I’m on a rooftop bar in Paris, talking to an American who works in “security” in third world countries (read: definitely CIA) and an allegedly famous actor from Istanbul. The sun is setting, the actor is buying all of us shots, and we’re toasting to meeting new people and getting out of our comfort zones in the golden glow of the evening.
The next night, I find myself in an underground wine cellar in one of the oldest buildings in the city with fellow American tourists and expats along with a variety of other people from around the world.
Our host introduces himself and says, “I’m Belgian — we all can’t be perfect,” and continues to pepper in jokes as he serves us an endless amount of wine and cheese pairings that are perfect and surprising. We enter the cellar as strangers and leave as friends, getting another round of drinks on the sidewalk outside of the bar next door before we call it a night.
As I write this, I’m in Berlin. I’m taking a beat to reflect while waiting for my room to be ready at the next hostel I’m staying at, so I’d thought I’d write up this blog post in the meantime.
Through my traveling, freelancing, and writing, I’ve discovered the perfectly unpredictable lifestyle that I find works best for the journey of a writer. (This is also like a spiritual sequel to my last blog post, how to go on a research trip for your pilot.) Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:
Writers Are the Original Digital Nomads
For the first two and a half years after I graduated from USC, I pretty much just kept my head down and worked assistant jobs and focused on writing new samples and growing my portfolio. I learned everything I could about the industry and the people in it, and then got my break with my first episode.
In those years, I was so laser-focused on climbing the ladder that I lost sight of everything else. That focus got me to where I am now, but now that I’ve had my first “break” and signed with managers and am getting meetings, I’m able to refocus my time onto living a life worth writing about.
Part of that is what I’m doing right now: traveling, meeting new people, and finding ways to experiment with the world around me each and every day.
The writers’ life has been romanticized since before laptop-toting “digital nomads” were a thing. From expats in Paris to writers hiding out in the woods, writing is an act that seems best done in an environment outside of the status quo.
i do love it when a new generation discovers that thoreau’s mom did his laundry while he lived in that cabin— rachel syme (@rachsyme) August 29, 2019
Doesn’t help if your mom still does your laundry, either.
Writing Routines are Boring: Be Anti-Routine
Routines in general are overrated. I’ve spent most of my life trying to build routines — only to relish in breaking them.
That’s when I discovered that time management and being effective isn’t about rigid routines: it’s about prioritizing and balancing, sure, but it’s also about saying “fuck it” and booking a plane ticket or running off to the desert to shoot a sizzle reel or even just going for a hike in the middle of your day or getting lost in a used bookstore.
This bias towards action and spontaneity led me to read a book in a day and attend a lovely True Crime Book Club at the Last Bookstore which was delightful — both in the people I met there and the experience itself. It’s what brought me here, when about a week ago I didn’t have solid travel plans and ended up booking everything last minute.
The anti-routine is about setting fire to your calendar and making sure that the things that are important to you get scheduled, and the rest can land where it lands.
This advice won’t work for everyone (obviously.) This anti-routine approach also only works if you can motivate yourself to write in large chunks. I think this full-immersion, marathon-style approach to writing drafts is far better than the slowly-chip-away-at-it approach.
But if you’re type-A and a perfectionist like I am, too often we’re caught up in pleasing other people. This means we’re devoting more time to their priorities, not our own. When this happens, our dreams and projects get lost in the shuffle.
The best way to have your schedule be your own? Freelancing.
Freelancing: The Power of Being Your Own Boss
I think both of those articles still hold up in terms of the advice that I would give new freelancers. What’s changed, though, is the aforementioned smoldering pile of routines. For me, I set deadlines on what I need to accomplish each week to serve my clients, I block out time to accomplish said work (with a little wiggle room to account for unexpected delays) and then try and leave the rest of my calendar blank.
Yep. That’s right. Blank. (Yeah, it’s scary for me, too.)
This comes in part from listening to Naval’s podcast (if you haven’t, go listen now.) I don’t feel like giving context for this right now and because I’m my own boss I don’t have to. (See? Being a freelancer is great!) Instead, I’m just going to direct you to listen to this Kingdom of Pavement podcast episode I recorded with my friend Dave Cassidy where we talk about some of the best advice we’ve received and also share the books and experiences that have been the most momentum-shifting for us.
