Writers Worth Week: When the Safety Net is Gone

Today’s guest post is from a reluctant poster. Nancy Oliver reached out to me through LinkedIn not long ago, and we formed an instant, decadent email friendship. She’s proven herself to be someone with incredible wit, hilarious insight, and the uncanny ability to spot phony marketing in lightning speed. 
She came to me with her story of working with Demand as an editor. It was clear from the first note that Nancy was too talented to have lasted with them for very long (and she’s long gone from DS). She found the courage to leave behind her sole source of recessionary income at a time when she could least afford to. It wasn’t until this post that I realized the full extent of Nancy’s courage –and talent. 
Nancy, thank you for overcoming your reluctance and sharing this incredible story.
When the Safety Net is Gone

by Nancy Oliver
In 1994, I started my
freelance life – writing and editing – with a built-in safety net, my husband.
We were a silly, mid-life pairing. When we married, he was 46; I was 36. He was
tall and thin; I was short and thin. I was trapped in a well-paying
but-oh-so-boring technical writing job and worked many hours “on the side,”
cramming words into novels and short stories. The tech writing money was so
delicious, though, I felt I could never leave it behind.
My husband loved my writing
as much as he loved me. He was the best beta reader I’ve ever had. On our
honeymoon, he began to whisper those magic words to me. “You can be your own
boss. Write your novel. You can do it! You know your characters need you more
than …”
I was too scared to consider
it. Didn’t I need the structure that going to an office provided? Didn’t I need
that instant feedback when my computer documentation was approved with no
changes? Didn’t I need that fabulous paycheck?
After about a year of
waffling, I caved, but my sense of impending failure was great. My plan was to
take a few technical writing jobs and work on my fiction as much as I could. I
was in my late-30s, an experienced writer and editor. Unfortunately, I was
still gullible.
My first freelance project
was to work with Sandra, an engineer who had scored a contract with a major
computer company to provide documentation. We agreed on a written contract, and
we were off. But Sandra, although much respected by her client, was not respectful
of her subs. She would tell me she couldn’t afford to pay me because she hadn’t
been paid. She would tell me her electricity had been cut off because she
couldn’t afford to pay both her electricity and me, and that she had chosen to
pay me. She would tell me that her children were eating peanut butter
sandwiches because she had chosen to pay me. She would tell me her furniture
had been repossessed because she had chosen to pay me. It was endless. I swear
she spent most of her days coming up with new reasons to make me feel guilty.
But Sandra seemed to have
forgotten that we were living in a small university town.
Beth, a friend of mine, was a
volunteer in my husband’s department. Beth also happened to be Sandra’s
neighbor, although the two women didn’t know each other. Beth saw lights on in Sandra’s
house at night. Beth saw Domino’s make deliveries. Beth saw the new leather furniture
being delivered. Beth saw two late-model BMWs in the driveway at the end of
every work day.
Lesson #1: You might have a
contract, but people might still try to take advantage of you.
For a few years, I was able
to get paid work without this level of hassle. The most reliable, stress-free
work came when I would work directly with the client, not subbing. Being located
where there were so many universities was also a help.
The fiction, on the other
hand, went pitifully. My characters struggled on the page. My plots flopped.
Nothing seemed to be working right. I was disgusted with the way things were
going. My husband would ask: “Why are the novels not pouring out of those
fingers? You can do it!” I meditated. I prayed. I decided that maybe it was the
fact that I was spending so much time in the technical writing world that all
my creative juices had been killed or, at the very least, mortally wounded.
Lesson #2: A writer (or an
editor) needs time to be creative as well as time to be regimented.
