Freelancing: the key to happiness

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

* Note: This blog was written as part of the Elance Blogathon at the Common Room in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. Other entries may be viewed at

Imagine the freelance life. You sleep till the sun softly pokes a finger around your curtains. You stretch, you yawn, you stroke the dog gently sleeping beside your bed. You stumble to the kitchen for the finest arabica coffee, and enjoy it outside on the terrace, where geraniums spill out of terracotta pots onto the paving around you, and the sparrows hop hopefully under the table.

Then it’s time for some yoga, or perhaps some tai chi. You breakfast on croissants and apricot preserves, take a steaming bubble bath, and settle down to work in your new silk pyjamas, the ivory ones with grey piping on the edges. But you’ll just tinker for an hour or two. After all, there’s that fabulous new movie showing at the local arthouse, and you simply must see it today…

And then you wake up and your tea is cold. Stone cold and slightly murky. But you drink the dregs anyway – because you can’t afford to waste the tea bag.

The key to happiness if you’re a freelancer, you see, is to lower your expectations. No, lower… a little lower… yes, that low. About as low as you can go… perfect. Basically, if a Russian circus acrobat couldn’t do the limbo under those expectations you’ve hit the right spot.

So come a little closer while I tell you a tale. A day in the life of a freelancer goes something like this…

5.15am: Press ‘snooze’ on your alarm at least three times and stumble to the kitchen in the dark. You have to save electricity, after all. It’s damn expensive.

5.30am: Have a cup of the best instant coffee you can afford. Have another. You worked till midnight and it’s bloody early. You deserve a second cup. Maybe even a third. Run out of milk and decide today’s the day you’ll start drinking your coffee black.

5.45am: Settle down at your computer and answer your emails. Yes, even the one from that annoying client who micro-manages your every freaking move. Be polite, be sweet, be patient. If it’s cold, put your ratty robe on over your pyjamas. And thick socks. Damn. You really need to buy new socks. These are really looking threadbare.

6.15 am: Work. It’s too early to eat breakfast anyway, and there are deadlines to meet. Besides, the working world will wake up soon, and then you’ll be fielding calls and queries every five minutes.

7. 30am: Breakfast. Toast is the easiest, so today you’ll have peanut butter for a bit of variety. Ooh, look at you, splashing out with apricot jam as well – but only the smooth sort; it may not even be made of actual apricots. Still, it fills the gap.

8am: You should probably get dressed. Nah, not today. You’re not seeing any clients anyway, and these Hello Kitty pyjamas might be frayed, but they’re friendly. Back to work .

9am: Read the entire Internet. Yes, all of it. You cannot possibly afford to miss anything – it might be essential to your work, you know. Essential.

11am: Time for more coffee. Can it be so long since you had the last cup? You’d better do something productive, so you call that client who hasn’t paid you from six months ago. Oh, and the other three from two months ago, and the one from last month. Sigh. Bloody clients. Can’t live with them, can’t get them to pay on time.

11.30am: Smile grimly at the excuses you’ve heard  a gazillion times. Realise your jaw has locked into the tooth-gritting position again. Hold your coffee cup against it in the hope the heat will release the spasm. Gaze out of the window for a bit.

11.4oam: Tinker with a something you’re supposed to be doing. It doesn’t go well. Pick something else . Oh hell, you need to tweet and be on Facebook as well. Apparently a social media presence is good for your profile, but no Actual Work has materialised as a result yet.

12.40pm: Damn. You really should get to work, but it’s practically lunchtime. You’d might as well eat something, keep up your strength. A salad would be nice, but you only have a tin of baked beans and half an avocado that’s slightly black… Besides, you tell the dog, “I never could stand rocket.”

1.30pm: Fall asleep on the couch, drooling slightly.

5pm:. Wake up from a horrific public nudity dream, your heart pounding.

5.10pm: Work, drink coffee, answer queries, bite your tongue, shift in your seat. Forget to eat dinner.

11.49pm: Shut down your laptop and crawl into bed, ready to do it all again tomorrow.







June 25, 2014 § 13 Comments

I don’t know if I’m just getting old, but I have struggled with Winter this year. I used to look forward to Winter through the hot Summer months, but this year I downgraded somewhat, and declared my new favourite seasons to be Autumn and Spring.

