Feature Life

Freestyle: Saint John Writer and Editor Kate Wallace

Kate Wallace. Image: Submitted.

All across New Brunswick, people are using their skills sets to make a living – while at the same time being their own boss.

According to the 2016 census, 8.5 per cent of the provincial workforce (31,785 people) reported that they were primarily self-employed. Whether you call them “freelancers,” “consultants” or simply “self-employed,” there’s no doubt they play a significant and growing role in the province’s economy.

In this new series, Freestyle, we take a look at who they are and what they do.

Last week, we touched based with Moncton marketing consultant Natalie Davison. This week we chat with Saint John-based writer, editor and founder of Pigeon Creative, Kate Wallace:

How did you get started?

This is my second foray into freelancing. The first time, 11 years ago, I was fresh out of journalism school and jobless, so it was according to need rather than plan. After a few months of going it alone, I jumped at a full-time newspaper editor position. It led to some amazing writing opportunities, particularly as provincial arts reporter. After leaving the paper, I parlayed that experience into running ArtsLink NB, a provincial non-profit association for artists. I learned a lot about managing projects, budgets and how government and the non-profit sectors work. I’m not an artist, but I admire their creative independence – while seeing how hard it is to be your own boss. I founded Pigeon earlier this year to have that freedom. This time around, I had the professional and life experience to do it right. Or at least better!

What made you want to go freelance?

I hate being told what to do. I’m independent and spontaneous by nature, so the confines and structure of working full-time for others often chafed. Plus, I’ve got a family, and wanted to be able to meet my son off the bus some days, or build outdoors time into my schedule. The flexibility of freelancing means I can work around my personal commitments. Plus, I have more control of my earning potential. And there’s creative control, too. I pick the work I want to do, the people with whom I want to work.  

What’s your skill-set focus?

My background’s in print journalism, with a focus on arts and culture, and my style is very magazine-y. I’m more into narrative storytelling than hard-news reporting. That said, I love writing of all kinds, and the elements of good writing transcend genre. Clarity, concision, style – they matter as much in a piece of reportage as in web content for business clients. Like many reporters, I think I’ve got a book in me (although I heard a joke once about how that’s where most should stay!). I’ve been doing more writing in film and TV recently, and bridging into producing and directing. So, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, one that keeps my wide-ranging curiosity piqued.

Who is your client base?

It’s diverse. I do freelance stories for magazines, some regional, some national. I write for film and TV, and have been moving into producing and directing, so that means working with local production companies such as Hemmings House, as well as the client on a given project. And then there’s the content creation and business writing I do, including ghostwriting blog posts, marketing content, and website text, which tends to be for small companies and non-profit organizations. My clients run the gamut – and I like it that way. It keeps things interesting, keeps me learning. I really like my clients – they teach me a lot about industries I sometimes didn’t know even existed.

How do you go about finding work/clients?

The magazine writing mostly comes from pitches I submit. The film and TV work flows from the production companies. The business writing is mostly word-of-mouth, thank god, because sales terrifies me. I suspect I’m not alone in this?

Do you have to combat loneliness?

Yes. Loneliness is the bane of freelancers everywhere. But luckily most of my projects involve other people, either as clients, interview subjects or collaborators. While writing does require solitude for focus, I am an extrovert, I need the energy of others to recharge my batteries. I’m beginning to recognize that when I feel flat or uninspired, it’s usually because I’m lacking human interaction. I try to mix coffee meetings and social time into my schedule for little boosts. In the new year, I want to start a freelancers’ lunch group to meet monthly to share tips and camaraderie.

What’s your favourite tool/app/website you use for work?

I’m not super-techy but I like Asana to stay on top of my various projects. I live in fear of missing tasks and deadlines and it keeps me on track.

But my favourite “tool” isn’t a technology at all – it’s walking. There’s something about its simple physical rhythm that seems to free the mind. I’m certainly not the first writer to point this out. In a New Yorker piece from 2014, Ferris Jabr tracked the long-acknowledged link between thinking, writing and walking, which goes back at least to the Greeks. He quotes Henry David Thoreau: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

I’ve heard Steve Jobs used to have walking meetings, but I haven’t mastered that yet. How do you walk, talk and take notes? I’m sure there’s an app for that, but I like my ramblings to be purpose-free.

When do you start your day and when do you end it?

With writing, there’s a part of your brain that’s always whirring away, always humming. Even in sleep, there’s work happening, the kind of sorting and synthesizing that delivers fresh ideas in the morning. Freelancing is an amorphous routine, it slips in around the other commitments of my day. It usually starts once I get my son on the bus and often ends at bedtime, with lots of escapes into personal commitments and a bit of fun in between. There’s no separation between work and not-work – even the most social situations often yield story ideas or even potential clients.

What’s your favourite thing about working for yourself?

The best thing is also the worst: I’ve got no one to blame but myself when things go sideways. Luckily, most days are relatively free of disaster.

What’s the biggest challenge as working as a freelancer?

Saying no. Having too much work is a good problem, but it’s also a fast-track to burnout. I love working in intense bursts, but there needs to be a recovery period. Plus, creative work can look different than many 9-to-5 roles, which demand one sit at a desk for eight hours a day. Creative work looks fun – which it often is – but it’s very demanding, too.

When do you take vacation?

Every August, we go to PEI with a group of friends for a week’s family vacation. It’s a great tradition. I used to travel a lot, before I had my son, and miss those adventures. My sister lives and works overseas, so she provides a great excuse to take off. I like to have one big international getaway a year, to jar me out of the coziness of my Saint John life, to get a jolt of creative adrenaline.

One piece of advice for someone looking to break into the freelance economy?

Do not, under any circumstances, try to do it alone. You need help, in many forms. Shell out for an accountant to make sure your money is in order. Ask for advice. Invite experienced freelancers for coffee. And take care of yourself. You’ll burn out super-fast if you aren’t healthy.  And remember to have fun, it’s work, but it’s yours. You chose this – enjoy it!  

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