When I wrote an article on Monday afternoon at the Quincy Public Library, I had a hard time focusing on my research and writing. The fact that several teenagers were running around and causing a ruckus didn't help. An assignment that should have taken me 2.5 hours took me 4 hours. When I was finished, I felt tired and irritated with myself. That was a downer. Sometimes, freelancers simply bring their moods into their work, like it or not. It'd be wonderful to always be whistling while you work, filled with confidence and the sun shining over your shoulder while everyone around you lets you work in respectful, even admiring silence. Hasn't happened to me yet.
By Tuesday and Wednesday I was back on track, working efficiently and writing with a professional feel I typically have. No raucous teenagers, but no visit from the inspiring muse either, just an average workday. Thursday was different, brilliant actually. For whatever reason, my mood altered, the sun came out, and I felt the hushed beauty of the world around me. The chit-chat of library patrons sounded like morning birdsong, and I think I actually did hum a happy tune as I wrote. Creative juices flowed, brainwaves were positive, and the world and page were filled with quiet magic.
The same ups and downs occur with client relationships too. One clients offers you more work at higher pay, and your self-confidence soars. You want to jack up your rates for all your clients, that's how good you feel. On other days, a client or editor doesn't know what they want but they know you're not providing it. Multiple revision requests come in, and you start wondering if you can even form a cohesive sentence at all. You go back-and-forth interacting with the client or editor trying to hit the target of their satisfaction, but it feels like chasing the sun -- a futile and foolhardy task with no end in sight. Do you get down in these moments? Yep . . .
The way a freelancer navigates these ups and downs is a hyper-critical success factor. You may feel unworthy when the ups come. Why are the universe and the muses smiling upon me, directing my fingers to type these beautiful sentences and stories? Maybe I'm lucky. Trust me, it's not true. You may also self-flagellate (look it up) on a down day, convincing yourself that you have no talent whatsoever and no right trying to charge money for your paltry wordsmithing skills. Trust me, that's not true either.
What the ups and downs teach us most is that ups and downs are normal parts of the freelance life, and that we need to maintain a semblance of emotional stability. You think you're Shakespeare on Thursday? Calm down. You think you're writing like a laptop-toting zombie on Monday? Calm down. You are OK -- neither Shakespeare nor the writing dead. You are you, and that should be good enough.
I can tell you "you're good," or can be very good, and someone else can tell you the same, but it'd be far better if you can tell it to yourself. Navigating the ups and downs isn't about how you feel in the moment, or what clients say about you on Monday ("you're not meeting my needs, and I may not pay you") or Thursday ("we love you and your work; here's more money"), it's about what you believe about yourself and what you tell yourself about you. Realistic self-talk is key. You're not so great, you're not so terrible, and this too shall pass.
On a bad writing day, I tell myself that I've been doing this for decades and I'm OK. On a magical writing day (my words are so alluring that the teenagers at the library bring me cookies and coffee), I say that I've been doing this for years and I'm OK. You have to be your own emotional ballast.
Self-belief is never easy (unless you're Donald Trump, who thinks God aspires to be like him). We all lose confidence and our emotional balance. The work itself is hard; finding and keeping good clients is hard; maintaining your self-confidence is a perennial challenge.
But work on your self-talk. Be your own friend who knows you can do good work if you put in the effort -- because you can. Yes, you will occasionally feel anxiety but if the anxiety impacts your ability to work, you should seek help from family, friends, or professionals. We are all vulnerable and sometimes need help, creative people perhaps more than most (alas).
Balance is so hard during the ups and downs. The ups don't bother me so much. The downs are where I need to do better, to be kinder to myself and fall back upon a more generous sense of self-belief. I think you need profound humility to write well -- it's a service job, after all -- but you also need deep self-confidence. I'm working to better manage the downs, because I'll have plenty of them ahead, like all of us will.
How do you manage the ups and downs of the writing (or non-writing) life, dear reader? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below . . . .