With that in mind, I decided
to finish my current jobs and then devote myself full-time to my fiction. I
filled journal after journal. No fiction, mind you. Just thousands of words
about this ongoing inner struggle I had. Why were these characters so stuck
inside my head? Why were these plots not bouncing along? Nothing seemed to be
working. I couldn’t get to the root, but I always had the comfort of my safety
The safety net’s voice was
ever in my ear, encouraging me. “It’s just because you have all this time now;
you drove yourself so hard for so long.” Well, that was true. And he always
added, “You can do it.”
Lesson #3: Cut yourself some
Just as quickly as he had
dropped into my life, he dropped out of it. In fact, he just dropped dead –
right in front of me. We were doing a minor home repair. He turned around, took
three steps to me, and asked, “Did you say 7 3/4?” And that was it. He dropped
down like his bones had been lifted straight out of his clothes. His first
heart attack at 54 was his last. We had just celebrated our 8th
wedding anniversary five days earlier. My sweet-talking safety net was gone.
After the memorial service, I
began to stay in bed most of the day. After the first three weeks, our
weimaraner stopped standing sentry at the front door, waiting for her preferred
owner to come home. I cried so much I lost my voice. I lost 15 pounds. I
thought to myself: “Can I go on? Can I?”
Lesson #4: You need a plan
when the safety net gives out.
I won’t lie. It was six
months before I could smile again. I was in a perpetual state of feeling like I
was holding my breath. One midnight, as I lay on the bed, staring at the
ceiling, it occurred to me that I was going to get bed sores if I didn’t stop
spending so much time in the “horizontal hold” position, as my husband used to
call it.
I opened the nightstand
drawer and pulled out a journal. I hadn’t written anything since Ed’s death because
now all my words were stuck in the
ether, not just the fiction-related ones. I started making a list — a list of
five things I would make myself do every day. Number 1 on that list was “Get
out of bed.”
Lesson #5: Even small steps
count big when you’re low.
At first, I second-guessed
myself endlessly. Did I want to take that 20-hour a week communications job?
Did I want to get back into the world of office politics? The answer to both was
“No.” But I did it. Sometimes, just getting out into the world is better than
spinning endlessly in your own, alone.
After two years, I was ready
to return to freelancing. It was slow going, at first. I would get a migraine or
a nervous stomach before I met with clients. I found, though, that one client happily
recommended me to another. Word-of-mouth referrals became gold in the bank. I
took writing classes and workshops and kept expanding my repertoire of skills. I
became flexible and daring. I would actually cold call people and ask if they
needed a brochure put together or a proofreader for their newsletter.
It’s been 10 years now since
Ed died. I’m still freelancing. When the economy went belly-up a few years back,
several clients tightened their belts so much I was squeezed right out, and I
had to work at one of the content mills for a while. My self-esteem took a
nosedive. I didn’t know if I could take it – the humiliation of working so many
hours for so little money. I never stopped trying to find new clients, even
when I was at the content mill. I was working 12-hour days, but I was still
trying to make a new job contact every single day. But I did it. I had a
mortgage to feed. The economy began to improve and so did my list of clients
who were willing to pay what a professional writer and editor should be making. One day, I was feeling
particularly morose about working so hard and earning so little. I went to the
bookshelf and absent-mindedly picked up a novel that I had been reading when my
husband died. My bookmarker? A little sticky note with only four words on it,
written by my husband. “You can DO IT!” I took it out and taped it to the wall
near my computer monitor. I doubled up my daily efforts and had my first client
post-content mill in about four weeks.
Sometimes, a new safety net just
needs a little boost to get off the ground. 

