The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Vacations
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
So last week, we discussed illness and the freelancer. The topic, which also dealt peripherally with taking time off, brought up two other time-off questions. I’ll answer the one that came in first, and leave the other for another section of the Guide.
From Jas. Marshall:
“When you’re a freelancer, how do you take a vacation? When you are your own toughest boss, and you’re pushing to produce more stuff so you can get paid, and so on…how do you justify even a single day off when ‘I could be editing that novel to get it out the door’ or whatever?”
When that question came in, I knew I was in trouble. Because I’m trying to keep this as general as possible about freelancing, not just freelance writers. Frankly, freelance writers are a different breed from other freelancers—and, I’ve been told, I’m a different breed than many freelance writers.
So I opened the question to freelancing friends on four different business e-mail lists that I’m on. The answers are self-selected (meaning this is not a scientific poll), but they’re interesting and insightful.
What I asked is this: A question for the freelancers on the list. When was the last time you took a real vacation?
I deliberately did not define real vacation, figuring people would do so for me. If their definition wasn’t clear from their answers, then I sent a follow-up e-mail, asking how they defined real vacation.
I got some great responses. I couldn’t use a few, however, because they came from people who did not freelance at all, but worked at a full-time job for corporations (usually in the arts). They felt slighted. After all, they told me (rather grumpily) not all people with full-time jobs use their vacation time—as I well know. My father never took his vacations nor did he use his sick days as long as he was a professor in the University of Wisconsin system (from 1967-1990; he retired at the age of 75).
But, as Jas’s question implies, vacations and time off are tricky for freelancers. A friend of mine, who worked for decades as a freelance therapist, took at least two long vacations per year. She worked out of her garage, remodeled to be a comfortable space with an exterior door, and as a result, she rarely left home. Her work was so emotionally intense that if she didn’t take time off on a regular basis, she would have burned out.
Then there’s me. When I worked real jobs, I couldn’t wait to get home so that I could read, write, and watch TV/movies (create and consume stories, as my husband says). Now I “work” every day at reading, writing, and watching TV/movies. When I travel, I’m storing up experiences for my work—and I’m usually reading and writing along the way.
My last (and only) real vacation came in 2005. I had had a series of health problems, some serious business setbacks, and some financial reversals. Suddenly a truckload of money came in, more than expected. Dean and I saved most of it, but we decided to spend a small fraction on a vacation. We meandered all over the West Coast. Our only deadline: tickets to see George Carlin in Las Vegas ten days from the day we left.
We explored, shopped, and saw friends. We bought books. We bought more books. I read books. I did not write. I slept. We visited casinos. Dean played poker. I read—and learned that people look at you strangely when you read books in casinos. We saw many different shows. We saw George Carlin perform what would later become his last HBO special.
It is the first (and only) time I have ever spent more than a week away from writing without going insane. That tells me just how exhausted I was.
Usually, however, I bring my laptop on any trip. I write. I read. I explore. I love visiting cities and seeing their history. But then I return to my hotel room and write about what I’ve seen. I enjoy this, and find it refreshing.
But that’s me.
Now, let’s hear from other freelancers.
First, the folks who do not make the bulk of their living writing (or editing) fiction:
Shanti Fader’s freelance work includes proofreading, copy editing, transcriptions, online research, data entry, and jewelry-making. You can see her jewelry designs at www.tattedbutterfly.etsy.com.
“If you’re taking about vacations taken from freelance work,” she writes, “my last vacation was last June, when I took off the week before and after my wedding. I told my regulars I wouldn’t be available during those weeks, and didn’t actively seek out any other work.”
Glenn Hauman, who describes what he does as “whatever needs to be done” at the website www.comicmix.com, writes, “‘Vacation’ is such a tricky word. There are lots of times I’ve spent an extra day in a city I had to go to because of a convention. Or in some cases, I’ll drive, even though the convention is a good fifteen hours away by car. There are lots of times that I’ve had to scribble down a thought for later exploitation or take a photo for future reference. So if capturing an inspiration is work or taking the time to develop it out is work, then yeah. There are even vacation moments that turn into work—witness this year’s Easter dinner which turned into three hours of tech support for a friend of my mother.”
Randy Tatano, who works as a freelance broadcast news reporter, mostly for NBC, writes, “if I can’t take vacations, you might as well shoot me. I’d rather cut back in other areas if I have to.”
He and his wife generally take one or two trips a year. They just booked a trip to Europe for their 20th anniversary. He has advice for reporters at his blog, http://tvnewsgrapevine.blogspot.com/search?q=12%3A00+noon.
