Gaby Conn is an opinion and culture journalist who has been published in The Independent, Stylist magazine, Aurelia, Metro, and more.
She is also a portraiture, travel, and social commentary photographer.
July 12, 2023 (Updated )
Freelance photographer and journalist Gaby Conn muses on her personal need for human connection, and explores ways to break free from solitude in a freelance writing career.
I think I’d always taken for granted how sociable the nature of a dance career was. Days spent in the constant company of others was the norm — collaborating and communicating, sharing sweat and touch, vocalising our creative ideas and absorbing those of others. It was only when I made the transition from dancing into freelance writing that I realised how much I thrive off and actively need that engagement and interaction.
People write differently, but personally, I need total quiet. How people can formulate their own thoughts in a room full of chatter is beyond me. I wish I was the sort of person that could set up camp in a coffee shop, but even the whir of a café’s coffee grinder is enough to throw me off-course.
I find silence is crucial in order to be able to undergo the introspection and reflection essential to effective writing — I have to have space and time alone for ideas to unfurl and flower. As french philosopher Albert Camus quite rightly put it: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”
Landing somewhere around the middle of the introvert to extrovert scale, the prospect of hours spent writing in my own company was never a particularly daunting one. As I found myself in the euphoric flow of writing, a week would pass by with very little human interaction. Every day I would retreat into my one-woman bubble, sealing myself off from any sounds bar the tapping of the keyboard and the voice inside my head, cutting off channels of contact with the outside world so as to avoid distraction and ensure productivity.
Sure, I was hitting the word counts, but over time it became clear that both my mental wellbeing and the quality of my writing were being impacted. I soon found that I had burrowed so deeply into my mind that I couldn’t find the light anymore. I’d had no one to lift my spirits, no one’s energy to feed off, no one else’s opinions to unpick.
The solitude I needed for work had bled into an unfamiliar, lapping sense of loneliness. The polarity with my former lifestyle was stark. I found myself mourning the buzz and energy of the dance studio, and realised I’d have to make an active effort to reinstate some of that energy into my new working habits as a writer.
Though the articles I was producing to that point were primarily op-eds and first-person pieces, I decided to turn my journalistic focus outwards. Writing pieces about other people forced me to pick up the phone to talk to them, or meet for a coffee, with social interactions becoming central to the writing process. I also started to reach out to other journalists in the field, organising phone conversations to share and discuss our work, so that it didn’t feel like such a lone venture.
Gaby Conn, now a freelance photographer (L) and life coach Tomas Svitorka (R)
Freelancing is a tough balance. Writing is, by nature, a solitary profession, but too much solitude can become both unhealthy and counterproductive. As renowned life coach Matt Hatter writes in his book The 7 Questions: “As social beings, we have certain needs that can only be satisfied by other humans. Thus, the idea of total self-sufficiency, I’m afraid, is very much wishful thinking”.
To produce great work as writers, we need people to take us out of our own minds, to widen our blinkers, challenge our perceptions, and fuel our writing. Though we want to protect our sacred writing bubble, if we do not allow people to occasionally enter it, we run the risk of our ideas becoming insular, self-centric, and hard to relate to.
Personally, I’d plan walks with friends to punctuate the day, during which I’d bounce my ideas off them and gather their input. I found my ideas were being fortified and consolidated by the conversations I was having whilst away from the Word document.
The changes I implemented weren’t exclusive to my working practices. I’d sandwich each end of the day with an activity to take me out of solitude — ranging from a dinner with friends, to swing dance classes, or even simply a walk to the local cafe to engage in a bit of light-hearted chit-chat with the barista.
I found the more I opened myself up to experiences, conversation, and connection during the day, the more I felt stimulated and inspired to write; I’d return to my laptop to find that the words would pour more effortlessly onto the page, having untangled themselves whilst my attention was elsewhere.
Speaking to life coach Tomas Svitorka, who had innovative ideas on combating the isolation of a freelance writing career, I was introduced to the concept of ‘Work With Me’ videos on Youtube, an increasingly popular resource which people turn to for a sense of silent company.
These are simply videos of other people working away quietly, which create what Svitorka calls “the library effect”, which may actually aid concentration. “Amazingly, they have millions of views and people swear by them,” he enthuses.
Focusmate is another tool which Svitorka suggests as a way of working alone without being lonely. It’s a free service that connects people around the world, pairing them up for a 50-minute video call to hold one another accountable and provide a bit of company.
Participants may start the session by sharing what they’ll be working on, and conclude it by updating how they got on, with the bulk of the 50 minutes working independently as usual. “It’s a bit like going to a cafe with a friend where you both work on your own stuff,” Svitorka explains.
Lastly, for people who are less sensitive to noise than myself, Svitorka suggests setting up camp in a co-working space. “They are usually buzzing with activity and are full of people who feel quite similarly — though they can be quite expensive.”
As freelance writers, we are blessed with autonomy over how, when, and where we work. We have the freedom to mould our routines and environments to whatever works best for us, and for me, that means inviting, sharing, and engaging with other people.
Connection is the reason I danced, and it’s the reason I write too. I desperately needed — and ended up finding the way — to re-incorporate others into my day, so that writing was connecting me to the world, rather than detaching me from it.