Every night, after dinner and children are sorted, I’ve retreated to my bed as soon as possible, and I confess I’ve complained about the cold a lot. Johannesburg may not be the coldest place in the world, but our houses are not really designed to keep the cold at bay. And while the days are beautiful, and the sun basks in dazzling blue skies on most days, the rest of the landscape is drab: shades of grey and stone and savannah. And it’s dry, as dry as dust.

But then, last night, my brother and his family arrived for a short visit. My niece and nephew are eight and four years old and they’ve lived in the searing heat of Dubai all of their lives. There, if the sun is shining brightly, you stay indoors, cooled by the refreshing blast of your air-conditioning, because mostly, as Cole Porter wrote, it’s Too Darn Hot.

For them, the cold is a revelation. They giggled last night in the bath as steam rose off their skin. Their eyes grew wide when I told them that sometimes, the dogs’ water bowl has a thin layer of ice on it in the morning, and that very occasionally, if we’re really lucky, it snows a little.

This morning, after breakfast, while the adults cradled steaming mugs of coffee in their hands, they were running around in the garden, calling to each other, and coming inside only to beg – laughing – for a pair of gloves because their little hands were so cold. They watched in wonder as their breath formed clouds of condensation; they ran out onto the brick paving when it was just two or three degrees outside, just to feel how cold it was on their bare toes.

It made me appreciate winter a little more than I have so far. It reminded me that contrast is what makes life interesting. That sorrow makes joy more intense; that you don’t appreciate warmth till you’re cold, or light till it’s dark. And that what seems ordinary to you, may be magical to someone else. It’s all about perspective.


It’s complicated

June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

I was scrabbling around for a topic for today’s blog earlier, and my friend Cath suggested I try to answer a question she’d been asked: “Why do you write?” It’s a question I’m asked fairly often, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. Because mostly, it’s complicated.

I’m supposed to be in television journalism or production – that’s the stream I chose during my journalism degree. I didn’t see myself as much of a writer, to be honest. So I learnt how to zoom, track and pan a camera, switch between cameras on a vision mixing board, and edit pictures and sound.

I ended up writing quite by accident – the only job I could get vaguely in the television world was at a trade publication for the TV and film industries. And here I am today, several steps later, a freelance journalist who writes about health. It’s a funny old thing, life.

But it’s a complicated question to answer because I do so many kinds of writing, so I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to look at the four main kinds of writing I do, and explore each one. If you read any further than this, I’ll be impressed. I’ll also keep it short for you two, dear readers…

1. Health journalism: I love health journalism because I love the challenge of taking complicated medical and health science information and making them accessible – yet accurate – for readers. The thing is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to health. A lot of fads, a lot of unadulterated crap. So I see my role as that of questioner on your behalf. I ask the difficult questions, get second and third and fourth opinions where required, and always, always ask for evidence to back up the claims people make. I come across as evangelical, crusading sometimes, but I’m okay with that. It’s my job.

2. Blogging: This here weekly ‘column’ I inflict on all of you is purely self-indulgent; my challenge to myself to produce a piece of non-work-related writing once a week. I’m having fun with it, because it’s one hundred percent my space. And no-one is more surprised than I am when anyone reads it. So, thanks, if you’re one of the people who reads my meanderings – you amaze me on a weekly basis.

3. Fiction: Yes, like all those writers who think they have a novel inside of them, I’ve recently completed one. The thing is, I didn’t think I had one in me and then I went on a creative writing course and discovered I could write small scenes quite well. And then I realised that a novel was no more than a string of scenes, so if I just wrote one scene at a time…

A couple of years and 86 000 words later, it is currently doing the slush pile sashay. We’ll see if any publishers bite: you can be sure I’ll let you know with the appropriate fanfare if they do. But let me say this – it is by far the hardest form of writing I have ever done. I’ve published a non-fiction book, ghostwritten another and I can churn out a magazine feature in record time, but fiction is really, really difficult, and yet, utterly addictive.

4. Songwriting: If I could pick one form of writing to do all day, every day, this would be it. Nothing gives me more joy than finishing a song I’m happy with. Music is my healer, and I love the challenge of writing beautiful lyrics that match a melody, that rhyme and scan without seeming contrived, underpinned by music that rises and falls in just the right way, at just the right time. It’s so constrained, yet so creative. Songwriting is the writing my heart does. It fills me up like nothing else.