Before Rick Dickson left his job as a liquidation consultant to become a full-time fiction writer, he took only one formal vacation in ten years. He describes his former consulting job like this:
“I was Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, except that I was hired by insurance regulators to pull apart dead insurance companies: find the money, prove where it went, and work to get it back. (Mostly profit-sharing, international fronting agreements, and reinsurance contracts.) Sadly, ‘no,’ I never got the girl.”
As to why he took only one formal vacation, he says, “As a consultant, I had a lot of downtime between assignments. When you’ve got a job where the phone can ring at any time to the question, ‘How fast can you be in **insert city name here**?’, you need to consider these times to be vacation too. I did a lot of the local things…biking, hiking, flying, and playing tourist. The problem with scheduling a ‘real’ vacation was that I had to do that months in advance and always ended up needing to postpone due to a big client’s emergency call (which meant those vacations never materialized).”
I can empathize. When Dean and I owned and operated our own publishing house, Pulphouse Publishing, we never had a real vacation either, although we traveled all over the United States. In those days before cell phones were cheap and common, we would get off the airplane for a two-hour layover and spend most of that time on a payphone. We spent a lot of time dashing from place to place, often to meet the needs of the business, and rarely with more than a few hours off.
Vacation time truly does depend on the type of freelancing you do. But most freelancers I know have the problems Rick and Shanti mentioned: Clients who expect the work done now. It takes a lot of juggling to get time away—even for your wedding.
Freelance writers, editors, and artists have other problems. We used to do this work for free in our time off.
As Gerald M. Weinberg, who has freelanced for more than fifty years, says, “By my definition, a vacation is an escape from work you don’t want to do. According to my definition, I’ve been on a real vacation for a long, long time.”
He’s been spending his vacation time writing fiction and nonfiction. His most recent book is Perfect Software (And Other Illusions About Testing). You can find his many, many other publications and fascinating biography at www.geraldmweinberg.com.
He’s not alone in this attitude toward freelancing. I share it. So does Laura Anne Gilman. Laura Anne used to be my book editor at Roc before she saw the light and gave it all up to write her own novels. The most recent, Blood From Stone, appeared in May. Check out her very excellent blog at www.lauraannegilman.net.
About vacations, she writes, “If you want the last time I took a vacation where I did no writing, no editing, nothing related to the day job, I think that was 2004. I was bored.”
Dave Wolverton, who has written fifty novels under different names (the latest, The Wyrmling Horde), says, “I take a day off every few months, but I’d go nuts if I tried to take two days in a row. I have to be very sick to do that.”
Some writers aren’t as happy about their lack of time off. Russell Davis, whose most recent novel (written as Cliff Ryder) is The Ties That Bind, wrote a succinct answer. He took his last real vacation in 1996 and, he editorializes, “that is pretty damn pathetic.”
You can find his blog at www.westernsensibility.blogspot.com.
Some writers just flat out answered my question with dates and times. It amazes me how we can all remember that last “real” vacation—and how, for many of us, it was long ago.
Carole Nelson Douglas, whose most recent novel, Brimstone Kiss, came out in November, writes, “My Last Vacation: February 1987, when my husband and I drove to Corpus Christi and South Padre Island after moving to Texas in 1984. We had to cut our vacation short and drive back to Fort Worth to get some sales figures my new publisher needed right away for a forthcoming book.”
Laura Resnick’s answer was so succinct, I asked her to clarify. To my initial inquiry, Laura wrote, “July 2006.” And that was it.
I responded: “No work, no writing at all? What kind of vacation?”
And she answered, “I stopped off in England for two weeks in July 2006, on my way home from Jerusalem. Spent the time visiting friends around the country. However, I did three days of on-site research for a book idea: We drove around, collected brochures, took photos, visited places of particular interest to me viz my short story idea. But I only count writing as work; I don’t count touring a beautiful area with a particular agenda as work.”
For my day-to-day business, as you’ll see later, I only count words on the page as work too. But research is part of writing, and I would have counted Laura’s trip as work. To each her own.
Some writers couldn’t remember the exact date of their last vacation. Irene Radford, who writes under various names (her latest novel Fairy Moon, written as P.R. Frost, will appear in June) and blogs at www.ireneradford.com, initially wrote that she and her husband Tim, “take day trips when I don’t even look for bookstores to do drive-by signings. Other than that? Probably 1993 before I sold my first book.”
But then, later e-mails revealed Irene to be in the same category as me, Dave Wolverton, and Laura Anne Gilman. Irene said (and I love this), “Freelancing is as much a calling as a career. I cannot not write. I go insane if I’m not actively creating something in my head or on my computer. More than two days off and I start drifting away from conversations, seeing fictional landscapes instead of actual ones. My fingers itch for pen and paper or the touch of a keyboard.”
