Diary of a Part-Time Freelancer (and Most-Time Parent)

It’s a lot of transcribing.

Image: Tobias Abel

Last month, I quit my desk job. That last day may, in all honesty, wind up being one of the happiest of my life. But it wasn’t always the plan.

For the previous decade, I’d worked a series of relatively undemanding day jobs while trying to build a parallel career as a journalist off the side of my desk. And it had worked, kind of. Year over year I was getting better bylines and better pay, and all while working from a Canadian city that isn’t Toronto. I figured if I could just keep ramping up the journalism, then one day I could seamlessly trade careers. The trouble is, to get there, I’d first have to essentially work two full-time jobs, and that was tough sledding — especially with two young kids at home. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. Instead, my heavy workload neatly transformed into light depression, and I had to ask my partner, Kate, if we could speed up our timetable.

We had both previously agreed that at some indeterminate point in our future, Kate, who had mostly been home to raise the kids, would go out and get a full-time job. Meanwhile, I would handle all of the school comings and goings, as well as a more significant chunk of the housework, and then work from home whenever the kids were in class.

In November, we made the switch. Kate went off to bread win, and I stayed home to write and contribute to the family budget in whatever chunks of time weren’t already allocated to laundry, groceries, or ferrying our son to and from half-day kindergarten. The result? More quality time with the kids, and less depression, for one thing. But I’m also finding that the career I spent so many years building suddenly needs to be reimagined from the ground up.

Here are notes from a week in the life of a part-time freelancer, and most-time parent.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 27

2:48 PM: Trying to squeeze in a couple of hours of work while everyone else is out of the house, I think: You know, this transition to freelance life is kind of interesting. There might be a story in there. I spend twenty minutes writing a pitch, then send it cold to The Billfold.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 28

9:02 AM: Back in the house from school drop-off, I sit down at my laptop with roughly two hours until I need to leave to pick my son back up from kindergarten. This means that my to-do lists will need to be tackled with more aplomb than during those lazy days at the office. I contact a couple of sources for a magazine feature I’m writing about the future of Alberta’s electricity industry, then re-write the lede, as requested by my editor, on a short news-y piece for the local university. Sometimes the most straightforward assignments are the ones that give me the most trouble wrangling into shape.

10:33 AM: One of the things that bolstered my confidence in flying solo is that I’ve recently become a publisher, along with a graphic-designer friend of mine, and our flagship product, the Short Story Advent Calendar, sold out its inaugural edition last year. The 2016 edition is about to kick off later this week, and I’ve got a seemingly never-ending list of fiddly little tasks to sort out before it does. Today is prepping some of the daily author interviews we’re going to publish each day in December. Three of the authors haven’t actually answered the questionnaire yet. I send another email reminder, which is less polite than it might’ve been.

10:45 AM: I get a very nice rejection from The Atlantic’s culture vertical for a story I pitched a couple of weeks back. In fact, the editor makes a good suggestion on how to tweak it, so I send an email back to my source asking for a few more details. I’m reasonably confident it’ll find a home elsewhere, eventually.

11:16 PM: And time’s up. Back to school. My son is happy to see me, running over to give me a big tight hug, and I regret nothing in this life.

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 29

8:59 AM: Holy shit, this week is not messing around. I get home to check my email and find sitting there, after months of back and forth, a formal offer to publish a short critical book from me about Calvin and Hobbes. My first book, a novel, came out in 2013 and ever since I’ve been trying to figure out what the next one would be. Frankly, this is a dream assignment, from a great indie press. But the modest advance does mean that I’ll have to find some higher-paying work for the early months of 2017.

10:00 AM: I fire up Skype and spend half an hour talking to the CEO of a start-up for the electricity feature. It’s a pretty good interview. But I’m no energy expert, and a story like this is going to require a significant amount of legwork on my end. On the other hand, that’s what I like about these kinds of stories: having an excuse to get up to speed on issues I should probably understand better anyway.

11:48 AM: Back at the school again, I’m still beaming from the book contract, so I offer to take my five-year-old to the hot dog and fried chicken restaurant across the street for lunch. The only possible downside is now he knows this place exists, and how close it is to his classroom. I file this information away in my mental Potential Future Arguments folder. (Other entries include: bulk-candy bins at the supermarket, the mall that has a Lego store in it.)

1:51 PM: The Billfold accepts my pitch. Timely!

6:22 PM: Chores completed, storybooks read, Angry Birds crafts completed, dinner prepared and eaten, I steal a final hour of work when Kate takes our son to a free public skate not far from our house. Our daughter, who’s 10, is in the middle of intense daily rehearsals for a local production of A Christmas Carol, and not due back tonight until nearly 11.

Work goes so-so. I can’t find a sustained rhythm, so settle for some more fiddly little tasks. These also add up, as I’m quickly learning. I go to bed that night anxious anyway.

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 30

9:03 AM: Today and the next day, my mother-in-law will take care of my son after school while I stay locked away in my home office. Two free afternoons of child care every week is no small thing, and I’m very grateful for it. Once I get back from the school, I survey the entirety of the day in front of me… and immediately drop a gear in productivity. The first hour in particular disappears in a puff of smoke. I write three emails, then send an invoice for a different magazine feature. It doesn’t feel like enough. I go upstairs and make the beds.

