A freelance writer turns up in the strangest places. For example: if, at some point in the last year, you have found yourself standing in the confectionery aisle of a Dubai supermarket, holding a box of wafers and reading about the adventures of a group of magical Italian wafer gnomes, then it’s likely that you’ve read my work.
This turn of events may seem improbable to anyone familiar with my non-gnome-related writing, but such is the lot of the self-employed.
In between working as a film journalist and contributing to other non-fiction books and assorted publications, I have drafted tender documents for a catering firm, collated 2,000 questions for a trivia book, written two entire magazines for distribution in a chain of continental pâtisserie, and spent a fortnight hunched over my kitchen table, testing dozens of adult dotto- dot puzzles (each with up to 1,800 dots) to see if any of them had dots missing. They did not.
The trade-off for being able to tackle projects you’re passionate about is that sometimes you’ll have to write about sustainability commitments, hospitality launch events or Ciocolotto, the karaoke-loving gnome who’s admired by his friends as “a profound connoisseur of all types of cocoa and their use”.
Moonlighting usually refers to someone taking on work unrelated to their regular profession in order to supplement their income – an artist doing weekend shifts in a café, an editorial assistant selling home-made crafts online – but when you’re self-employed the boundaries between your ‘proper work’ and the things that spare you from destitution can become less tangible.
On some days, everything feels like moonlighting; it isn’t always clear whether you’re just doing a job for the money or not, because without a fixed salary you’re fundamentally doing every job for the money, even the fulfilling, exciting, career-advancing ones.
Moonlighting within your own profession carries the obvious appeal that you already possess the basic expertise and an understanding of how to approach similar tasks. While not every type of writer would be suited to copywriting, say, it’s less of a leap than attempting to learn millinery from scratch.
In recent years I’ve stumbled into an odd sideline of creating puzzles, which has led to me writing three puzzle books and occasionally testing upcoming puzzle books to ensure that their questions hold together. Trying to make a complicated logic problem evocative and funny while coherently imparting information is a different challenge from my regular writing, but one that’s not entirely foreign to me.
For anyone acquainted with the distinct tedium of data entry, let alone pulling the pinbones out of salmon with pliers or cleaning hair from the grouting in army shower tiles (all of which are jobs I’ve genuinely done), the idea of work that complements your interests and skills is enticing.
While you may get to exercise some of the same muscles, however, it can also leave you mentally spent. Even the dullest admin or job occasionally provides some valuable respite from your own concerns.
Particularly with creative endeavours, sometimes you need to let your mind work on a problem for a while without directly thinking about it too much and doing a relatively unstimulating job can be an effective way to manage that.
The boredom can also be a powerful motivator to make the most of the time you have to work on your own projects, where you end up getting as much done in a morning as you might have in a couple of days of dedicated but meandering effort.
Regardless of whether someone is moonlighting in a related or unrelated field to their usual work, an increased risk of burnout is exacerbated by mission creep: when you do something well, people generally want you to do more of it.
There are worse professional problems to have than being in demand and recognised as competent, but it can be difficult to turn down paying jobs, especially in the early days of your career. You may realise suddenly that your secondary gig has eclipsed the work you really care about.
The pursuit of balance remains an essential part of being a freelancer. What financial responsibilities do you have and how comfortable do you need to be? How much extracurricular work is too much?
How much money is too little?
While you’re asking yourself questions, here’s an uncomfortable one: can a job ever be ‘beneath’ you? There is always dignity in work, and a gig is a gig, but only you will know whether something violates your own ideals or not.
I saw no shame in testing dot-to-dot puzzles for days on end, or even in selling wafers to the sweet-toothed shoppers of Dubai, but there are widely read national publications that I won’t ever write for – in part because I can’t stand the idea of my mother having to enter a newsagent and buy a copy in order to read my work. The instinct of one person might be diametrically opposed to my choice, and that’s fine.
Being able to work for yourself is a true privilege and a pragmatic undertaking. Unless you’re lucky, independently wealthy or irritatingly successful, sometimes work is just work. It pays the bills and allows you to do what you truly care about.
That’s no small thing in itself. You’re assisting someone to complete their goals rather than accomplishing your own. The process can necessitate putting time into ventures which aren’t to your taste, or aren’t done the way that you think is best. Rather than this being disheartening, it can be freeing.
Navigating secondary projects isn’t about lowering your standards but accurately gauging what you’re being asked to contribute, and determining how you can best accomplish that.
Just because something is not your ‘proper work’ doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to have pride in it: those magical Italian wafer gnomes may not mean as much to me as the non-gnome-related things I’ve written about, but I gave them my very best anyway. That’s the job.