Pop Culture Criticism: A How-To For Beginners

It seems like pop culture criticism is everywhere these days, from Twitter threads and newsletters to podcasts and critical essays. If you want to write pop culture criticism but have no idea how to get into it, here is a quick guide to getting started.

If you’re really new to the form, start by reading some pop culture criticism—and lots of it. Part of learning how to write well is reading as much as you can, and it’s true even for a specific type of writing like pop culture criticism. Bitch Media—which, in the interest of full disclosure, is a publication that I contribute to semi-regularly—is, in my opinion, the gold standard of in-depth pop culture analysis and an excellent place to begin. Their diverse roster of contributors and commitment to intersectionality is particularly impressive, as is the variety of pop culture properties that their writers cover. The A.V. Club is great, too although they tend to publish more reviews and recaps than criticism.

Know the difference between a puff piece, a review, and a critical piece. These things are distinct, and knowing the differences between them is important! Puff pieces tend to be about celebrities, and while some purple prose on celebs’ beauty and talent might be okay for entertainment magazines (ask me how many yawn-inducing Vanity Fair profiles of celebs I read growing up), a more critical piece by design will not share many characteristics with a fawning profile. The point of a review is to communicate to the reader whether the book, movie, or other property being reviewed is worth the reader’s time and/or money invested in that thing. A piece of pop culture analysis might contain elements similar to a review, but pop culture criticism is really its own form – and an important one. As Emily VanDerWerff wrote in a 2018 piece for Vox on why cultural criticism is necessary: “We need cultural criticism not just to tell us which movies to go see and which ones to avoid, but to tell us things we already knew but didn’t know how to express. If reporting can explain the world to us, cultural criticism can explain us to us.”

Choose your scope — and the format for your analysis — wisely. If you’re analyzing a TV show, will you focus on one episode? A character’s arc through several episodes? An entire season of the show? If you’re new to pop culture analysis, you’ll probably not want to just start an entire podcast on the thing you want to examine; a tweet thread, a newsletter installment, or blog post might be a better starting point if you’re new to the form.

Make sure to pitch a fully developed idea to editors rather than just saying that you want to “write about [pop culture thing]” as your lede. I’m suggesting this because I have made this exact mistake many, many times. In general, it is best to have a specific angle that you want to take on a pop culture property instead of just wanting to write about a pop culture thing that interests you. To use a more specific example, let’s say you want to write about the character Bucky Barnes from the Captain America and Avengers movies; if you have a strong angle, such as “I want to examine the character arc of Bucky Barnes in [name of Marvel property] and how the Marvel universe portrays acquired disability, in the following ways: x, y, and z” — that is going to be much more interesting to an editor than writing a more general “I want to examine the character arc of Bucky Barnes in [Marvel property].”  

Remember, every pop culture criticism writer, no matter how successful, was once new to the form. Not to sound like a banally “inspirational” meme image from Instagram, but you have to start somewhere. And if starting somewhere is writing lengthy rants about music that no one will read — something that I did as a 16 year-old, although my definition of “successful” might not match yours — I’ve done it, and your favorite pop culture critics may have done similar things while starting their writing careers.


How My Chronic Illness Forced Me to Slow Down to Work Smart

Writing and illness have always been interlinked for me. I started my first (very bad) fashion blog in 2009 as an escape from depression and the constant sickness lupus brought. I’d recently had to quit my job as a nursery teacher due to my crap immune system and survived a suicide attempt so was rebuilding my life but at a loss with what to do. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t know how, so to paraphrase Hamilton, “I wrote my way out.”

As I grew both as a person and a writer and began to accept my illnesses, I no longer wanted to escape from them.  But, whilst I’d accepted my illnesses, the one thing I still struggled with was my limitations; little did I know that would change.

I turned my blog it into a place where I could write about my experiences and in turn give others a voice. I gained a community and support from others in the same boat, which gave me the confidence to launch my career as a freelance writer and journalist focusing on health, chronic illness, disability rights and drawing attention to discrimination and injustice disabled people face.

I certainly had enough topics to write about: lupus, depression, dyspraxia, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, asthma, osteoporosis, chronic migraines, anxiety. Add onto all of those two mini strokes, almost dying of sepsis, a hysterectomy at 28, and a still undiagnosed reproductive health problem that currently means I’m undergoing medical menopause.