10:32 AM: How much time do you lose, per day, waiting for your computer to get its act together? When you’re self-employed, owning a creaky old laptop can translate into actual lost dollars, which is a frightening prospect. My MacBook Pro is seven years old, prone to overheating, and missing its question-mark key (because, I like to tell people, I’m SUCH A GOOD journalist). Lately I find myself using my downtime during the hourly appearance of the spinning wheel of death to do a cost analysis: If a new laptop is $1,500, and I waste 20 minutes per day to program lag… There’s a very real chance a new laptop would literally pay for itself in increased productivity. Still, a cheapskate at heart, I demur. The missing key is kind of cute, no?

11:17 AM: I write a couple of hundred words about a weird hamburger for a piece for Atlas Obscura. It’s a really fun story, but that’ll have to do for now. Back to the car, back to the school.

12:00 PM: Piano lessons.

1:31 PM: The five-year-old now safely deposited back home with his grandma, I head out again to do a couple of interviews. One is with a professor from the Alberta School of Business, for the electricity feature; the other is a looser pre-interview, at a nearby café. Both go pretty well, though they do point towards a new problem in my work life. Taped interviews like the first one are a clear, direct step on the path towards getting paid. No problem there. A pre-interview, however, is more amorphous, since it’s not part of an actual assignment, but rather raw material that might turn into work weeks or even months down the road.

At least I can expense this coffee and parking. Right?

3:36 PM: Back home, I sit back down at my desk and try to figure out what I can wrap up in my last 90 minutes on the clock. To me, writing feels more or less like Tetris: Trying to fit a bunch of oddly shaped pieces together while time ticks by ever faster in the background. For the Atlas Obscura story, I have quotes from an interview I did with a government librarian, a couple of newspaper articles, bits and pieces from the Alberta Hansard, and a few other squiggle shapes that don’t fit on flat ground but which you can sometimes jam into the larger mass if you’re lucky.

8:52 PM: Patton Oswalt tweets about my advent calendar. This isn’t wholly unexpected: He tweeted his admiration for last year’s when a mutual friend showed him a picture, and I’d seen his order for the 2016 edition come through the website a few weeks earlier. Still, when 3.09 million people suddenly get tipped off to your little book project, you gotta be ready. I spend the next half hour checking for new Twitter followers and last-minute orders (more of the former, as it turns out), and find we are down to the last dozen copies in the online store by the time I leave to pick up my daughter from rehearsal.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 1

6:01 AM: We have officially sold out of the calendar. This was unimaginable as recently as three weeks ago, and no way am I getting back to sleep now. (This is OK, as neither is my five-year-old.)

8:09 AM: There’s a rule in our house that the kids can take the occasional day off school as a “mental health day,” because they have a lot going on, and I’m a big believer in the curative properties of farting around the house. This morning my daughter claims such a day. She’s been stretched extra thin because of all her late-night rehearsals, and tonight is finally opening night of the show. This means I’ll have another warm body in the house with me today, but honestly, she’s so low maintenance, reading a series of novels about warring cat clans, I hardly even notice she’s there.

9:18 AM: The advent calendar has more than twice as many readers as last year, and with daily author interviews being posted on our website, plus an ongoing conversation running across three different social-media channels, I can already tell this is something that needs to be scheduled for. It’s even cutting into my daily regimen of reading hockey-blog bullshit! Again, this isn’t directly billable work, but it is fulfilling the promise that netted us a couple of thousand customers in the first place.

11:34 AM: I’m able to bang out a final revision to the Atlas Obscura story with my daughter on my lap (she even suggests a couple of good edits), and I send it in before lunch, just before my mother-in-law and son get home.

12:59 PM: Is it normal that every dedicated workday ends up involving multiple car trips? On the one hand, I tell myself that these little outings would’ve otherwise been done on the weekend, or after the kids are in bed. On the other — what the hell, man? Driving is the worst. Today, at least, is a trip to the bank, for purposes both satisfying (cashing a cheque in U.S. dollars from a story I wrote for the Washington Post) and mundane (found a bunch of rolls of old coins in our closet that ain’t gonna cash themselves). I take part of the coin-roll proceeds and buy a fancy sandwich from a fancy sandwich shop.

3:02 PM: Transcribing.

4:09 PM: Transcribing.

4:36 PM: Didn’t finish the transcribing.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2

8:40 AM: Kate drives the kids to school, so my two-hour work window magically becomes a two-and-a-half-hour work window.

Back to transcribing.

8:54 AM: I hate transcribing.

9:17 AM: The phrase “LinkedIn Park” jumps into my head. Is that a funny tweet? Better think about it for 10 minutes straight.

9:41 AM: Finished transcribing!

10:11 AM: On to some editing and copywriting I’ve been doing for a local start-up specializing in home automation. It’s a different muscle, and interesting work, so far.

10:48 AM: Actually, scrap that — today’s errand involves buying toner, paper, and pens, in a tax–deductible home-office triptych. But to get it done before kindergarten lets out, I’ve got to leave early, thereby shaving valuable minutes off my work window.

8:26 PM: Ten hours later, it’s back to the copywriting. And back to manning the advent calendar’s social media channels. When those are done, I’ve got a bathroom and hardwood floors to clean. This might sound like a gruelling schedule for a Friday night, but I find I don’t really feel drained. Some quality hours with my kids in the middle of the day is exactly what I pined for from my old downtown office, and it recharges the other parts of my brain pretty much exactly as I’d hoped it would.

There’s still a fair amount of anxiety in my day. The lack of productivity some days, the lack of literal time on others (for writing as much as vacuuming), not to mention the constant nagging fear that I’ll never get another story accepted ever again and will crater professionally at age 30 — well, I have a feeling those old pals aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. At this point it’d feel a bit lonely without them. And I need all the company I can get.

Michael Hingston is a writer and novelist based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has appeared in Wired, The Guardian, and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @mhingston.

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