By Sarah Protzman Howlett
It’s a refrain lots of us hear on a weekly basis.
“You work from home? Gosh, that must be awesome! I wish I could do that.”
What these full-timer friends of mine didn’t know was that while my freelancer status meant breezing through errands midday, hitting the gym when it was practically empty, and freely abusing the snooze button, I was, in reality, sinking into depression.
In 2010, I quit my cozy magazine job at Condé Nast in New York City to launch a full-time freelancing career in Denver, get married to my favorite person, and soak up a fresh start in the mountains.
I was writing for big magazines, but I wasn’t proud or fulfilled. Yes, I’d gained autonomy, flexibility, and productivity—but going it alone in a new city meant I’d lost the fantastic social circle known as my coworkers.
I spent that first year sending out letters of introduction, pitching, meeting with editors, and building a website from our one-bedroom apartment—and making a healthy $20,000—but I didn’t make friends, let alone people who understand what “TK” means.
I needed a community
My mistakes were many. Chief among them? As I transitioned into the freelance life, I focused only the myriad positive changes that would occur—and failed miserably at guarding against the negatives.
I’m a pretty social and optimistic person, but staying in your pajamas til 4 p.m. was conducive to neither. In fact, as Bill Bryson says in Neither Here Nor There, some days I wished that I could just get up and walk out on myself.
As I berated myself for another unproductive day—Why am I crying for no reason? Why can’t I get motivated? Why are little things upsetting me so much?—my husband was a great comfort and friend. But he too understood that, without fellow writers to talk shop with, I would remain unhealthily isolated and frustrated. I needed coworkers.
Around the same time, I got a highly serendipitous assignment: a deep-dive feature on how to access, talk about, and understand your mental health. I couldn’t help but bite. For the story, I’d go to a psychotherapist—then write about it.
Spending just one hour with a professional helped me see that writer friendships—along with a daily dose of positive self-talk, showing, and putting on clothes—would turn it all around. I was diagnosed with a “mild to moderate depression,” and telling thousands of readers wasn’t easy, but it was an essential part of the therapy.
Needless to say, the story was a great conversation starter when I began to seek out other writers. Like I should have done from when I first arrived in my new town, I slowly built up that companionship that I hadn’t realized I’d missed.
How I found writer friends
I met two great writers from my area in New York at the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference. Others, I met through my work with Denver magazine 5280, or just by following them on Twitter or sending an email.
Now, I aim to have lunch with a writer twice a month. They’re much older than me, much younger than me, and my age. Some I mentor, some mentor me. Some have kids, some don’t. Some are divorced; some juggle boyfriends with deadlines.
To get our days off to a good (and early-ish) start, we’ll go jogging and talk about what we’re going to accomplish that day. We share links on Facebook, hook up for happy hour, share contacts and favorite blog posts, and introduce one another in an attempt grow the network.
We get each other assignments and meetings with editors we know. We bond over the abnormal professional experience all freelancers share—and we’re honest about the fact that it still does get lonely sometimes.
But we know that a text message that says, “Hey, what’s up? What are you working on?” can make my day.
These days, when people say, “You’re your own boss and make your own hours? Gosh, that must be awesome!” I say yeah, it is— thanks to the community I built in my new home.
How have you found community with other writers? Leave a comment and let us know.
Sarah Protzman Howlett is a freelance writer and copy editor based in Boulder, Colo. Her mental health story, “A Beautiful Mind,” ran in the January issue of 5280 Health. Her work frequently appears in Denver’s 5280 and its various shelter magazines.