Monday, December 3, 2012

Report from the Home Office

Spent all of Saturday in my chair in my home office.

Until a few months ago I had a smallish desk against the window and could see the pine and scrub oak behind our house as I worked. The window faces west, though, and by mid-afternoon I had to move downstairs to the kitchen table to keep from falling asleep in the sunlight. Now my wife Valerie works from home on Mondays and Fridays and my little desk has been replaced by our six-foot library table, perpendicular to the window. Valerie's is the window half and on her two days at home she sits with her back to the bookcases peering into her twin monitors and talking into her headphone as she does whatever it is pharmacovigilance-ers do. The half away from the window is mine, and whether Valerie is there or not, I sit facing the bookcases, peering into my laptop and talking to myself as I do whatever it is freelance writers and editors do.

Valerie wasn't here on Saturday, which is how I came to spend neigh on to nine uninterrupted hours at work. Some of those hours were spent on a project I'm still roughing in: With books (yes, I still use books) and websites to research the clothes, technology, and communities of northern California in the late 1870s; and with my pad of graph paper drawing boxes and circles and arrows as I storyboarded the subplots. A bit over one hour went to a "4 AM Breakthrough" exercise for my MFA class. (Going to redraft it, probably later today [Monday] before sending it in.) I spent at least two hours finding a solution to the structural problem in my regency romance/horror story. Of course said solution involves killing a darling. Rather than the patch I'd hoped would work, I'm going to do a ground-up redraft before sending it to market; gave myself a personal deadline of Wednesday. Woven through all of this was time spent online IM-ing editors about ongoing and upcoming projects, checking for cattle calls, schmoozing with folks who've had work for me in the past and may in the future, and dipping in and out of social media (perhaps too much) just to keep the rumors of my continued existence going. Somewhere along the way I made a public commitment to write my first story for BattleCorps in – what? 3? 4? – years. And I checked my in-box twenty-eleven times for an editing gig I'm pretty amped about scheduled to be in my hands 'soon'.

The thing about sitting alone in a really nifty home office freelancing as a writer and editor is you are always busy, always switching out irons in the fire, keeping tabs on a dozen things knowing only one will pay off, always feeling like you're doing too much and not enough at the same time. You start each day plugged into and plugging away at the keyboard, hoping you're not spinning your wheels until you realize the world around you has gone from morning to dark. If you're like me that's the moment you try to remember if you'd promised to run any errands or do any chores during the day - and if so, what?

Because with no external, universally applicable measure of how productive you're being, an average day looks a whole lot like getting nothing done at all. Family and friends like to hear about how many stories or chapters you finished; the absence of anything 'done' implies idleness and free time. Fixing a narrative's flow; hammering out the details of a protagonist's failed marriage; learning the ballistics of the black-powder .44 Russian; filling plot holes; mapping a trail along the pre-Melones Dam Stanislaus River; IM-ing and chatting and tweeting and updating with editors and book packagers and fellow writers, – none of these sound like work. Neither does writing a column you don't get paid for. And when you do complete projects, there's no guarantee of payment because a lot of time you work on spec. Even when you have a contract going in to the job, there's no direct - or at least no timely - link between writing or editing and getting paid. Last week I received cheques for work done in April and May; I'll be paid for anything I do in December by the end of June at the earliest.
Which means sometimes friends and family aren't the only ones who perceive you as accomplishing too little, if not nothing.

There are days when I think maybe full-time freelance was a mistake, that I should go back to a day job for security, go back to writing before work and on weekends. I sometimes miss knowing what day it is without peering at the calendar and mentally counting on my fingers. I liked having places to physically be every day and wish I could again have conversations that involved speaking instead of typing – maybe even with people in the same room. Most of all I miss the regular paycheques; budgeting as a faith-based activity is way outside my comfort zone.

But do I miss those things enough to give up the opportunity to go for a degree I've wanted but never had time for? Or to give up editing, which I love? Or writing, which I can't not do? Do I miss a salary enough to give up my freedom to spend more time with my wife than I've had in the last quarter century? Not even close.

9 comments:

Julie Luek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Luek said...

I loved this post-- oh, how I can relate. I spend 8-10 hours a day at my desk (with intermittent breaks) working. But the inevitable question from non-writer friends always throws me for a loop, "So what have you published lately?" How do I explain, research, endless revisions, submissions and slush piles? I'm always so excited when I have an actual published article to report. Now, if they'll just not ask me about the pay...

Charles Gramlich said...

it takes many admirable qualities to keep going in the face of a situation where, at many times, you have no objective yardstick to indicate what progress you've made.

William Doonan said...

What a wonderful post! Your Saturday sounds fantastic! Hey, at some level, writing is all about faith - you either have it or you don't, because like religion or the lottery, the payoffs can be pretty elusive.

Liane Spicer said...

...writing a column you don't get paid for...

Umm, your cheque is in the mail.

I too can relate, although I still have a part time day job. There are two reasons for the job: groceries must be paid for at checkout, not six months later, plus, I tend to fare better with a bit of structure.

Lynn Emery said...

You got guts! Go for it :)

Office Space Solutions said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KeVin K. said...

Seems there's a bot that finds blog posts about home offices and puts an ad related to same in the comment stream. The internet is a place of amazing innovation, n'est-ce pas?

I'm particularly fond of the 'delete' function.

Flexible Serviced Offices Provider said...

Outstanding post! Your avid readers can surely relate to your story. Hope you will have more productive days in your home office.