My failing health gave me more to write about, but it also meant I struggled to write on my bad days. My arthritis and lupus would cause my hands and wrists to swell and seize up. My mental health could be so poor that I couldn’t get out of bed, never mind write. I can be overwhelmingly exhausted thanks to chronic fatigue and develop something known in the chronic illness community as “brain fog,” where you just can’t keep thoughts in your brain, it feels like your head is stuffed full of cotton wool.

My failing health gave me more to write about, but it also meant I struggled to write on my bad days.

As a freelance writer, I’ve had to learn when to take breaks and stop putting so much pressure on myself to always be pitching when my body is telling me otherwise. But I when I went fully freelance I learnt that this just wasn’t sustainable and would lead to more days off than days working as opposed to the other way round. I was used to be feeling ill because of my lupus, with a looming migraine and my hands in arthritis gloves and would still be at my computer because of the pressure I put on myself.

Not listening to my body only makes it worse. Headaches and brain fog develop into migraines, joint pain gets worse, and spreads throughout my body. The fatigue keeps battling with my stubborn nature until I’m sobbing with exhaustion and pain. If I battle through I make myself more ill and the work usually needs a lot of edits because of how ill I was when I wrote it. But, what can I say, I’m strong-willed.

I know the obvious solution for all of this is to rest, but as a freelance writer, if I don’t work I don’t get paid. Another consequence of me not writing means that my story doesn’t authentically get told. The main reason I push myself is that if I’m not working I feel guilty. In a world where your worth is based on how productive you are, it’s easy for a disabled person to feel useless and like a burden. So, I push myself.

But I’ve learned that instead of powering through all guns blazing, it pays to forward plan. As I know how forgetful I can be, I constantly make notes on my phone with article ideas. When I have a breakthrough on how a part of a piece should go, I add to it. On days when my hands hurt too much to write I use voice to text software and apps such as Dragon or Evernote. My single greatest investment has been a bamboo bed desk, which allows me to work from my bed with my laptop at an angle so I can lie down whilst writing. It even has a cup holder and little drawer for my snacks!

In a world where your worth is based on how productive you are, it’s easy for a disabled person to feel useless and like a burden.

Because of my terrible memory, I rely on setting reminders on Alexa to be sent to my phone to email editors and add to articles I’m writing — though I sometimes forget I’ve set them and when she suddenly announces I need to do something I think she’s a mind reading witch. I’m also massively old school so forever scribbling notes to myself that only I can understand.

As freelancing is my sole source of income, some days I don’t have the luxury of just not working — but the nature of my career means that I can choose when to take it slow, something I’m always thankful for. It means that I never take a good health day for granted and do as much as I’m able to and when I begin to feel the tell-tale signs of a flare — depending on the condition this can be aching hands, sleepiness, pelvic pain or headaches — I’m quick to head it off with support bandages, splints, medication or my trusty TENs machine.

My working week isn’t structured the same as most, I typically work from 9-12, have an extended lunch break and take a nap, then work for a couple of more hours. On bad days I can work the absolute minimum, which will be maybe one or two hours, and on better days I can do an almost full day. But it’s important to never push myself too far.

The nature of my career means that I can choose when to take it slow, something I’m always thankful for.

The most important thing to do when I’m having a bad day is to be kind to my body. Yes it can be revolting against me, but fighting back will only make it worse. On painful days I cut myself some slack and take it easy. Sleep is not the enemy. After living in this body for over three decades I know that instead of hating it, I have to love and appreciate all that it gives me. My body may be falling apart but it’s also resilient. Despite the pain it allows me to take my beloved Dachshund puppy on walks every day. I have a creative mind and the determination to share my stories, no matter what.

It can be hard, thanks mainly to my stubbornness, but accepting and setting my own pace has been vital in my growth as a writer. If I hadn’t learned to slow down I don’t think I’d be where I am now. I’ve learned that you don’t have to stop writing when you’re disabled, but you do need to listen to your body.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in health and disability. Her bylines include HuffPost, Metro UK and The Independent. She is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Unwritten, a new publication for disabled people to tell their stories. In her spare time she can be found (slowly) chasing her dachshund Rusty around the North East English coast.

