We all have one question we dread being asked at Thanksgiving. Well, one if we’re lucky. If I stretched my brain, I could probably think of 18 questions that cause me angst (anything egg-freezing-related, kill me). For me, one of the most common and frustrating questions I get is, “so, are you still doing the writing thing?”
I’m not sure it’s appropriate to classify my job as “the writing thing.” It feels just a slight bit derogatory—no one asks Joe Biden if he’s still doing the “president thing.” But I understand why they ask. At my most generous, I would say it’s because I don’t have any one job I can point to, no familiar job title on which they can hang their understanding. I’m a freelance writer, and someone who’s never freelanced might not understand the specifics. Among a freelancer’s myriad challenges—setting up an LLC, filing taxes, finding clients, and resetting up an LLC after botching it the first time —explaining our work to those with traditional salaried jobs ranks high.
In my experience, there are two ways I get asked about freelance work. The first is with judgment—people with full-time jobs who believe they’re the only ones on the “right” path. Those who want to help by offering a bridge to the establishment. My parents still send me full-time job opportunities. It’s not only rude, as I’d articulated that I wasn’t looking for a job, but also useless, as they send me links to websites I could easily have looked up myself (I’m sorry to say that I’m familiar with Indeed). I try to respond jokingly when someone asks pointed questions about whether or not I make a living (“I’m alive, so I think so?”) or if I’m thinking about grad school (“no, I do most of my learning on Twitter”). I don’t feel like I have to explain my choices.
It’s not all judgment, though. The second type of question comes from a place of curiosity: people who might be interested in freelance themselves, or who simply want to know what freelancing is like. If someone is approaching the topic graciously, I explain it by focusing on the similarities between freelance and full-time work. I acknowledge the limitations of freelance work, and how those limitations mirror full-time jobs. For instance, I admit that it’s frustrating to pay out-of-pocket for my health insurance (this would be an insane thing to not find frustrating—imagine you’re on a first date with a man who tells you the highlight of his month is when he gets to pay out-of-pocket for health insurance). At the same time, I believe healthcare is a human right, and I don’t think people with full-time jobs should have to have any part of their salaries deducted for insurance. In a way, we’re all getting screwed.
Additionally, it’s true that freelancing comes with an increased amount of uncertainty, but those with full-time jobs aren’t immune to financial instability. Many rely on bonuses to cover living expenses, and those are subject to change. One’s expenses can vary wildly month-to-month, which can create uncertainty without a shifting paycheck. There’s functionally no difference between me losing a $2000 client one month, and someone else getting hit with a $2000 medical bill. Also, 78% of companies will rely freelancers in 2023, so we may well end up working together. When I tell someone about the ways in which my uncertainty mirrors theirs, or our jobs overlap, they often leave the conversation with a better understanding of why someone would choose freelancing.
At the end of the day, what is the point of explaining freelance work to those with full-time jobs? I don’t think freelancing needs evangelists—people who are interested will find it for themselves. Besides, it’s already glorified on TV shows such as Entourage, where Adrian Grenier plays a freelance movie star. At the same time, I think there’s a benefit to teaching one another about our lives, if only to expand the total amount of empathy in the world. So if you’re at Thanksgiving with someone curious about freelance work, consider finding the common ground between your path and theirs—it’ll kill time before dessert, anyway.