Former Newcastle University student (and Courier writer!) Merlin Mee opens up about life as a freelance creative on top on working full-time. He was absolutely lovely to talk to, and spoke about everything from interviewing Vera to struggling with burn out.
How would you describe your job title? What work do you do, both paid and voluntary?
Merlin works full-time at GCSEPod as a publishing assistant, and does freelance work on the side.
He described his job title within freelance as a freelance creative. "That’s the term that I use, because it’s really open. I didn’t want to put myself in a box with it. Freelance creative consists of not only video work and filming things, but also working as part of a creative team on productions. It’s mainly been in theatre that I do it.”
On the side, Merlin volunteers as a sergeant at air cadets. He says "I run their social media and do creative work video work for them...I was kind of apprehensive to join it because it’s military, but the reason that I do it is because it’s fun teaching the kids stuff and I’m putting myself out of my comfort zone a lot."
What is a typical day of work like for you?
Merlin told me about what a typical day of working at his day-job then having a freelance gig in the evening would be like filming a play, often at Live Theatre. He emphasized how important it has been for him to be transparent with his day job about freelance work.
“Say I’m working from home, I’ll get up at eight, start work as normal...I don’t answer freelance emails during my work shift. I will wait until my lunch break to do that. My lunch is an hour long, so I’ll make sure any freelance work I do is within that bubble. But then that I’ve also had time to eat!”
“So usually if I have a gig in the evening after work, I usually like to get there about six to half six. I like to get there a bit early to see everyone again, the lighting team and the production team and stuff. I’m kind of like a semi-permanent fixture there, like usually I know everyone there. I set up at the back, have a nice crack on with people, go get myself a Greggs, and wait for the play to start! It will usually be recording the play or watching it, and then doing the VoxPops afterwards.”
“The cool thing about freelance work is a lot of the jobs are really different. But that’s a nice regular job I’ve got.”
How do you maintain balance and avoid burn out?
Merlin discussed the importance of balance when working in freelance, and how you don't need to make yourself ill with the amount you are working. He explained how much of the creative community in the North East normally are very understanding and accepting.
“I have done it several times where I’ve taken on too much and I have burnt myself out. It’s got to happen so you can realise you have to be more self reflective.”
“Sometimes it’s taught me to be quite brutal in my self-care. I’m a yes person, I will say yes to everything because it sounds like such an awesome opportunity, but then if I feel like I can’t take this on because I don’t want my career at GCSEpod to suffer.”
“Talking to my friends or my partner about it. I know we don’t all have someone we can talk to about that stuff, but for me that’s helped. I’m quite a feelings person, and my partner’s quite a logic person. He will be almost brutally honest about it, but he’ll say, "Merlin you’re taking too much on!"...Sometimes you need that calm logical mind to look at your life and say you’re taking on too much.”
How do you find work as a freelancer?
Merlin described how he first got freelance work and what it was like.
“I had a very big picture idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a director or work for the BBC or whatever...because I had no idea about the massive creative hub that was in the North East.”
“I would say my first ever proper piece of freelance work...I was paid £10 to make an advert about pillows for a pillow company. It was not great, but I got paid £10! That was on a freelance networking site. I tried that for ages, and that was whilst I was doing my undergraduate."
"There were a lot of things I didn’t know anything about. You have to pay tax differently when you freelance...That was really intimidating.”
"I was broke...and was struggling and I just wanted some work, and I remember talking to someone from Live and I literally just said if there’s ever any freelance work here or anything just let me know. And then she tweeted me a month later and said we’ve got this freelance coordinator for Live Tales...I would say I’ve got a lot of my work by talking to people and reaching out. And I know that’s such a cliché answer, but I think that it does help. Even just turning up to events...it is an unfortunate that that is to some extent true, but I think it’s just about trying to get your work out there and yourself out there."
Some tips Merlin swears by is having a portfolio where all your work can be in one place- you can check out his at https://www.merlinmee.com/portfolio - and joining Tyne and Wear Cultural Freelancers Facebook page for advice and jobs. He says “Never underestimate the power of social media."
How have you navigated setting rates and knowing how much your services are worth?
Merlin explains how to begin with working out fees involves a lot of guesswork, asking questions, and getting feedback.
“Because I have a full-time job, because I already have that stable income, any bonus in income is great, and usually my freelance goes directly into my savings or I invest it in driving lessons and stuff like that.”
What's the most exciting project you've worked on?
The most exciting and scary project for Merlin was developing a week long film school for kids in the youth theatre at Live.
“Every single day before the classes would start I was terrified, and I was excited; it was like this adrenaline. That is when you know that you are doing well at something, when you are scared...That was the first time I’d ever worked with young people, and from that film school, I’ve done several workshops with young people.”
Any advice specifically for students at Newcastle University wanting to get into freelance work?
“The great thing about being at uni is there is so many opportunities to practise...so for me that was NUTV, and internships. I did a lot of digital media internships when I was at uni and they were paid opportunities to practise that craft. Whatever you want to do creatively there’s going to be an opportunity to practise that and get good at it and develop your skills and portfolio....It doesn’t matter about your income or how much student loan you are entitled to, there is a whole massive studio of creative things you can do.”
"Use everything there. Use everything you can." Merlin says asking your lecturers about working in their field is an especially useful thing to do."
I had such a lovely chat with Merlin, and learnt so much from him. You can find him and and his work on merlinmee.com, and follow him on Instagram @merlin.mee