Saturday, 23 August 2014

Freelance Life - part two - The Downside - And how to handle it

For any aspiring Picture Book writers and Artists, it might help in your struggle to know that there are many wonderful positives involved in being a successful freelance writer and/or illustrator. The affirmation and adulation ;-)  (Well, not quite adulation but people saying nice things about what you do anyway). The satisfaction in knowing that you are making a half decent living doing the thing you are good at and love doing. The warm glow that comes with knowing that children all over the world have made your work part of their bedtime ritual, at least for a while. That kind of thing.

But if I may inject a word of caution, while enveloped in this happy haze it is easy to forget that the freelance writer's and illustrator's life has it's downside, and that coming up sharp against it can be a bit of shock.

You expect some tribulation on the way up as it were, but once a certain level of success has been achieved, you would be forgiven for feeling that once you have finally 'arrived', and the public like what you produce, this state of affairs is now set in stone and will continue ad nauseum. . . All you have to do is just keep it coming and all will be Hunky Dory.

Yeah right.
Bubble bursting time ;-)

Sticking with David Bowie for the sake of a bad joke, you may find things drifting away from Fame and starts heading towards Low. . .

Confidence is a fragile thing. Not so much self confidence, speaking personally anyway. I always assume, rightly or wrongly, that I will be able to come up with the goods, but confidence that what you produce will be what anybody actually wants is a fragile thing. I always say that an artist's best attitude, psychologically, towards the opinions of other's and towards possible rejection, is to assume that everybody else is wrong. "The fools don't understand my art!" kind of thing. This sounds arrogant and possibly delusional, but it keeps your self belief intact.

The alternative position - vis - "Oh God, I must be totally crap!" isn't useful in any way. It's not going to help you persevere with your endeavors. And you need to persevere. It's bloody hard. Strong self belief helps, justified or not.

The more alert amongst you might have detected a personal note in all this speculation about rejection and downsides. Well done ;-) yes, I am in the middle of what can be called 'A fallow period". Ideas rejected right left and centre, inspiration at an all time low. All that stuff. Not much fun.

For those who have never been there, you need to be aware that it is all too easy to get into a bit of a downward spiral. It's all connected you see, rejection hits confidence, saps morale and engenders negative thoughts like, "If nobody likes what I think up, why should I bother?", and "Why should I send this idea in? It'll only get rejected." This is never going to help the creative process or help shore up the reserves of positivity you will need to draw on. When there is more pressure on a new idea being 'right' because a lot hangs on it getting accepted, being relaxed and funny, the way you need to be to do what you do, requires superhuman acting skills. At the time when it is most important for you to produce good stuff, you can't. Things start to feel forced. The very thing that makes you stand apart from others in your field, becomes suspect in your mind. Ideas become safer, less 'you' because the 'you' in what you do is now under critical examination and you start to feel that it may be the thing that is causing your ideas to fail. The rug is being pulled from under your feet, but by slow degrees. And in strange way, it's you that's doing the pulling. . .

So what do you do about it? You carry on. You work through it. You analyze, and adapt if you feel it is needed. You draw on your inner strength and your faith in your own abilities, that's what.

You have to believe that it is just a passing phase, and that things will come together in due course. Though like most things, this is easier said than done.

Remember, you are in it for the long haul, and that time will take its toll. The low level anxiety and uncertainty of many years of freelancing can engender an unwelcome and unhelpful weariness sometimes. . .

But forewarned is forearmed. This kind of emotional attrition is part of the deal. If you want the good, (and the good can be very good) you have to accept the bad ;-)

But enough whingeing! Styles do go out of fashion. Editors want to create their own lists of artists and writers and not keep using the old guard ad nauseum. Of course they do and of course they should. It's the way the World works.

For my part, I comfort myself with the thought that emotional connection with your audience doesn't go out of fashion, neither does humour nor using animals as protagonists. I probably need to take some time out to draw breath and reconnect with the reason I wanted to write and draw in the first place, then return, refreshed and full of killer ideas. Ho yes.

The funny thing is, that despite the angst ridden wallowing detailed above, the second you get an idea accepted you snap out of it like it never happened. . .

Chin Up ;-)


  1. Wise words, Jonathan.

    I think illustrators and author-illustrators such as yourself are more subject to the vagaries of fashion than authors. Trends in Illustration seem to come and go more rapidly than trends in writing and I think it's easier to change one's writing style, or write in several styles simultaneously than change one's illustration style.

    It's a shame because good illustration is still good illustration whatever the current fashion and I don't think children are as susceptible to changing fashions so much as adults, who have more influence over which picture books get published and bought. My son was a big Dr. Seuss fan; Seuss's illustration style was new discovery for him as child, although the books had been illustrated 30-40 years before.

    Sorry to hear you're in a fallow period – I hope it's over soon.

