An Honest Reflection on Self-Employment, Canceled Contracts, and Hope


Ride with me for just a moment on this roller coaster called self-employment, in which I try to provide for two adults and six children. This is how it often goes: I live a life of relatively uneventful days and sleepless nights. Poppy is five months old and highly skeptical of the benefits of sleeping through the night; Leo likes to come and say hello early in the morning; Sam wanders into our room in the middle of the night and sleeps on the floor. I do not set my alarm clock. I rarely work outside the house.

This is how I make money: If I can land two book projects per year, we’re a little short. At three we are doing okay. At four we worry if we have put enough back for taxes. We have sometimes gone months with no income. I only tell you this so that you understand the thin sliver of a line between a life where we eat at restaurants and a life where we don’t fill up the gas tank the entire way.

This is the life of this self-employed, freelance writer. I am not complaining. I am just telling you how it is.

* * * * *

We approached 2017 with very little confirmed work. We always know the month when the money will run out if I don’t land any new work. For a little while, The Month was January, 2017. And it marched ever closer.

We don’t look directly at The Month anymore. When I first started freelancing, The Month was like a spotlight in the eyes, far off but still blinding. It’s difficult to live that way, constantly shielding the eyes, and we learned to look away, to look at the here and now. This is the best way to live.

But as we approached The Month – January, 2017 – I couldn’t help but notice my pulse going up. I started driving for Uber to buy a little time. The flexibility is nice. The people are interesting.

Then, relief.

A job. A verbal commitment. We would meet the week after Christmas to finalize the deal, sign the contract, receive the deposit. This was one third of what we needed to pay the bills in 2017, and it was a relief. The blinding light of The Month dimmed. Between that job, Ubering, and other odds and ends, 2017 was well on its way to being covered, financially speaking.

Then, the sucker punch.

A two-sentence email. The customer changed their mind. They’d had second thoughts.

I am not complaining. I am just telling you how it is.

* * * * *

In 2010 or 2011 or any of the early years after I started writing full time, this is the kind of news that put me in full resume update mode. I’d start perusing job sites. I’d make a few desperate calls to friends. And for a few short hours last week, I was back there again.

Why do I try to do this for a living? What kind of a loon am I, believing I can make a living as the sole earner in our house by writing? Wouldn’t a regular income be better, even if it meant long hours away from the family, even if it meant doing something I didn’t love doing?

Why did I think this good thing could happen?

This is the question we ask ourselves when it feels like the bottom has fallen out. Most of us have been there, in one form or another. This is the question the single person asks when yet another relationship fades without fanfare, the question the entrepreneur asks when the financing falls through, the question the couple asks when her period arrives again.

These are the questions we ask ourselves when we are losing hope.

* * * * *

Don’t feel ashamed if you’ve misplaced your hope. It happens to the best of us. Sometimes this planet, with all that happens on it, can feel like a God-forsaken lump of dirt hurtling through the universe.

But also remember this. Hope is not simply something you keep your eye on. “Don’t lose hope!” people say in those saccharin voices, but hope is not something that can easily be kept track of. Hope is not like a set of keys or a tooth brush.

Hope must be wrestled to the ground. Having hope takes serious effort. It’s a slippery little devil, and if you don’t insist on grappling with it, it will slip away from you.

* * * * *

Deep breath. Exhale. Deep breath. Exhale. Deep breath. Exhale.

* * * * *

It’s 2017. 2016 may have taken your lunch money and kicked you to the curb. 2016 may have disappointed you in a thousand different ways. 2016 may have filled you with doubt and uncertainty and cynicism.

But it’s not 2016 anymore. Wrestle hope to the ground. Prepare to be surprised for good. Don’t give up.

26 Replies to “An Honest Reflection on Self-Employment, Canceled Contracts, and Hope”

  1. Now I have the image of hope as a greased watermelon in water – did you ever play that game at camp? Yesterday my facebook memories reminded me that three years ago on January 2 someone put in a cash, no contingencies offer on the house of our dreams – you wrote about hope and sucker-punches then too. And now we’ve lived here for 2 and 1/2 years and hope is still a slippery SOB and I too am scanning jobs and updating resume and wondering what the heck I’m “qualified to do.” I guess this is the joint joy and sorrow of being fully alive. Believing with and for you and Maile.

    1. Ah, the good old greased watermelon days. Yes, I remember that, and yes, that’s a perfect metaphor. It’s hard for me to believe that whole house deal took place three years ago for you guys. It’s amazing how things appear through the lens of a few years. Thanks for your friendship, Kelly.

  2. This is vulnerably and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing so openly. Many of us will recognize ourselves in your story. We are not alone. And we prepare to be surprised. For good.

  3. I really needed those last few sections, especially about wrestling hope to the ground, Shawn. Thank you for sharing this with us. My mantra for the past month or so has been “dwell in possibility.” I haven’t seen any possibility yet come to life but it at least helps manage the anxiety over whether or when things will work out.

    1. I love that mantra, Leigh, and I think that’s the essence of a hopeful life. I’m always reminding myself that this year will surprise me, that it won’t be anything like what I think it will be. As someone who likes surprises, this is a good thing.

  4. and here’s the truth: i have been waiting for your writings. really looking forward to the encouragement and real-ness they hold for myself and many many others.
    i recognize that doesn’t pay your bills; but you are now in my prayers, as we walk a similar thin path of uncertainty and hope.
    you are a true Light for many. keep wrestling. i will ask God to keep supplying.

  5. I hear you. Why do we freelance is a great question. We know some of the reasons, but do the reasons outweigh the uncertainties. I’ve only been doing this full time for a year (October), and so far the answer is ‘yes.’ Hoping and wrestling into the new year with you.

  6. I am not complaining. I am just telling you how it is.

    These two sentences are what we would all do well employing as we share the tender realities of our lives.

    This was beautifully written, and even more impressive as it was surely composed under great sleep deprivation.

  7. I’ve been reflecting (and writing) a bit about hope lately, especially in the context of Christmas and a new year. What occurred to me after reading your post is this: we are told that faith, hope and love are the three things that endure forever; but endurance never comes easily, does it? Thank you for your consistent willingness to be vulnerable in sharing your struggles with such things, and for the insight it affords those of us who get to share in your hard-earned wisdom.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Robin. Endurance is the hard part, but it comes easier when I can believe new things are still being created within me. I appreciate your comments.

  8. 2016 was just another year in a fallen world wig its ups and down. But Sovereign God will never leave. He promises to care for our needs always. Thank you for your open honesty about your life. The problem is as humans we tend to mix up wants and needs. We want big and glamorous so much of the time. Yet He lived humbly and simply. And Jesus was God! I am convicted of this everyday. God bless you as you lean in on Him to provide.

  9. Shawn, I’ve read your little poetry book “We Might Never Die” and was very moved by your thoughts. I will pray for you (truly!) that God bring provision and blessing to your family. Thank you for this honest piece–I’m so sorry about the book contract.

  10. I relate completely to your eloquent description of self-employment! It is not for the faint of heart or for those who easily give up! It is a wild ride… but one I am so very thankful I am able to take despite the ups and downs. After all, it is the ups and downs that keep me tightly connected to God!

  11. Thank you for this!! Hope can be a slippery thing – a delicate, shy creature. Thank you for sharing the difficult times as well as the nice shiny happy ones.

Comments are closed.