Nancy Oliver is a writer, editor, and public speaker
in North Carolina where she spends a lot of time in Wi-Fi cafes. When she’s not
asking complete strangers if they’ve considered working to improve the SEO
content of their LinkedIn profiles, she’s renovating her family home place.

About the author




  • Ronda Swaney May 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Nancy. It's truly inspiring. From the details in it, I'm pretty sure you and I live in the same area of N.C. So it's nice to "meet" you via Lori's blog. Again, thank you for sharing.

  • Samar May 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Nancy, you're an inspiration. If I could give you a hug, I would. We'll have to settle for a virtual one. *hugs*

    I've always griped about having to write for content mills when I started freelancing. I never thought there were people who ended up working for them because of the economy.

    You're a role model!

  • Devon Ellington May 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Glad you got out of the content mill model. That's the road to insanity, not to regular income. In a weak moment, I signed with one when the economy first tanked, but never took any assignments, because the rate was so insulting. I found better work elsewhere.

    I've freelanced my whole life, and I've learned there's no such thing as safety — not as a freelancer, not with a steady job. You might as well jump out and fly, because if you don't jump, someone will push you or kick you. Let it be your choice.

  • Krista May 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Very inspiring! Just want to add how sorry I am for the death of your husband. I can't imagine the heartbreak of losing someone so dear so suddenly.

  • Nancy May 16, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Oh my goodness! So many nice comments!
    Ronda: Yes, if you can't talk ACC basketball around here, then… =)
    Samar: Thanks for the virtual hug — and considering where I was, I had no place to go but up! =)
    Devon: Yes, it's tough having 30 + years of experience and finding out that you need to be tested to make less than $10 an hour.
    Krista: Glad I could offer you a bit of inspiration!

  • Paula May 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Ed was more than your safety net – he's your Guardian Angel of Inspiration. How amazing that you found that note exactly when you needed it, Nancy.

    I second Devon's comment about there being no such thing as safety, as a freelancer or an employee.

    Your post brings up an issue another freelancer and I have discussed many times: The clients who assume freelancers work either to keep busy or for extra pocket change – as if it's an excuse to pay less (or not at all). As someone who's entire household income is derived from freelance writing, I can't afford to deal with people who think that way. Maybe we can add that to Ashley's list of client types to avoid.

  • Wade Finnegan May 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    What a truly inspirational story, Nancy. Thank you for sharing. It takes courage to freelance. However, like others have stated, there isn't a safety net for any career. Do what makes you happy, because as your story illustrates life is too short not to.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    What an inspirational story, Nancy; thanks so much for sharing it.

  • Lori May 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Okay, I'm going to just say what I've been thinking. That note? You were meant to find it. I'm of the opinion that our lost loved ones are oftentimes able to send subliminal messages, and if that wasn't one, I'll eat the bookshelf you found it on.

    Do you remember Ed writing it for you, Nancy? Great that it appeared when you needed it to, but I'm opting to think that you were led to it.

  • Nancy May 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    My head is spinning with all these kind comments!

    Paula: I have another example of Sandra's attempted mental manipulations. A chunk of payment was due in February, around Valentine's Day. Ed and I had just been married the previous October. Her comment to me was that she and her husband considered Valentine's Day to be jejune, and — oh, by the way — her husband was having to postpone a root canal because she'd chosen to pay me! =)

    Wade: Thanks for thinking that this was inspirational. I wasn't quite sure what it was!

    Sharon: Thank you for this kind comment.

    Lori: No, I don't remember Ed writing this particular note for me. He would often leave these types of notes in odd places, though, for me to find — in the freezer on a pack of frozen peas, on the vacuum cleaner… No, I came to return to this book when a friend asked me for the name of a good book to take to the beach. This book by Wally Lamb came to me, but I wasn't sure of the exact wording of the title. As we chatted, I just walked over and there it was — at eye level. I immediately saw the little stub of a sticky note peeking out from the top of it. Of course, I misted up at just seeing the words.
    By the way, the book was "I Know This Much is True." Read it! =)

  • Lori May 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Did! Fantastic book. 🙂

  • K. C. May 16, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    So beautiful and inspiring! Thanks for sharing your enduring spirit with us. Hugs to you!

  • Kathy May 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Just wanted to say what an amazingly inspirational story, Nancy! Thank you for sharing.

  • Cathy Miller May 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Wow, Nancy. I'm with Lori, and believe you were meant to find that note just when you did. You are an inspiration for the strength of the human spirit. I'm so sorry for your loss, but you have the best part in your heart.

    Thanks for sharing what I'm sure was a tough story to tell.

    Sorry I'm a bit behind. I was on a plane when your story hit Lori's blog. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

    Hugs to you.

  • Karen Swim May 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Nancy thank you so much for sharing your story! You truly are an inspiration. I became a widow at 39, losing my biggest cheerleader. I started a writing business and 9 years later I still pinch myself that I am still standing, still here. Sending huge hugs your way for opening up and reminding us all that we CAN do it!