Note: I agonised over whether I should share this post at all, especially on my work blog – but I decided it is better to talk about these things. I also stressed over what to call it, but decided anything else would be a euphemism.
This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I haven’t done it before partly because I didn’t dare to admit weakness, and partly because I felt too inert to actually crank out the words.
For those who know me, online or in real life, that part about inertia might seem unlikely, I know. I run an editorial business. I mentor other editors. I have two children, and do my fair share of looking after them. I write short stories and novels in my spare time. I’m studying part-time for an MA. I blog. Sometimes I manage to vacuum the stairs. Heck, I even make meatballs from scratch. People quite often say to me things like ‘I don’t know how you fit it all in’, or ‘I don’t know where you find the energy’. I smile and shrug (or the digital equivalent), while secretly thinking ‘I don’t know either’ … and sometimes, ‘yes, but it’s nearly breaking me’.
Everybody knows that freelancing is hard, and I’m not complaining about that. It’s hard, but worth it. I can’t think of anything else I’m qualified to do that would allow me as much flexibility to be with my family and pursue my own creative interests. But running a business, year in, year out, takes its toll. It’s not the hours, which in my case are quite manageable. It’s the hunting down project after project, and doing every single one to the best of your abilities. There’s rarely a time when you can let your guard down – you feel a need to excel at everything, because if you don’t, you will lose out. And losing out means not being able to pay the mortgage or buy things to eat. Everyone slips up sometimes (I know I have) but still, you need to be performing as well as you can as much of the time as humanly – or inhumanly – possible, or you simply won’t have a viable business. If there’s one thing the world’s not short of, it’s freelance editors.
Being on your best behaviour all the time is exhausting, but it becomes a way of life, and if you’re not careful, you’ll apply it without thinking to all other areas of your existence, too. Everything becomes measurable. Everything becomes an opportunity to achieve. Everything becomes a chance to shine – and if not, then it’s a chance to fail.
My six-year-old son was talking to me the other day on the way home from school, about being given a certificate for swimming. ‘Are you proud of me?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’m always proud of you.’ ‘But are you proud of me because I’ve achieved something?’ he said. Pigheadedly I mumbled on about being proud of him in general, all the time, and he kept pushing me to acknowledge that I was proud, specifically, of his achievement. In the end I gave in, but ruined the effect by adding that I would be proud of him whatever, and that achievement wasn’t important – it was him being happy that mattered.
This might say as much about my insecurities as his. The idea that I’m bringing either of my children up in a world in which ‘achievement’ is the thing to aim for at all costs makes me shudder. But then I realise what kind of example I’m setting them – and I have to take responsibility for this too. It’s not just society at large. It’s me, with my relentless pushing: pushing to keep things going, pushing to be if not always the best, then the best that I can be. At all times. No respite. No cutting myself any slack. Nowhere to go to hide from it all when it gets a bit much.
I suspect I’m not alone. Freelance editors are experts at absorbing problems and unobtrusively fixing them. We do it all day, every day. And we measure everything, and work out if we’re doing it well, and if it’s making us enough money, and how we can do it all better next time. Always this incremental drive for better. We can always be better.
My current jaded state has been made worse by environmental factors. Lingering winter, and associated lingering illness. Mostly terrible news, deteriorating over the past couple of years. People slugging it out on social media, which can be hard to avoid because I also find social media a positive and interesting addition to my life. All my friends being similarly worn out by the cold, cruel climate in which we seem to find ourselves. And in the UK we have a government intent on encouraging division, punishing the vulnerable in particular, and making everyone who is not part of the one per cent work ever harder, for less. Still, the harder we work, I guess the less energy we’ll have to resist.
To make matters worse, on a more trivial note, my grey hairs and wrinkles are multiplying. I took a selfie the other day in which I looked like the Emperor in Star Wars, I swear – and I try to be cool with this, really, but it can be hard. I have eyes to see the posters of women having their jawlines painlessly reshaped while contemplating my own sagging jowls in the hairdresser’s mirror. It can feel like everything’s on the slide all at once. (Oh great: now I’m aware of my own looming deadline!) And it shouldn’t matter, in a world in which so many more awful things happen than me showing signs of middle age, and realising that time’s getting on. But it does, a little.
As I write this, I have no clear answer, only hints of green shoots. I will keep at it, because there are people to look after, and I’m extremely lucky to have the work to enable me to do this. But I know I also need to look after myself more, or something will give. Allow myself permission sometimes just to sit and stare into space, or read without analysing, or watch without trying to find meaning. Be fully present on those walks home from school. Talk to friends, talk to other editors (the two aren’t mutually exclusive!). Go for a totally frivolous walk and not worry about all there is waiting to be done when I get back. Take proper time off. Get out and enjoy the spring – when it finally arrives.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998 – and she needs to remember to take a break sometimes.