While Irene wasn’t exactly sure when her last vacation was, Keith R.A. DeCandido had to be corrected about the date of his on a public forum. Keith, another one of my editors who gave it all up for the freelance life, answered my question on the board instead of e-mailing me directly. He wrote:
“You mean [a vacation] in which I didn’t work at all? **thinks** Probably New Orleans in 1997, when I was working for Byron Preiss. For the week prior to the World Fantasy Convention, I did not work and didn’t let the office know how to get in touch with me. It was bliss. Every vacation I’ve taken since has had a work component. (I went full-time freelance in 1998).”
After he posted that, another writer popped on the board with this addition, “Dude, that convention was in 1994,” which surprised Keith.
Keith, whom you can find at http://kradical.livejournal.com describes his work as “freelance writing (of both fiction and nonfiction) and editing.”
His most recent book is Star Trek: A Singular Destiny, but his most recent publication would be the ongoing Farscape comic books.
Keith’s mother, GraceAnne Andreassi DeCandido, also freelances. She describes her work as a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. Her most recent publication is in The Horn Book magazine for January/February, 2009. Everything else she does is listed at www.well.com/user/ladyhawk/gadhome.html.
She writes, “The last real vacation I took was eight glorious days in Paris in 2006. The thing about both freelancing and teaching is that there is almost never a day that I cannot take a couple of hours and do what I want, but at the same time, I am never ‘off.’ Student e-mail must be answered even late on Saturday night; editing web site material gets done between larger assignments, and I am tied to the academic year tightly since I teach summers too. Those eight days were actually completely free of any work, and it was lovely. But it was a long time ago.”
Most writers consider single days away from conventions vacations. The content of Mike Resnick’s initial paragraph matches Glenn Hauman’s almost exactly:
“Tricky question,” Mike writes. “If you mean a day tacked onto the end of a convention, then January of this year. Other than things like that, 1984—we took 10 days in England, and I only spent one day visiting my British editors or doing any kind of business. Didn’t do business during any of our safaris, but a lot of each turned up in novels and short stories and was always intended to.”
Mike Stackpole, freelance writer, game designer, and creative consultant, gets one vacation per year, a three-day fishing trip in Maine.
“The trick is this,” Mike writes. “It’s a family outing, and the last two years I’d not have gone if my father didn’t need someone to drive him from Vermont to Maine—I would have let work interfere.”
Mike, whose latest publication is The New World, adds, “Other than that, I really haven’t had a vacation in the last 30 years.”
You can find out what Mike’s been doing for the last 30 years at www.stormwolf.com (and while you’re there, check out his writing newsletter, The Secrets).
Jennifer R. Baumer, who hasn’t yet succumbed to the temptation of a website, has published over 700 articles in local, regional, and national markets, as well as ghostwritten eight books. She went to Disneyland in March with her husband, but “I worked all through the weekend before and the Monday before we left and had a meeting the day after we returned.”
She adds, “It’s almost so hard to get ready for a vacation, finishing articles, dealing with deadlines from multiple projects and relaxing clients who panic, that sometimes it feels not worth it. Conversely, or perhaps exactly the same-ly, it sometimes seems easier and more relaxing to work some during that time than to have it preying on one’s mind. (Fiction doesn’t count—I wrote fiction both nights we were in the hotel at Disneyland and was perfectly happy.)”
But not all freelance writers have the same attitude toward vacations. Steve Perry, whose latest book is Predator: Turnabout, reports that he takes “the camper out once or twice a month for at least a weekend, three days if we can, and at least one longer stint every summer.”
Then he adds, “I love my work, but I also want to have a life—what’s that old saying? Nobody on their death bed says, ‘Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’ If all I did was write, what would be the point?”
You can find many more of Steve’s opinions at www.themanwhonevermissed.blogspot.com (and while there, nag him to write more short stories).
Jane Yolen manages to have a life as well. She says, “I go to Scotland for four months every year. Have for 18 years. Yes, I still write, but half of every day is playing with friends. And when my kids come to visit, for the 2-4 weeks they are there, we play all day long.”
In her response to my question, Carrie Vaughn, author of the Kitty series (the latest, Kitty Raises Hell), makes her priorities clear: “I’ve been freelancing since 2007, and I try to take a trip every year. I went to Belize for a week last March (2008) and will be going to Hawaii with my family in June. I also try to take an extra couple of days when traveling for work….I should mention that I love traveling and will take a trip before replacing a broken appliance.”
Follow her travels and upcoming publications at www.carrievaughn.com.
