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June 9, 2020
Special Report

Notes from the home office: Farrin Foster

New self-employment proverb: If a freelance writer working alone from home remains desperately under-employed as COVID-19 restrictions ease, are their barely-suppressed sobs audible to the rest of society?

  • Words and pictures: Farrin Foster

SPECIAL REPORT: COVID-19 ADELAIDE

No. I don’t have any work. And yes, I am aware of my outrageous privilege. Thanks for playing this round of Crippling Confusion with me, a (former?) freelance writer.

The first stages of the pandemic, while horrifying, were probably easier for me than they were for a lot of people. I spend all my time in my house anyway.

Actually, because it’s a tiny house and the lounge room is also the office and the only room with heating, I spend all of my waking hours in one room. A trip to the kitchen is akin to an adventure, during which I view the pile of dishes on the sink as an ever-evolving point of geographic interest.

And I don’t really like people. I quite like (some of) them individually, and in small groups. But en masse they feel like an unnavigable and overwhelming force. With a large group of people, you can only fiddle around the edges of conversation. Everyone – no matter how interesting – is sentenced to survive only on scraps of small talk meted out between wild-eyed looks over the shoulder that are desperate attempts to find someone more interesting. But no one is more interesting in a large group of people. Some people are just louder.

Self-isolation really is an ideal setting for someone like me. And with full acknowledgment of the reality of the pandemic (existential crises, mass death, illness, fear, lack of leadership, forced exposure to risk for underpaid and under-acknowledged workers, separation from loved ones, greedy financially-motivated irresponsibility, loss of income, poverty, under-supply of essentials to remote communities, racist application of new emergency powers, people being locked in houses with people they don’t like and/or who are a threat to their safety, and many more things), it was selfishly nice for me that society had suddenly arranged itself to fit my particular needs.

Now, in South Australia, lots of people are going back to work. This is a signal that I must end my delusion that we’re all sitting at home without much to do. As offices begin to fill, as lines at the coffee shop once more reach the door, as the proverbial water cooler (probably now a Puratap?) is again regaled with snide intra-office gossip, I can no longer think of myself as one of many under-employed people pissing about on their keyboard being unproductive for eight hours a day.

Instead, I must re-enter the time-honoured mental state of a freelancer without much work. I must now consider myself a complete and abject failure.

There are lots of very good things about being a freelancer. Mostly, that you are allowed to be an actual independent adult who decides how to use your time and is never subjected to embarrassing and unnecessary tick-box exercises from an employer that just wants to make it clear who is boss here (not you. It might be Karen from HR or Dave from Accounting or Jeri from Management, but it’s never you. Unless you are Karen or Dave or Jeri and then I hope you enjoy your power and only abuse it moderately).

Also, there are lots of very bad things about being a freelancer. My Super balance (LOL – it doesn’t exist). The day-to-day financial uncertainty is another (but not at the moment, truly I am very grateful for JobKeeper and I also really wish it was accessible to more people). The fact that I’m among the easiest costs to cut in a pandemic is a novel third contender for the ‘Worst thing about being self-employed’ title.

The thing that I struggle most with, though, is the way freelance life’s variability is directly wired into my sense of self. If I don’t have work and other people do, then it must be because I am terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. I’m currently about 99.98 per cent convinced that I am the writer equivalent of a person auditioning for Australian Idol who is so outrageously awful at singing that everyone in the country wonders why their parents allowed them to come on TV.

Finally, I understand the true kindness behind my Mum’s gentle yet insistent suggestions that I take up law or dentistry. She was trying to save me from this moment – the one where I discovered (admittedly, again, for about the 54th time this week) that I am a talentless hack.

This need for external and constant validation is another aspect of my personality. I am Lisa.

The figures back the idea that freelancers have been worse hit by the economic slowdown (we’re not saying collapse, are we? That’s just how it seems in my lounge-office-universe) than employees. But my feelings have never taken much solace from statistics. Being one of many similar failures doesn’t make me less of a failure, it just means I’ll face fiercer competition when I finally crumble and try to get a real job.

The final indignity of the (so privileged yet still so whingy) freelancer-pandemic nexus is that now many of us inverted-comma creatives have time to work on the personal projects that have long emitted dusty rays of hope and guided us through endless hours of client revisions. Yes, certainly, I can change that sentence so it makes no grammatical sense and has no meaning if that is what you want, because one day I will be a published novelist and you won’t.

So here I sit, staring down the barrel of the book I always meant to write, paralysed by my sudden awareness of my own uselessness.

A talentless hack to the very end (of this article that I wrote as a way of avoiding the book). A pariah who suckled on the state’s teat and had nothing to show for it.

I haven’t even had a single Zoom meeting.

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