Thursday, October 17, 2013


I've been living the dream--the self-employed freelancer's life--for about 14 years now, and realized I've never really written about how that works. It has a lot of pros but also some cons, demands some discipline, and isn't right for everyone. But it's sure right for me.

When I say "freelancer" I'm not talking entirely about cartooning. My bread-and-butter day job is science writing and editing, which in the next breath I always have to explain means I write about scientific topics for a variety of clients. My niche is energy-related subjects such as solar power, wind power, energy storage, advanced fuel cells, superconductivity, etc. Exactly what I write covers a broad range, from little marketing pieces aimed at the general public, to magazine articles and newsletters for specialists, to advanced technical papers I (ghost)write and edit on behalf of researchers and corporations. I need to know a little about a lot of subjects--a mile wide and an inch deep--and be able to pick up things fast. I don't have to be an expert in superconductivity, but I may have to learn enough about it by tomorrow to have an intelligent conversation with someone who is. It's invigorating.

I don't get my name credited on much of my work, which stopped mattering to me long ago just as long as they spell it right on my check. A lot of what I do is proprietary. I just searched for some publicly available examples and the best I could find is this White Paper on solar photovoltaics I co-authored in 2007. About half my stuff looks exactly like that.

I work at home. It's great; it's also lonely. I am a huge fan of solitude, but sometimes it's even too much for me. I have a little network of people I keep in touch with and can call for lunch to stave off cabin fever. Still, it's a lifestyle that would make a more social person miserable.

Discipline is a challenge, sitting here working while dishes need washing and the dog needs walking. I have some tricks. One is to dress up as if I were leaving the house for an office job--nice slacks, button-down shirt, good shoes. A subliminal signal that "it's work time." I've relaxed in recent years, but when I started freelancing that put me in the right frame of mind. Also, I try to leave some small, easy task undone each night that I can dive immediately into the next day. It establishes a rhythm of getting right to work instead of screwing around for half the morning.

The Internet is both my best friend and worst enemy. Government statistics, corporate filings, quarterly reports, press release archives, and news libraries are available with a click. I have clients in other countries I'll never meet face to face.  I literally would not be able to do my job without it. On the other hand, Facebook or a tour of my favorite bookmarks can absorb an hour in a moment, and they're always there, on the exact same machine I use for work. It's insidious.

Other people often don't seem to understand that working at home is still working. They think nothing of calling to chat or asking you to run errands in ways they never would if you were sitting in an office. The thing is, my schedule is flexible enough that I probably can take the time to chat or run that errand; what you don't see are the extra hours I put in after dinner or on the weekend to make up for it.

Being a freelancer means not just doing the job your clients pay you to do, but also running a small business. I send out invoices, track income and expenses, draft statements of work, schedule my time, manage insurance, pay quarterly taxes, keep track of which clients require what paperwork. It doesn't need to consume a ton of time but it has to be done right.

Then I weave in cartooning. Making comics is very important to me, and I haven't quite cracked the nut of finding/making enough time to do as much of it as I want. I try to set aside time for it in my schedule, but it's hard to turn down well-paying work for something speculative and unlikely to pay at all. For a while I tried to treat cartooning as a separate career that required a dedicated time commitment. For example, every Wednesday would be Make Comics Day that I would take as seriously as if I had to go out and report to a second job. That lasted less than a month--probably until the first time something critical came up on a Wednesday. So I cartoon when I can, fitting it into the ebb and flow of gigs. I'm not happy with that solution.

But I'm lucky and I know it. My worst day as a freelancer is better than my best day as someone's employee. I knew I was a successful freelancer when, after a few years, I had the courage and confidence to say "No." I'm grateful. I'm also grateful that my wife Karen has an excellent job that nets a steady paycheck. I often compare my income to a farmer's: months may pass with nothing, until one day the crops all come in. My standard joke is that my entire retirement and healthcare plan consists of not pissing off Karen. Relying solely on a freelancer's income would be a hard way to support a household. I have friends who do it and I have no idea how. I'm not expressing awe, I literally don't know how they do it so don't ask me.

Freelancing is a good life, but not one for the weak or timid.

* * *

My compressed nerve recovery continues. Thanks for the advice and support expressed here, on Facebook, and privately. It's definitely a "two steps forward one step back" situation but the trend is toward healing. Though my fingers still tingle, I can draw again. I'm tapering off the powerful prescription narcotics and may soon have surplus pills to sell (that's a joke, NSA/DEA!).

I know many who've endured worse and don't want to make too big a deal of it (lest my neighbor Larry the Fed read this and greet me, as he did after my first post on the subject, with "hey Wimpy Kid!"), but this thing has knocked me on my butt for a month now and made me a lot more sympathetic to others than I might have been before. I'll try to stay in better shape. We'll see how long my resolve lasts but I'm beginning to understand that, especially as we age, maintenance isn't extravagance or vanity; it's a necessity. Whatever it takes to avoid another month like this one.

* * *

An hour after posting the above, I realized how to tie it together. There's no limit to the amount of sick time a freelancer can take, although I don't get paid for any of it. I can't imagine getting through my compressed nerve episode in a normal job. "Sorry boss, I really need to take a nap right now." I couldn't quit work at 3 p.m. nor could I start work at 3 a.m., which I've done some nights when I couldn't sleep. At the very least, I'd need a lot more medication to get through the day.

I don't know if that counts as a "pro" or "con." I sure appreciate the freedom. 'Specially at nap time.


Jim O'Kane said...

As a fellow member of the Self-Propelled Employment Club, I hear ya. It's quite an effort to get folks to understand that working at home doesn't mean I'm off the clock. This was a particular problem when my kids were school-aged and didn't quite get the concept that no, I couldn't drop by the school and drop off a flute or track shoes or last night's homework if one of them left a knapsack on the kitchen counter.

My strongest recommendations for people trying to break into the freelance business are threefold: Create a limited liability corporation (LLC) as soon as possible, buy business liability insurance immediately after forming the LLC, and find an accountant specializing in small businesses before signing contracts. These actions are the best first steps to secure your business and make your company palatable to potential clients. I've been working the contractor career for eight years now and I don't think I'd ever have another boss again.

PS great news about your nerves. Let me know when Karen finishes her tell-all book about living with a pill-popping cartoonist.

Brian Narelle said...

I have been freelancing for 30 years now and I have no idea how the hell I do it. All I can say is, I'm still here. It is very isolating but I get to the dog park every morning and hang out with a great crowd of two-legged and four-legged people, even though I don't own a dog. The founder of the dog club has told me, "You don't own a dog. Fifty dogs own you." So true.

Brian Fies said...

Jim: Appreciate your input! I'm not sure Karen is qualified to write about living with Stephan Pastis.

Brian: Sweet, but don't try that reasoning when hanging around kindergarten playgrounds. I don't think it'd fly.

Doug Bratton said...

I appreciate this thoughtful look into your work life, Brian. As a big fan of your comic/graphic novels, I'm looking forward to seeing your next work, whatever that may be and whenever it is ready. I know it will be worth the wait!

Brian Fies said...

Thanks Doug! I've got a few irons in the comics fire and trust something interesting will come from at least one or two of them. "Worth the wait" will be up to you to decide....