For most freelance writers and editors, however, the biggest factor in taking time off is money.
John Ordover, another of my former editors who has gone freelance, writes, “When freelancing, I was less likely to spend money on a vacation because without a salary coming in, I never knew how long the money in the bank had to last.”
John now owns and runs JJO Productions (www.jjoproductions.com) a media consulting and production company
Alexandra Honigsberg is even blunter. Alexandra is a freelance writer/editor, an adjunct instructor of Philosophy and Theology at St. John’s University, and a freelance lecturer in those fields as well as a freelance musician, a corporate consultant in ethics, and an itinerant priest and chaplain of the Old Catholic Church with an emphasis on interfaith dialogue.
She writes, “I live so close to the bone that any trip is for something that is an absolute necessity and then I tag on a few days before/after for myself and keep a tight budget….I invented the freakin’ Stay-cation. I live in NYC…so many fabulous free things to do. I’ve done all the touristy things in my town and many things off the beaten track as well…a meal in a cool ethnic restaurant can be a mini-vacation, a spa/salon day, a ride up the Hudson on the Dayliner with a picnic lunch, a cheap rental car drive up to Rhinebeck for the day, taking the scenic route…those are affordable ways that I keep my sanity…but no, no real vacations. Just not possible on what I’ve been making, so far, but hey, I’m still here, still in my great apartment, and still pluggin’ away.”
Her latest article, “The Un-Ethics of Watchmen,” can be found on Glenn Hauman’s Comic Mix website. Her latest short story, “In His Own Image,” appeared in Ravens in the Library, edited by Phil Brucato and Sandra Buskirk. She’s currently too busy to design a website (clearly!).
Award-winning editor, Ellen Datlow, keeps an eye on the bottom line for the tax man. She writes, “Even when employed, I’d add on days to business trips for vacation. I’ve rarely gone on trips that are exclusively for pleasure, other than trips with my family for special occasions—my parents’ 50th and 60th anniversaries. But since most of my friends are somehow involved in the field, my visits to them are usually tax deductible.”
One of the friends who often provides the tax deduction for Ellen is Pat Cadigan, who moved from Kansas City to London some years ago. Pat, whose latest short story, “Truth and Bone,” can be found in Ellen’s Poe anthology, “The last time I went on a vacation that was totally a vacation was Thanksgiving, 1999. My son had moved back to the U.S. to live with his dad, so I took my mother to Kansas City so we could have Thanksgiving with him. This was only technically a vacation in that it did not involve any work. Traveling with my mother is not a vacation. I’d like to build a vacation into a business trip but I’ve never been able to afford it.”
In the sf field, however, business trips are often to interesting places. Ellen and Pat went to Worldcon in Japan a few years ago. I went to Paris four times on someone else’s dime (and worked hard, ate plenty, and fell in love with the city).
He and his wife Susan “went to Australia…and toured there, but a great deal of the initial cost of getting there and back was defrayed by Clarion South, who wanted me to teach, so I guess that was work-related, or at least SF-related.”
He has moved to fulltime freelancing in the past few years, and adds, “We may well never be able to afford to have a pure vacation vacation again, although I hope to still be able to do some SF-related things like going to Worldcon, which can be valuable, as a place to scout for work. I picked up a couple of gigs from going to Denver last year, for instance.”
Like Gardner, I got a lot of work at Denver’s Worldcon, and I had a lot of fun too. I don’t count such trips as vacations, but I do enjoy them immensely as a way to see friends, stay in touch with the field, and meet people.
But some freelancers quoted above would have counted the Worldcon time as vacation (no writing) and others would not have. It’s clear that each freelancer designs her own career, making her own rules, and figuring out what works for her.
Which is what any new freelancer has to do. You can work too much, especially if you’re in a high burnout profession, like therapy or broadcast journalism. You can also work too little.
You have to find the balance yourself.
If you can’t afford a vacation, take a leaf from Alexandra Honigsberg’s book and take a stay-cation. Not all of us live in New York City (sigh), but we all have interesting sights near our homes. I always take my birthday off, and usually, Dean and I go somewhere nearby and see the sights. Last year, we went to Portland, only two hours away, and met up with my sister, showing her Powell’s Books and then exploring Old Town, which I had never really visited before.
To answer Jas’s question, “How do you justify even one day off?”
You shouldn’t have to justify at all. People deserve time off. There’s always one more page to write, one more project to finish, one more book to read. There’s always a client with an emergency or a news story breaking somewhere. Sometimes you just have to shut off the cell phone, shut down the computer, and go to the beach.
Often, that’s more than enough.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Vacations”copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
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