It is 12:20 p.m., according to my laptop, but it is dark outside. I am somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, past Hawaii, not yet at the International Date Line. Five-and-a-half more hours to go until I reach Brisbane, Australia, where it is 3:20 a.m. I have watched a couple of hours of in-flight entertainment – two episodes of HBO's Insecure, a documentary about vampire mythology in 12th-century England – but I have also edited a piece of fiction and three features, and made it halfway through a Rebecca Solnit book I am reading for a story. Most of the people around me are asleep.
As a freelance writer, editor and fact checker, I work from home, and home can be anywhere. In December, I escaped Montreal as the days began to shorten and the snow began to fall and headed to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
Increasingly, much of Canada's labour force is composed of freelancers and contract workers. Nicole Cohen, University of Toronto professor and author of the recent book Writers' Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age, estimates, based on Statistics Canada data, that about 15 per cent of journalists and 48 per cent of writers and authors – the categories likely overlap a bit – are freelancers. On one hand, freelancing is, as its name suggests, incredibly freeing. Cohen surveyed more than 200 freelance journalists while researching Writers' Rights. "The word freedom was used over a hundred times when I asked them what they liked," she said.
On the flipside, freedom for freelancers often means the freedom to work all the time. "The way that freelancers are compensated for their labour puts them in a particular position," Cohen said. "A lot of people describe it as feast or famine. If you're a piece worker, if you're only paid for each article you write, the only way to earn more money is to work more."
When it comes to vacations, Cohen said, there are pros and cons. The main con is that freelancers don't often take true vacations – we lug our laptops with us so we don't miss out on work; we juggle family and friends with assignments in a way that often means prioritizing work over loved ones. So while freelancers can work anywhere, we also take our work with us everywhere we go.
I recently spoke with five other freelancers about this, and most said they have had to compromise vacations in one way or another. Alex Huls, who writes for magazines as well as corporate clients, once got stuck writing for hours in a café in Turkey after major edits came back on a feature he was working on. Megan Jones, an assistant editor at Reader's Digest who freelances on the side, recently spent a short trip to New York worrying about a deadline for a meaningful assignment she did not want to say no to. Navneet Alang, a full-time freelancer, spent four or five hours of a six-day trip to Iceland finishing up unexpected edits on a piece. Matthew Braga, who freelanced full time before joining the CBC in late 2016, put a moratorium on taking working vacations with his girlfriend after she waited patiently for him to file a story in San Francisco after a technology conference.
"I wonder if that's part of the reason I like camping so much," he said. "If you take a five-hour canoe trip into the middle of Algonquin, there's no cell reception."
Erika Thorkselon made the mistake of replying to an e-mail from her editor two weeks into her summer vacation and suddenly had a film festival preview to prepare as soon as humanly possible. "I organized the interviews with the PR person for the preview from a café in Montreal, watched the films on the train between Montreal and Toronto, and then did the interviews from my friend's place the day before my flight back to Vancouver," she said. "There was no such thing as demarcating work and non-work time."
Still, there are perks. Travelling for a story gives you an excuse to see new places and meet new people, while hopefully fitting in a bit of sightseeing. Your employer may cover your travel, or, if you plan ahead, you can write a research grant application. At the very least, you can claim travel expenses such as flights and accommodation on your taxes.
As for non-work-related vacations, there are ways to mitigate the anxiety – though, as Cohen points out, we don't get paid when we don't work. Freelancers can let regular clients and editors know, two to four weeks ahead of time, that they will be taking time off; where possible, they can work extra hours in the weeks leading up to their vacations to finish assignments ahead of schedule. When everything else fails, we can follow Braga's lead and book time off in locations that have no Internet or cell reception.
For two nights in mid-December, I booked an indoor/outdoor treehouse room through Airbnb in Sunrise Beach on the east coast of Australia. The listing did not include WiFi, I left my laptop at a friend's house, and I reminded myself it would cost $10 a day to turn on cell reception. I had been awaiting the rest and relaxation of the treehouse since last winter, when I worked seasonal retail overnights to supplement my freelance income.
The treehouse was as advertised, with a 270-degree view and directly adjacent to Noosa National Park. Nestled in a canopy of trees – palm, gum, avocado and banana – and home to geckos, wild turkeys and a whole host of colourful, chatty birds. I was about 30 calm pages into the Solnit book, the ocean breeze ruffling the gauzy curtains around the treehouse's bed, when deadline panic set in. Had I forgotten something? I had definitely forgotten something.
Compulsively work obsessed, I broke down and asked the host if her house had WiFi after all. I was hoping she would say no, but instead she wrote down the password and told me that I would only be able to pick up a signal close to the house, ideally right next to her kitchen door. Coffee in one hand, phone in the other, I leaned against the siding as a butcherbird alighted on the wooden railing of the porch. Before I headed down to the beach, I answered 27 new, non-urgent e-mails.