Freelancing Personal Essay

How Challenging Internalized Ableism Helps Ground My Freelance Work

Coming to understand myself as disabled has been a far from linear journey, much like other realizations that have been particularly meaningful in my life. In some ways, that process occurred alongside the reckoning of my identity as an artist, during the height of the quarantine measures for COVID-19. While I have struggled with back pain for at least a decade, sleep issues following white supremacist workplace harassment in 2016, and migraines since my teens, it took the closure of my chiropractor’s office to flatten the curve last summer for me to do the much-needed work to unpack my own internalized ableism about being disabled. It forced me to realize that I deserved the same compassion I pride myself on providing for students with disabilities in my day job as a social worker in the scourge of academia.

All too often, health can be viewed as an achievable goal and moral obligation for all folx, but I know the reality of how chronic health concerns of migraines, back pain, and sleep issues make that impossible. Especially when I navigate the medical-industrial complex in my fat brown body, this is further complicated by xenophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, fatphobia, etc. and I understand the need to state these matters directly to those who fail to provide appropriate care. Years ago, that meant telling a doctor that seeking birth control was actually a valid reason to make use of his walk-in clinic when I was told that I should have gone to the public health unit, as I outlined how the pill had long regulated my menses to reduce heavy blood losses that had required iron shots, but folx deserve to have their contraceptive needs met, regardless of why.

I deserved the same compassion I pride myself on providing for students with disabilities in my day job as a social worker in the scourge of academia.

Since a decade as a social worker has taught me that I have little control over getting those in power to address rampant oppression in the body I inhabit, I pour my efforts into unlearning ableism to give myself the respect that I have always deserved in these ever rigged systems. As a freelance writer, that means acknowledging the reality that I do not always feel well enough to write on a daily basis, which I must take into account when accepting writing assignments, but that can be especially challenging when these opportunities have not always been offered. Despite my attempts to secure paid gigs for nearly a decade, many publications finally expressed some semblance of interest in commissioning BIPOC writers following last summer’s shift towards more willingness to reckon with the longstanding gaps in racial justice, and the most oppressed of us know that little has changed despite this online appearance of progress.

Before that white supremacist workplace harassment stole my nightly slumber, I would not hesitate to work into the wee hours of the morning or watch something disturbing late into the evening, but now I know and do better. Given how poor sleep can easily fuel a migraine, especially when contending with hormones during my menstrual cycle, I have a selection of podcasts saved in my Stitcher app under the title, “Okay Before Bed” given how little this world caters to fat brown disabled women. While I still make every effort to think critically, including listening to perspectives from folx with lived experience of marginalization to continue to be the most anti-oppressive social worker I can, I do so at other times than when trying to sleep as heartbreaking stories make that difficult, and I no longer feel the need to harden myself in response to these harsh truths even if it means that I shed more tears than before.

In terms of the freelance work I accept, I try to be equally intentional, as I recall how quickly the triumph over my highest per-word rate yet vanished when an editor changed my reference to white supremacy to “cultural racism” which resonated with no BIPOC folx that I could find. Ideally, I would always get to explore gigs that truly nurture my soul, like when I got to facilitate Sustainable Resistance for BIPOC Folx therapeutic writing workshops for Scarborough Arts, which was a rare opportunity to combine my passion for Social Work and writing. Instead, I have lived the reality of white fragility’s violations of my personhood far too often as both a social worker and a writer to still be as naive as folx with epic privilege expect when they demand performative hope from those of us who are much more oppressed and well aware of it.

I recall how quickly the triumph over my highest per-word rate yet vanished when an editor changed my reference to white supremacy to “cultural racism” which resonated with no BIPOC folx that I could find.

Beyond the labour that I get paid for, there is also unpaid but necessary work in looking ahead and reconciling that I am unlikely to sleep well when a perusal of my calendar app fills me with dread, like when I know that my late grandfather’s birthday approaches, as I am well aware of the benefits of navigating less assignments alongside the grief that lingers decades later. In those moments, I convince myself to negotiate deadlines that are further away with editors I can only hope will consider my needs, as I take note of those who have proven less than accommodating, and instead work at strategy by some means with that newfound knowledge. As much as I resist, that sometimes also means taking a step back from the unpaid labour I remain keen on doing to support oppressed folx, whether in a formal role, like serving on a committee for an ethnic agency, or my time informally disrupting the problematic status quo.

While I would be lying if I said that I never doubt my writing abilities, I am getting better at understanding how often those feelings of apprehension about my work stem from feedback from folx who are minimally invested in challenging their complicity in extremely oppressive power systems. At those times, I remind myself of wisdom from Audre Lorde that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and reflect that part of continuing to write truth to power is accepting my humanity even when I cannot be as productive as capitalist structures demand.

