What will you do if your well runs dry?

Posted on: December 7th, 2010

Welcome to guest writer, Margaret Ousby, who explains how and why she changed her freelance career from that of a copywriter to an acupuncturist.

After fifteen years as a freelance creative copywriter I hit a wall.

I started freelancing because I loved writing and wanted the flexibility to be able to work on my own projects while writing for a living. At first I enjoyed the variety – a script one week, a brochure the next, a speech for fun and the occasional annual report to top-up the bank balance.

I could set my own hours, take extended breaks to work on personal creative projects and even turn down work if the brief didn’t spark my imagination. Compared to my time spent as a ‘corporate wage slave’ I felt free and in control.

So it was a shock when, during a particularly soul-baring coaching session, I owned up to the grim truth – I had grown to hate my job.  Whenever I took a new brief it felt like I’d heard it all before. I was bored. It had become a struggle to turn up at my desk to write what seemed like the same old copy over, and over again.

And worse, it had become just as difficult to write for myself. I was blocked, facing burn out. I resented copywriting because I thought it squandered what little creativity I had left.  As Tod Henry, the Accidental Creative would say, my well had dried up.

I was faced with three choices:

1.      Keep on going.

Which is what I did do for a long time, compelled by the pressure to pay the mortgage. But it’s impossible to hide such profound ennui and even if the quality of my writing didn’t suffer, my attitude did. Faced with the choice of hiring a jaded copywriter or an enthusiastic new one, which would you choose?

2.    Get a day job.

I tried that too. But it quickly became apparent that after freelancing for so many years I was unemployable. I had become feral.

3.      Do something different.

But what? My self-identity had become so closely entwined with my work it was hard to imagine doing anything else. But that’s a dilemma common to just about every profession.  I had a double choice – stop being a writer or stop being freelance. The biggest surprise for me was that while I could imagine not writing, I could never imagine not being freelance. So I started to look at other freelance careers.

My new freelance career as an acupuncturist

Four years down the line and I’m about to embark on my new freelance career as an acupuncturist. I went back to university to study Chinese Medicine. Quite a radical change, but my time as a freelance writer has been surprisingly useful:

  • After many years of extracting briefs from clients I can get along with just about everyone and very quickly get people to tell me what they need, even when they’re not sure what it is. In the clinical setting this means patients feel at ease and I can easily get to the root of their problem and create a treatment plan (which is a bonus because Chinese medicine diagnosis can be mind bogglingly complex).
  • As a freelance writer, I’d developed the art of quickly becoming an expert in a new subject in order to write about it – useful for revising for tests. But I’d also developed the habit of quickly forgetting things in order to make room for the next brief – not so useful for retaining information. I seemed to have an over developed short term memory at the expense of my long term memory and re-learning how to learn was a challenge. Essays, dissertation and case studies on the other hand- albeit in a new-to-me academic scientific writing style – were a breeze.
  • I’m excited about setting up in practice and working for myself (again). I started writing my marketing plan right at the beginning of my studies and I’m building my new personal brand. Unlike many of my fellow students (and potential competitors) who didn’t start thinking about marketing until just before graduation. My marketing background is a tangible business benefit.

The most unexpected bonus has been the creative boost

Switching to a completely new area has flushed away the creative blocks that had built up like arterial plaque. Having another income stream frees up that bit of my brain that was exhausted by business writing and makes room for my own creative projects.  A radio play and collection of short stories are simmering away nicely.

I will never earn as much from acupuncture as I did from creative copywriting, and I need to dip back into copywriting while I get established. But the occasional writing jobs have been a pleasure, not a chore, and I now have expert status in the niche alternative healthcare market.

Such a radical change of direction isn’t for everyone. But I strongly encourage every freelancer to do a regular self-audit. If it feels like your work is draining, rather than sustaining you, take action now. Top up your well before it runs dry.

Margaret Ousby works at The Acupuncture Clinic in Hove.

3 Responses to “What will you do if your well runs dry?”

  1. Ajeva
    December 7th, 2010

    I’ve never considered the question before but any smart freelancer must have that practical sense. I love your insights here and I guess, doing the same thing for years can take a toll and it’s nice to get out there and try something new — while still freelancing on the side. It will be very tough, indeed. But as a seasoned freelancer, nothing’s that tough, really. Cheers! – issa @ ajeva

  2. Margaret Ousby
    December 7th, 2010

    Glad you enjoyed the post, Issa. It has been a bit scary to start fresh in such a totally different direction, but I’m enjoying the ride so far :-)

  3. Elinor McCartney
    September 18th, 2011

    Hiya ,can this be you Mags ? Hope so and delighted to hear of your changed direction Elinor

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