Ah, the merriment of the freelancer’s Christmas holiday… Naaah, it’s not that bad, is it? Like everything else in this crazy creative industry, that’s up to you, really.
I’m chatting to a few studio neighbours, shortly after returning from two weeks promoting my creative survival book Champagne and Wax Crayons in Japan and it’s bleak on the surface. Freezing cold spaces with feeble oil-heaters trying their best to save us, coffee cups held in vice like grips by numb fingers covered in ink and paint.
For me, Christmas represents something of a double-edged sword, determined largely by what guise the merciless bookends of December and January take on. Several years ago, I promised myself that only in the most extreme circumstances would I work any time between the 20th December and whatever date the first Monday of January falls on.
Whilst working on my university dissertation I triggered a sequence of three consecutive years where Christmas was spent feeling ill, shivering and sweating in bed thanks to my inability to find any successful balance between ensuring deadlines were met and resting my jaded mind. Then after a couple of years spent paying the bills through retail and office/factory work en route to eventually taking the freelance plunge, I decided this time should be an island of rest.
The reason for this decision was that despite loving what I do for a living, my obsessive compulsive to progress at a rapid rate meant that once fulltime in illustration, I found it very hard to rest and step back.
Ah, burnout. Staring at that Christmas dinner through eyes resembling the inside of an empty pepper grinder. It’s not a nice feeling and one that should be avoided. So we look to December and January, volatile and unpredictable months in the freelancer’s year, the naughty siblings of our calendar. I’ve known instances where I found myself on the verge of tears because I was so busy and others where I grew paranoid and twitchy thanks to being completely out of the conversation in both months. In an ideal world, we stockpile any earnings and take a guilt-free break, but when is it ever that simple?
No matter how quiet or busy, I now try to fight off the Christmas wind-down mentality that attacks me from the moment the advent calendar is badly nailed to the living room wall. If things go well, I bank enough money to see me through until a January where hopefully, work awaits. Or, if you’ve had a great December, maybe the hope is for a self-initiated January of foundation building, devoid of client work – personal projects or organisational sort outs. If you’re left all lonesome in the December cold, then the only thing for it is to fight hard to ensure those days are spent wooing clients and beefing up the portfolio with allsorts of tasty new works for January bookings.
Nobody wants to expose their chin the combination punches of a quiet December and January, but I’ve had them and they happen. In that eventuality, well, it kills me, and all I can advise is creating your Christmas gifts by hand and hiding in the toilets on the train ride home. What can I say?! It’s tough. But then in this freelance adventure, these spells happen and we have to be prepared for them.
Lauren Goodland, a friend of mine who’ll be my guest on the Arrest All Mimics podcast episode 51 has created a hilarious range of alternative Christmas cards around her full-time job as a designer. She’s been working hard with her distributor and now they’re available in lots of independent shops. More and more people are buying handmade gifts from makers, so there are ways to force the conversations with action. Nobody ever succeeded sitting by the phone waiting for answers.
Kerry Lemon, another guest and illustrator explains on episode 48 that she rejects a lot of paid work, taking the approach of, ‘what would I like to create and who will pay me to do it?’. She’s rarely quiet and most recently, she’s been designing a block of flats with architects and painting a mural in Tokyo, a job she engineered entirely off her own back.
To wrap this yuletide splurge of my mind up, the only concrete advice I can pass on for this bumpy time of year is; prepare, put away some money and if the worst happens, do not bite your nails down to the quick. Instead, use any festive downtime productively to ensure the quiet does not stick around into February and you won’t go too far wrong. I’ve had some seasons where jolly was a word that came with more than a pinch of irony and somehow came out the other end with my career intact.
It doesn’t have to be a creative block of coal if you behave properly. But you always knew this, didn’t you? Tut, tut. Merry Christmas.
Ben Tallon is an illustrator, art director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries.
He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.