To do this work, I must continue to unlearn the inherently ableist colonialist messages from my Trinidadian childhood that I need “to burn the midnight oil” to be “the cream of the crop” as those do not bode well for disabilities, much less those of us in BIPOC bodies often deemed highly disposable by white supremacy. While challenging taken-for-granted beliefs takes time and effort, it is much-needed labour and well worth the work as it allows me to give myself permission to take a break from writing continuously for hours or stop working and get rest when I feel tired. Especially when up against folx and structures that fail to see me as worthy of empathy, it becomes even more crucial to make that my priority or I may struggle further if back pain exacerbates, which often results in poor sleep, and dramatically increases the odds of contending with a migraine the following day. And sometimes it is spite that keeps me going the way others rely on hope because my art deserves as much space as the privileged writers whose work received praise long before more talented BIPOC folx ever received a chance.

Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, artist, and educator who prioritizes equity in all her work. Her visual art was featured in Pandemic: A Feminist Response, and the zine, CRIP COLLAB. She has taught “Justice and the Poor: Issues of Race, Class, and Gender” at Nipissing University, facilitates Sustainable Resistance for BIPOC Folx writing workshops and will teach the Writing for Social Change course at the Loft Literary Center. Her work has been published by Huffington Post, Healthline, MedTruth, Verywell Mind, Prism, Canadaland, Community-Centric Fundraising, Giddy, etc. She can be found on LinkedIn


How Freelancing Helped Me Get My Life Back

My career as a freelance writer started purely by chance. A random invitation to a book club would introduce me to the possibility of writing, a career I had never really considered before. Though unexpected, the opportunity came during one of the most difficult times of my life and my ability to work as a disabled freelancer has given me a creative outlet, a source of income, and a cathartic form of therapy. 

After leaving my job of 10 years due to major episodes of anxiety and depression, I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The diagnosis came after years of being dismissed by doctors because of my weight. As relieved as I was to have a diagnosis, I was terrified that having yet another chronic condition would keep me from working again. 

At that time, I put all my value into having a paying job. Not being able to make money, after being the major breadwinner for my family, destroyed my sense of self-worth. If I wasn’t working — if I wasn’t making money — I was nothing. Still, my mind and body couldn’t go at the pace I had set before. It took a good 18 months to get healthy enough to start exploring who I was as a newly disabled person. 

If I wasn’t working — if I wasn’t making money — I was nothing.

That exploration led me to that life-changing book club meeting. I was invited to the small book club by someone I had recently met while exploring other new hobbies. At the first meeting, the two other members shared with me that they both worked as freelance writers. I was immediately intrigued. Seeing my interest, they explained how they got into freelance writing. They shared with me how I could pitch to publications and editors and offered advice about their experiences. 

For the first time in years, I felt like this was something I really wanted to do. The anxiety I felt about exploring freelance writing was more of a giddy kind of excitement instead of the manic sort of energy I was used to feeling towards the unknown. This was something I had to try. I initially submitted three pitches and was rejected three times. 

Still, the refusals didn’t hurt as badly as rejection usually did. Instead, I was proud that I had tried something new and was still excited to explore writing. That optimism was rewarded when one of the platforms that initially sent a rejection offered me a chance to ghostwrite as a freelancer. It didn’t pay well and it was a lot of listicles and fluff pieces, but it was just the start that I needed.

During the first year of my freelancing career, I stuck solely to ghostwriting. The editor I was working with offered me a ton of support as someone who was just starting out in the business. He had once been where I was so he was very helpful while I learned the job. During that year, I was able to ghostwrite on several websites belonging to minor media identities. It was fun, light work and the approval I felt when I saw an article perform well was just what I needed to get some of my lost confidence back. Eventually, I felt assured enough with my work experience to renegotiate my rates and received an offer from my editor for credited writing gigs.

Being a ghostwriter was great, but nothing compared to seeing my name printed under my words. I ended my ghostwriting career and used that new confidence it gave me to write about more personal issues. Through pitching to publications that I personally read and respect, I was finally able to work on more substantial topics. I finally had an outlet to explore themes like disability, fatphobia, reproductive rights, and gun control in my writing. 

