Categories
Freelancing

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 twitch.tv/bagmanmanman because the one man was taken.

Categories
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