Something I wrote in 2012 when asked how to survive as a freelancer …

In the last two years I taught eleven courses, edited nine books and the liner notes for one CD, and mentored three students privately. I also wrote the first draft of YA novel and started a new manuscript of poems and revised another novel that has not been published yet.

I had four books come out during that same period — My latest novel, The Tale-Teller, my sixth book of poems, The Smooth Yarrow, and the final two titles in my “Lunch Bunch trilogy of children’s books, Bernadette in the Doghouse and Bernadette to the Rescue. This meant I had to do final edits and a lot of promotion for them as well — which wasn’t as much fun as it ought to have been because it was so hard to juggle everything.

For example, when I went to Ottawa for a poetry festival a week after my husband had major surgery, I had to set up a schedule of friends visiting daily to help him with things because I felt so bad about going away and then, on that trip, I lost the power cord to my laptop so was not able to correct my students’ work as I needed to before teaching the following day. This is the kind of stuff that happens when you try to do everything!

The only way to survive as a freelancer who wants to do her own writing is to be brutally efficient — which means you will have no social life. You should, however, get a gym membership and use it, because you will need to keep your energy level up. In addition, if you keep fit, you can look good in inexpensive clothing, which is all that you will be able to afford. The only thing you shouldn’t skimp on is getting a decent haircut from time to time. Having a good haircut makes you look like you’re competent and in control of your life even when you are not. That and a watch. Always wear a watch. Only teenagers use their cell-phones to check the time.

Besides getting a good haircut and wearing a watch, here is what I always tell my creative writing students at U of T and Ryerson when they ask me for advice. I tell them a writer only needs a few things:

  1.  something to write with
  2.  good lighting
  3.  an ergonomic chair
  4.  a dog, to make you get out of the chair and go for a walk.
  5.  Roget’s thesaurus and a couple of good dictionaries
  6.  a library card
  7.  regular visits to the optometrist
  8.  co-operation from other people in the house (In other words, they must be made to understand that even though you work at home you are WORKING at home and therefore are unavailable except in an emergency).

Ideally you get a room of your own to work in, even if it’s tucked away in a corner of the basement, somewhere you can leave ongoing projects spread out and no one will mess with them, but if you are forced to work at the kitchen or dining room table, make sure everyone else clears away their stuff after every meal so you have space to work. (You may need to get a bunch of bins or baskets for them to sweep everything into).

  1. Time management is absolutely essential. I use the free Sunbird calendar you can download from Mozilla for long-term planning, but also plan each day in much more detail on work-sheet I review every morning and revise every night.
  2. Know when you are most productive and schedule your most important work for then. For example, when I am working on an editing project, I usually spend mornings on my own writing and afternoons on editing and then go back in the evening to review what I wrote in the morning and edit it some more and maybe also get in a tad more editing if I didn’t meet my goal for the day. (Yes, the workdays are absurdly long. Often I work ten-hour-days, 7 days a week.)
  3. Give yourself realistic goals and try to stick to them. It’s better to be pleased that you got more done than expected than discouraged because you got less done than expected! When I’m juggling teaching and editing and writing at the same time, I never expect more than 500 words a day from myself; 1000 words a day is for when I have more concentrated writing time and if it turns into 2000 or more, I am delighted.
  4. Don’t answer the phone unless you are expecting a call. Pick up all your phone calls at around 4:00 before people leave work so if anything important turns up, you can still call back.
  5. Strictly limit the time you spend on email and Facebook and other social media. Turn off the internet when you are writing (it’s OK to use it for research). You can browse Facebook as a reward when you meet a goal. It’s way more fun that way.

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