Finding professional self-fulfillment and a way to monetize my interests really felt like a dream come true. Still, more than that, I found a freedom through freelancing that I never had with my former job and I never needed it more than then. Disability doesn’t look the same each day. My mental illness and fibromyalgia can be impacted by any number of variables, from stress and sleep patterns to the weather and my menstrual cycle. So freelancing seemed absolutely perfect for the inconsistencies of my disabilities. 

Finding professional self-fulfillment and a way to monetize my interests really felt like a dream come true.

One of the biggest issues I had when working a job with a set schedule was the guilt I felt when I needed to take a day off for my health. However, as a freelance writer, I’m allowed to have bad days. If my muscles are aching or my anxiety is through the roof, I can take time to recover. I can plan work around doctor’s appointments and write whenever I like without worrying that I’ve inconvenienced someone. Building relationships with the editors I’ve worked with has also been a great benefit of freelancing. I can honestly share my needs and eliminate stress about accommodating my disability. 

When pitching to other publications, I also discovered a wide community of freelance creatives — both disabled and not — on social media. As a tool, using social media sites like Twitter has helped me to self-promote and leave my comfort zone to find new opportunities. However, there’s the added bonus of connecting and communicating with those who share similar experiences, challenges, and aspirations. Since first interacting with Disabled Twitter and users who work freelance, these connections have become a never-ending source of information, humor, and support.

I’ve had so many meaningful interactions with freelancers that I’ve met via social media. Sometimes, it’s just reaching out to ask for an editor’s contact information, but it’s also those times we’ve re-blogged each other’s work to show our support of each other. If I need someone to proofread something or to bounce ideas off, I know help is just an app away. If I’m having a terrible pain day, I have a community of disabled friends who can commiserate and offer spoons

Besides offering better flexibility and an ever-growing support system, working as a freelance writer has been a form of therapy for me. In being able to write about the things that matter to me, I’m more able to turn my focus inwards. Writing through experiences such as the death of my father or my time with postpartum depression helped me better understand these tragedies. Unpacking the facts and feelings by retelling these stories has made me a more mindful person. The catharsis I experience from writing about disability topics or COVID anxiety is just like the relief I get from a great therapy session. I can only hope that anyone who reads my words experiences that same feeling. 

As a disabled person, I can’t fully express how grateful I am for the opportunities that freelancing has offered me. Being a freelance writer has enriched my professional life as much as it has my personal one. Though a career as a freelancer was unplanned, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without everything that work has allowed me to experience. The agency, the stability, the flexibility, the affirmation, and the community I have found through freelancing have made every struggle to get to this point completely worth it.

Samantha Chavarria is a disabled Latina freelance writer who lives and works in Houston. The life-long Texan writes about identity, wellness and disability advocacy, social justice, and pop culture, contributing words to platforms such as HelloGiggles, Bustle, Mitú, and Bitch Media. When she isn’t writing, she’s busy being a wife, mother of three, and spending too much time on Twitter. You can read more of her work and contact her @teoami on Twitter & Instagram


What I Learned About Freelancing In My First Two Years

My name is Michael Baginski. This will be my second year as a contract freelancer. I am a writer, journalist, and I do a little video editing on the side here or there. I am also autistic. I was originally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when I was born, and then later changed to being on the spectrum after therapy, doctor’s appointments, etc. I also have ADHD, which makes for a great concoction.

Everyone’s experience in media is different. And that is especially the case for media workers with neurological disabilities. They can have difficulty communicating with editors, fellow media workers, and just about anyone in a job-oriented field. It can be extremely difficult, speaking as someone who is autistic and diagnosed with ADHD who had trouble with many tasks at first. I can only speak for myself about my experiences, but I want to share my guidance for those who are in the media and have similar difficulties communicating their thoughts and feelings. This can be especially helpful for individuals who do not have disabilities, but have trouble speaking up for themselves in general.

One of the things I learned right away about pitching and having said pitch accepted for publication is that I needed to have a lot of patience. I truly believe patience is one of the most difficult skills I had to learn while working and in my personal life too. There are no set rules for publications to follow with regards to freelancers. You want there to be, as they can help you. But there aren’t. There are still small things you can do to manage that time well without getting yourself or another person upset. Being kind and courteous to an editor who treats you the same way back helps tenfold. The editor you work with might not have any control over how long a piece is sitting on the wayside. But if you take your time, follow up when appropriate, and stay in communication with your editor, the experience can be less frustrating overall.

Patience is one of the most difficult skills I had to learn while working and in my personal life too.