  2. Brave post, Jonathan, and really well-expressed. You're not alone - we all go through this at one time or another. It hurts, of course, but it's also an opportunity, as you say, to take stock. To think - what do I REALLY want to write / illustrate? What really matters to me, and how can I get that across in a story to children? Yes, it can become a bit of a treadmill, this book-making lark. Step back. Refresh. And then come out and knock them for six!

  3. Such a insightful post, Jonathan. It takes guts and a whole lot of inner strength to be self-employed in a creative field. I often have to draw on my reserves of positivity, and I can't imagine being a freelance without having a deep well of it - blind optimism, too. It helped me (much to my surprise) to go to a writer's retreat, where I could play at creating all sorts of things in the company of other like-minded people. I'd thoroughly recommend it for filling up the positivity banks and getting some creative rejuvenation. Speaking with my blind optimism hat on (it's very bright), I say there must be practical ways to circumvent the 'no' brick wall. The publishing industry is big, and though UK editors you deal with might be saying no at the moment, your style will most certainly be popular in other countries, and those countries now provide a big market. I'd recommend a trip to Frankfurt or Bologna to suss out a few and make contact. It can't harm and it can open doors maybe. (I don't know if you have an agent. that would be a whole other chat...). Maybe start putting stuff on Youtube, too. Editors like all that! Even though we may be seasoned and proven professionals of many years standing, truth is we have to keep shouting from the rooftops - Hey! I'm here, I'm not an old fogey, and I know what I'm doing!

  4. I think I sounded a bit glib there re: my suggestions for everyone above. As Jonathan so rightly warns in the blog, it can be hard to get up the strength to do anything when confidence is low. When we get that feeling, I reckon we need to going away and doing some pure creative play.

  5. Thanks Folks ;-) my 'trouble' has always been that I tend to pursue about four other creative interests alongside writing and illustrating. . . None of which have, or are likely to make me any money ;-) So if I throw myself into those, I am going to feel guilty about neglecting my 'day job'. You can't win. . . I'm glad you could identify with what i was saying, I was sure it was a pretty universal thing but now I am doubly sure.

  6. I most definitely identify with your thoughtful blog, Jonathan. In a twisted way it's good to know one is not alone. It's hard to break out of the cycle, although just something small and positive can provide a powerful catalyst.

  7. All very true, and one lesson to take from the up-and-down ride of freelance work is to sometimes just stop yourself briefly in the mad rush to produce more, and ENJOY the moments when things are on an 'up'. They are perhaps all the sweeter for coming after 'downs'.

  8. Oh yes, I definitely relate to your post Jonathan! It's hard not to feel a bit panicky when you're freelance and you hit a fallow period, but we all have them. I find it helps to do school visits - concentrating on inspiring kids takes your mind off it, and improves finances.

  9. I can really relate to this Jonathan, having spent many years away from the UK, when I came back it was a big shock to realise that not only did no-one remember me, no-one really cared about my overseas books in the years I was away. I'm fortunate that I still have interest in my work from other countries, were I reliant entirely on the UK I really don't know where I'd be now. I think there are many illustrators who have seen solid client lists evaporate in the last few years, these are times of change, but as you say, determination is the key - something will fall into place.

    1. Thanks, it has been a bit of an apocalypse for some small publishers as well as for illustrators I think.Times of change indeed. It's hard to second guess what it's changing into though ;-)

  10. Fantastic to read this - it is something I know many illustrators can relate to.
    And yet we still want to create and be ourselves and stay true to our ideas and style despite all the knock downs.
    Low self confidence and doubt stop creativity so easily, adding to the spiral of gloom... it is time to play with some new materials - just for fun, and remember why you are an artist :) No brief, no committee, no one asking for changes.... just go and make some art.

  11. As explanation, I meant it was fantastic to read this - as in seeing it mentioned and openly discussed... not that you were experiencing it!

    1. Thanks for clearing that up ;-) no, I knew what you meant of course!

  12. Thanks for open and honest feelings you've shared here Jonathan.
    It's inspirational as well as a salient warning at the same time.
    As someone who is still not published with my own story and pictures it's true that I imagined it's all that much easier once you are published.
    I certainly recognise those feelings cropping up every now and then throughout a freelance career.
    All the best, Paul.

  13. I think we've all been there Jonathan! Freelance life is so up and down - sometimes you're frantically busy and exhausted from it; sometimes it's so quiet and you wonder if anything will ever happen again. I agree with Moira that support groups, like writers' retreats, are really useful. It's so good to be in a room with people who have experienced the same issues. I find it especially heart-warming to hear from old, more experienced authors about ebbs and flows in their own work. Those well-known authors whose careers span decades often talk about low patches so it's helped me realise it happens to us all! Don't panic. Your time will come round again, probably soon xxx