But if I had to give a general answer, I suppose it would be this: I just love words. I love the way you can bend them to your will, expand, contract and manipulate them till they sing – literally sometimes. I love the way they roll off my tongue and onto the page. I love the mini-mazes they make on a page if you blur your eyes and look for the white spaces between them. I love how you can give a bunch of different writers the same language, and the same topic and each will produce something completely different. I love their weight, their lightness, their darkness and shade.

Mostly, I love the way they are the yarn that knits our stories together. And what are we, if not the sum of our stories? The art – and the joy, for me – is in telling them well.

Clickbait charity

June 9, 2014 § 7 Comments

I’ve tackled this subject in tweet form before, but I’ve decided it’s time for a little rant. Because yesterday on one of my social feeds I saw – yet again – a charity campaign that went something like this: “Share this link and we’ll donate money to charity every time you do.”

It incenses me, honestly, because it’s nothing but a cheap publicity stunt, served with a soupçon of emotional blackmail. And I’d rather donate my own money to the charity in question than click on your damned link or retweet your picture, or do whatever it is you want me to do to raise your profile publicly.

When I’ve grumbled on social media I’ve been met with, “But surely it’s okay, since good money was raised for charity? Surely the end justifies the means?”

Of course I don’t begrudge those charities their monies. But what if no-one clicked or retweeted or shared? Then you don’t donate to charity? You don’t give as much back to society from your healthy profits, just because we don’t do as we’re told and boost your brand’s footprint? That kind of charity is no charity at all.

Somehow corporate social investment, in various forms, has become a marketing tool. I drove past a school the other day with a huge sign painted on its wall, extolling the virtues of a company that had donated computers. But instead of being impressed with that company, the lavish self-promotion of that sign left me quite nauseated. It just seems as if businesses spend as much effort – and possibly money – publicising the wonderful thing they did, instead of just doing the wonderful thing because they genuinely care about whatever the cause happens to be.

We’re about to see a rash of these initiatives again in South Africa, because Mandela Day is rapidly approaching. Companies will be trying to out-charity each other as publicly as possible by endlessly, shamelessly calling for tweets and retweets and shares and clicks. They cost the sharers nothing, and that’s also problematic for me – isn’t the ultimate in slacktivism sharing something so that someone else will donate some money to charity?

Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I like to imagine a world where we – as individuals and large corporates – give to others for the sake of giving something back to society. For you, that might mean knitting a square or two towards a blanket, or donating your time to teach someone a skill. For a large corporate, that might mean upgrading a school’s resources or facilities, or financing rhino conservation efforts.

Whatever it is, stop freaking bragging about it. And stop using it as a marketing campaign. Because here’s the thing – if what you’re doing is worthwhile, if your ad is worth seeing, if your initiative is worth talking about, people will talk about it. They will share. They will tell their friends and post it on Facebook and retweet it, and tell their friends about the fantastic video they saw on YouTube.

But if you’re orchestrating it, and tagging it onto a charity drive, it just looks cheap. And tacky. So very, very tacky.

Declaration of independence

June 4, 2014 § 22 Comments

So, it’s my birthday today, and I bought myself a present a couple of weeks ago – a new stud.

No, no, not that kind of stud – a piercing. A tiny bit of bling adorning my right nostril.

Mid-life crisis? Perhaps. But an entirely good one. Because at the ripe old age of 45 (although officially, I’m 21) I’ve decided that the way to happiness is to Live My Truth. Yes, I’m going all Oprah on your ass.

You see, I’m a people pleaser. I was the good girl at school – good grades, lots of leadership positions, head girl. I’ve never smoked, I’m not a big drinker, I didn’t sow my wild oats. I did all the things that were expected of me. I still do, to a large extent. And in a plethora of ways, I have done myself a huge disservice. Huge.

But I’m done. My time has come. My time has come.

And the stud? Well, it’s something I always wanted, but was too afraid to get because of the reactions it might invoke from those closest to me.Yes, that tiny little speck of glass has incredible power in my world, because piercings are not something that people like me get. Just trust me. There will be a reaction. There already has been.

But I don’t care. I like it. It makes me happy and it doesn’t harm anyone else. And it is a literal in-my-face reminder for me, every day, to be who I am, and stop living my life for everybody else, and according to everyone else’s expectations.

This is who I am becoming. It’s my time now.

Where Am I?

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