to write about something a lot of people find exciting…)

Phew, that was a long post. But come on. It’s January. We’re both waiting on inboxes to ping here; you probably needed the distraction didn’t you…