Last year, I pitched a piece for months and finally got it accepted. But due to budget constraints, I could not see my work finalized until four months later, in September. Yes, I was frustrated and relieved at the same time. Being told to be patient is something that can annoy a lot of struggling freelancers out there. Especially now during a pandemic. But as someone who is impatient and working on being less impatient, being patient has helped me overcome one of the obstacles I’ve stumbled getting past when I’m communicating with others.

Standing up for yourself is also important. Frustrations can get to you and you may start to withdraw because when you are distraught with sad emotions, you implode emotionally, and you have trouble concentrating on responding, rather than reacting. In addition to my autism, I have social anxiety and depression. I can respond very strongly with my emotions in a scenario that does not have a favorable outcome for me.

Being upfront, being confident, standing up for yourself, and not losing your professionalism during an exchange can help you clearly communicate your needs and what you need help with when working with an editor. Nothing is ever set in stone. The world of freelancing and contract work adds new factors into play every day. And sometimes, that can mean a date for a deadline you cannot meet or a late payment. So you ask if you can change a deadline date, for example, even though they never gave you that option. If they say no, ask why. If they won’t give you an answer, kindly decline moving further and thank them for giving you the opportunity to write for them. If you are waiting on payment, make sure to follow up when time has passed. I went from waiting 2 days to follow up, to a week when I wrote how-to guides for a site.

Depending on the size of the project, it is always a good idea to know your rights as a freelance contract worker. For example, NYC has an act known as The Freelance Isn’t Free Act. It allows a contract worker to take a client they were contracted to work under to small claims court after 30 days from the date of publication. Because it does not cover the whole state and only the city, you need to bring a publication that is based in NYC to court in order to utilize the law. Meaning, you can still utilize the law if you live in Texas and the piece you published was in New York City, like the New Yorker or Buzzfeed. You never want to get to this point, but if it is out of the hands of the editor you are working under, it’s best to know your rights in general.

It is always a good idea to know your rights as a freelance contract worker.

And if you can, join a union. Navigating my first year as a freelance media worker would have been a lot more difficult had I not first joined a union (FSP) that allowed me to be more confident in negotiating rates, dictating the best deadline I can work around, and having the support of my friends and peers.

I absolutely believe you should join a union for freelancers in order to improve your communication skills. When I joined the Freelance Solidarity Project in March of last year, I was very nervous because I did not feel I belonged. I was scared and very withdrawn because it was a new challenge for me to be more social and feel like I belong when I hadn’t written as much beforehand.

Fast-forward a year later, and I am finishing my one-year term as Events chair for the first rendition of their organizing committee. I would never have gotten that far into being elected without learning about what it means to be a part of a union, what rights I have as a contract worker, and what can be done to help gain and protect the rights of this generation and future generations of media workers. I was elected on my guarantee of wanting spaces where we had events (back when we could meet in physical spaces safely) to be as accessible to everyone as possible, and to not make anyone feel alienated from coming.

That is especially how I felt when it came to my fellow people with autism and how sensory overload can be difficult to navigate in a setting with loud music or people being crowded up on one another. I can’t tell you the future of events, but I can tell you that finding solace with people you’ve never met before, and creating friendships out of that, will help you communicate better. Being part of a community makes you feel less alone in your thoughts, and that helps expressing what is needed for you more clearly in the workspace. You also just feel good at the end of the day too.

Michael Baginski is a writer, video editor, and streams on Twitch. You can find him on Twitter talking about pop culture, politics, and Tim Curry @bagmanman. You can also find him streaming at because the one man was taken.

Freelancing Mental Health

How I Balance My Career With My Mental Health

When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. There were always other careers sprinkled in there — surgeon, anthropologist, teacher — but I knew that whatever I did, I wanted writing to be part of my life forever.

But after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my freshman year of college, my relationship with writing started to shift. Writing became something I did poorly and prolifically during periods of mania and something I didn’t do at all during depressive episodes, which left a very small window of stability for actually creating things I was proud of.

When I started writing for a living as a freelancer, my relationship with writing changed even more dramatically. Now, writing wasn’t something I did to fulfill myself. It was something I did to feed myself, and that made a huge difference. Much of my time now had to be spent writing pieces that I honestly didn’t care much about. There are so many boring parts of freelance writing — listicles, shopping guides, quick news stories — that don’t make me feel creatively stimulated. There are also important pieces that I would love to spend more time on, but financial needs and the needs of my editors mean that I have to submit quickly, which can feel demoralizing for a creative who wants to spend more time with their work.

