Don’t Get Too Comfortable

hibernationI think that there’s a reason that most animals hibernate during the dead of winter. After the holiday merriment and the whirlwind of celebrations and obligations, January stretches out before us like a vast polar plain, and it doesn’t look that bad. It’s a time to unplug all that brightly blinking gaiety; lay on the couch; slip directly from your TV coma into bed; and just enjoy being a load.

Yet while the idea of a long period with little to do sounds great when you are busy and stressed out, living it can actually be scary. Maybe it’s just January, but I’ve been brooding. I’m wondering if anyone else goes through the same thing in winter, especially those who don’t work full time.  Does January’s emptiness always bring a creative funk?

Until 18 months ago I always had work, school and/or small children to order my day. At times it was brutally stressful, especially when I was a single mother in a demanding corporate job and had to give up time with my kids and ask other people for favors I could never return. During my last career, as an editor of two weekly newspapers, I had a wonderful boss and more control over my time, but I still felt stressed. Poor pay, new demands (more record-keeping, less writing and more parsing of canned information between print and the web) and other factors all made the job frustrating and not worth it.

So I left full time work in July of 2011 for the uncertain life of a freelancer. I was fortunate that my husband’s business was doing well so I could do this. And as someone who always worked from young adulthood through my 50s, even when my children were small, I felt I had earned it. My unfettered life stretched out before me, as ripe with possibility as a three-week jaunt to Italy. I had lots of plans to create just the life I wanted – I would finally write wonderful features, become a better piano player, learn Spanish, help Bob with his business, have more time for hobbies and friends, visit my children and siblings more often, blog.

But putting those dreams into action has been hard. It takes even more discipline than waking up at 5:30 to get the kids and house in order before going off to work. It takes being a self-starter, being organized and strategic, and being able to sell yourself…better not suck at any of these. The idea of unlimited free time – of being able to chart your own course — is as tantalizing as the idea of a tropical vacation, but unless you are very focused and deliberate it is as scary as being in the wilderness.

I see many people in jobs that sap their spirit, even people who could probably afford to retire or at least go part-time, who stay in there because they are not sure what they would do otherwise. I know of a few people – my mom included – who’ve retired comfortably and miss work every single day.

How do you carve your own path when up until now something else always carved it for you? You woke up, showered, had breakfast and knew where you had to be at 9 a.m. You did your best and pleased who you had to please. Sometimes you grumbled; sometimes you resented it; but you at least had your work cut out for you.

I still go through stressed-out days when I am grateful that my freelance status ensures I can take a breather later. I enjoy occasional periods of indolence that consist of little more than making coffee, cleaning up after breakfast, reading the New York Times, phoning my mom or a friend, taking a walk, planning dinner. But after a few days of this I feel restless and bored and start to brood. Then I panic as I worry about losing my creative mojo.

So now I look forward to digging into a freelance work project with the same thrill of anticipation I felt when a vacation neared. I’m happiest when I have a problem to solve: editing a 12,000-word interview into a succinct 1500-word article, helping my husband find business insurance or figuring out the programming for our Roku box. Being on your own means constantly looking for opportunities to test and prove your competence; to keep your skills burnished; to stay useful and relevant; to matter. Striking the right balance between comforting routine and discomfiting challenge is very hard, but you feel such a sense of well-being when you achieve it. Every day the pendulum can swing between being bored and being overwhelmed. At my happiest it swings gently back and forth in a small arc, with carefully-calibrated measures of stimulation, challenge and relaxation.

One of my favorite bloggers “On the Homefront and Beyond” tackles the subject of whether predictable routines are comforting or constraining. “Like many of you, I am ready to get back to work, ready to take on the day, ready to return to routine. But not the routine of the rote or boring, but the routine that keeps chaos at bay,” she writes. She says the best days “allow for a little magic and miracles.”

January, a time to keep warm and get comfortable, is when I’m the least comfy. Do you ever feel the same?

12 thoughts on “Don’t Get Too Comfortable

  1. My favorite things to do when the weather is cold and time is slow is watch TV, which i never do in the spring or summer. I’m excited to start watching Downton Abbey right from season 1, and knit while I’m watching it. Many times I find my days are filled with little errands that break up the time but don’t leave me giant swaths of it, so I’m trying this year to restructure things so that I have a whole day each week to indulge. Meanwhile, my Rossetta France goes unused…but perhaps that’s for another season 🙂

  2. As a fellow freelancer, I agree that it is hard to carve a path in the wilderness–and while I have definite assignments from the newspaper I work for, I have to find other work, and I too do some of the bookwork re: my husband’s business. We have to make our own routine and it is not easy–but at least we are not being dictated to. You are one of my favourite bloggers too–thanks for including me in your wonderful post.

  3. Great insights here for writers. I have shared with my critique groups!

  4. May I have your permission to reblog this great piece as a way to share it with my writing groups? Thank you, Renee

    • Of course! Thank you for sharing it!

      • Thank you! Do you have any bullet point tips to share on how best to acquire freelance writing work today? I’m an adjunct writing instructor and have published, but am uncertain how to get write to paid regularly… thanks, Renee

      • Renee, I have made a small amount of money writing for newspapers (the big-city ones pay the best) but I think the real money is in writing for business. A lot of business owners and executives have no idea how to blog, use social media or promote their ideas. Ghostwriting articles for them can be very lucrative, especially if you can also promote the articles to the right venue (my husband does this as part of his business.) Other businesses have online journals that need content; I’ve edited down transcripts of round-table discussions into articles for these sites. At any rate, I am not earning any serious money yet, but at this point just need to be able to make a little and attend to my family’s needs. People who hustle, who know how to sell themselves, and work their business world connections can do very well. Hope this helps! Cathy

      • Excellent Insights! Thank you Cathy! – Renee

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