Now that I’ve assigned you listening homework with *seemingly* no context whatsoever, I’m going to transition into the rest of this article. Once you give those podcasts a listen you’ll be like “wow Amy all this advice is great!” and I’ll be like “yeah aren’t you glad you just trusted me and listened to those podcast episodes that loosely but definitely related to that article I typed out whilst jetlagged?”
You know, I’m surprised you guys still read my blog. Aren’t you tired of this? Me, breaking the fourth wall? Barely proofreading my posts? Throwing in a cool picture from the Louvre as if it atones for the sins of my youth?
Back to that blank calendar. When you work for yourself, you can work intuitively.
That means, when you need to take a day off and it’s a Tuesday, you can take that day off and have a more productive Wednesday that makes up for the time you took off instead of slogging through a workday while burned out, thus burning yourself out even more.
This also means you can jet across the world and write lengthy, semi-coherent blog posts that should probably be multiple posts but whatever it’s fine and you know what you’ve only had four cups of coffee and almost missed your flight this morning because you overslept and your phone died — but all this is on your schedule, not somebody else’s! (Even if planes somehow missed the “your schedule” memo.)
Freelancing, of course, has its risks and pitfalls. That’s for another post, but basically I’m still learning how to be good at freelancing across so many mediums.
I would also count being a writer in Hollywood as freelance writing — because it is. You’re a writer, you’re working as an independent contractor mostly, and with rooms getting shorter orders, I’d even argue that those are more similar to long-term freelance gigs rather than “staff/employee” types of jobs like they used to be.
(If you’re on an overall deal that’s different, I suppose, but if you’re on an overall deal with a major studio and are still reading this… why? I’m not even being sarcastic, I’m genuinely curious. How did you find this blog? Why are you here? Why are any of us here? Hit me up and let’s get coffee and discuss some existential dread and how we can stop climate change through leveraging the power of Hollywood, okay?)
Freelancing for people outside of TV has also helped me get better at working within the business. I can meet deadlines when I’m under pressure, I can work quickly and set aside any self-doubt, and I get a nice ping of endorphins whenever my clients give me bonuses or praise my work.
I also have the confidence of being able to walk into a room and talk about my professional writing experience. This gives me a leg up because I’m not just some rando with dreams of running a show one day. I’m a working writer with interesting experiences and clients.
I think I’m going to put together a “freelance writing starter kit” or something for people wanting to do this thing. What do you think? Get @ me on Twitter (@AmyMSuto) and let me know what kinds of resources you want in it and maybe I’ll whip it up and post it on my blog. Cool? Cool.
Ghostwriting Memoirs and Content for People All Over the World
I’m going to wrap this thing up since it’s cold here in Berlin (why???) and I’m wearing shorts (also: why???) so I have to go get a coat and maybe a purse because I was dumb and thought that my laptop bag would be easy & fun to carry everywhere (I just… I just didn’t think any of this through, you guys)
Aside from learning a lot about traveling from being in airports every week for the last month (LAX is my second home now and the TSA agents are the equivalent of annoyed older people telling me to get off their lawn and put my laptop in its own separate bin), I’ve also learned a lot about my chosen niche.
On my Upwork profile, I break down why I’m the best writer out there for memoirs and narrative-driven ghostwriting work. I’ve gotten pretty good at calibrating my tone to match my client’s voice. I can dial up my saltiness and pop culture references for fun subscription service copy, or I can get sincere for moving memoirs. My storytelling work (and shootin’ the shit with you guys on this blog, I guess) have also given me a unique perspective and ability to generate content that stands out. (How many blogs have you read that continuously interrogate their readers?)
I’ve also gotten to travel a bit for my ghostwriting stuff, attending my clients’ family reunions or being flown out to visit them to commence work on a book.
This is really awesome work that changes day-by-day, and I can do it anywhere: from the airplane or from a mall in Berlin where I finally tracked down working wifi because cell service here sucks (thank you H&M free wifi!!)
Calibrate and Create
I really love the word “calibrate” and am going to keep using it. I especially like it for situations in which I’m rewriting something. I’m not “fixing” an arc, because that implies it was broken, but I’m “calibrating” it which implies a sense of fine-tuning.
Same goes with my lifestyle (and attempts to pack what I need for a trip.) Every season in life requires different things, so you have to calibrate your approach. Routines that worked for me yesterday get gasoline poured on them today because they no longer serve me.
It’s that reinvention that’s so key: we have to shed our limiting beliefs to get to that next level.
So keep calibrating, keep creating, and find more excuses to book a one-way ticket out of your comfort zone.