But as a bipolar writer, this path has served me well. For the most part. Sometimes, I feel I’ve found the career best suited to my perilous mental health. Other times, I’m aware that I’ve found a career with an entirely different set of stressors and triggers that have and could still send me spiraling into distress or crisis.

This lifestyle has the potential to offer people like me multiple avenues for autonomy and flexibility, two things that are necessary for severely mentally ill people.

Writers and journalists often talk about the toll that this job takes on mental health. And it’s true. Being immersed in horrific new stories, receiving endless rejections, and often working alone from home are almost guaranteed to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But for those who experience severe mental illness — including the oft-excluded obsessive-compulsive disorder, major unipolar depression, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder — the ups and downs of freelance life can be more extreme, perhaps even life-threatening. At the same time, this lifestyle has the potential to offer people like me multiple avenues for autonomy and flexibility, two things that are necessary for severely mentally ill people.

For me, freelancing gives me the ability to honor my depressive and manic episodes when they come. I can acknowledge when I can’t “fight” off what my brain chemistry is determined to do, leaving more room for me to actually get better. I don’t have to come and sit at a desk every day. I can take off as much time as I need, and I can even cancel in-progress articles with little to no consequences. But this flexibility requires money, something which is hard for many freelancers to come by in an industry known for paying abysmally low rates, often extremely late.

After a suicide attempt in November of last year, I was fortunate enough — due to years of splitting rent with a partner or then not paying rent at all— to have enough money to take three months off work. I don’t know how I would have survived those months had I needed to work.

However, I also worked intensely in the months leading up to the suicide attempt, which brought in a great deal of money (sometimes $10,000 a month) which made me feel burnt out and depressed, especially when I’d write about heartbreaking stories or the anxiety-inducing fascism enveloping the country. I need the freedom to be able to take off work when I need to, but that freedom doesn’t come without its own sacrifices. This is why I firmly believe that all freelancers — but especially severely mentally ill writers — should work as hard as they can to get as much money for their work as possible. Always ask editors for more money, and set firm rates if you can. That extra $100 here and there can be critical for your mental health in times of crisis, especially if you’re able to have an emergency fund.

For a lot of us, freelancing is not so much a choice as it is a requirement in a deeply ableist, classist, and racist society.

Even though freelance writing may suit severely mentally ill people much better than staff writing jobs or other traditional careers, I often resent it, because I feel a bit forced into it. Staff writing jobs often don’t pay as well as I could make freelancing — especially having gotten two book deals during my three-year long career — and they’re often inaccessible to disabled people. For a lot of us, freelancing is not so much a choice as it is a requirement in a deeply ableist, classist, and racist society.

 Freelancing also doesn’t provide you with healthcare, something that every human needs, but especially those with mental health conditions. I dread turning 26 next year, because the expense of healthcare will be astronomical, I expect. I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do. All I know is I can’t survive without the anti-epileptics and anti-anxiety medications that help me manage the worst of my symptoms.

And then there is also the discrimination that comes along with being an openly severely mentally ill person in media. Mental health de-stigmatization has done wonders for mild to moderate depression and anxiety, but disorders like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and bipolar disorder are still on the margins — or completely outside — of what society finds acceptable. For example, a writer with antisocial disorder recently penned a Modern Love column for the New York Times, about how her condition impacted her marriage. She was widely and thoroughly mocked by so many people on social media, quite a few of them people who have been open about their own mental health struggles.

As for me, bipolar disorder is less stigmatized than antisocial personality disorder  or schizophrenia, but I still get taunting messages from strangers in my DMs, trying to pour salt in the wounds I carry from a lifetime of dealing with mental health issues, and seven years of dealing with bipolar disorder.

Overall, I think this is the right career for me. I feel a degree of freedom that I didn’t have when I worked at a non-profit or when I worked as a waitress. I get to explore my creative passions and make money. I have the opportunity to write books about mental health. But I also deal with intense periods of loneliness because I don’t have traditional co-workers. I get anxiety sometimes because I don’t have a stable income; invoices come in scattered and sometimes extremely late. I feel an immense amount of pressure when I write about my mental health issues, and expose my vulnerabilities for the public eye.

Nylah Burton is a writer with bylines in New York Magazine, British Vogue, and ESSENCE. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter