Thursday, December 9, 2010

The unexpected mental work of working (and writing) at home.

While teaching and occasional client meetings get me out and about and among other humans from time to time, I work at home and alone much of the time. Mostly, this is a terrific arrangement; I tend to work best on my own, love the quiet, and appreciate the ability to control my schedule, taking care of family obligations and scheduling personal appointments without worrying about whether or not I can explain the missed hours to a boss. Most of all, I like working in sync with my own somewhat skewed mental and physical body clock (which explains why those who know me are not surprised to see cogent emails time-stamped 2:30 a.m.).

If this wasn't the case, I wouldn't have chosen, back in 1990, to leave a lucrative, normal job and "go freelance." Nearly every day since, I've spent a few or far too many hours in my home office. Before devoting myself almost entirely to writing, editing and teaching, my independent working life had a few different incarnations – I ran a tiny but profitable public relations agency, conducted research for a major real estate company (basically spied on its sales force to see who was doing their jobs well, or in many cases, abysmally), and planned events for nonprofit organizations. All of these projects involved a good deal of time on the telephone, at in-person meetings, and otherwise interacting with real humans in real time.

And you know what, I miss that. Well, I miss parts of that. I don't miss needing to go out to meetings every single day, always being available from nine to six, or knowing that the phone will ring almost non-stop most of the day. But I do miss knowing that the otherwise cherished calm of my week will be reliably punctuated by appointments with other working adults at someplace other than my dining room table, where we will talk about something other than how badly my current writing is going.

I'm full of crap, of course.

When I do have a week when I glance at the calendar on a Monday and see that nearly each day I'll need to put on real clothes and go out into the world more than twice, I immediately panic and worry, "Damn, now when will I get any writing done?"

Yet, I've noticed that on the weeks when I do venture out of that home-office, away from my dining room table, whether it's to teach, to work with an editing or ghostwriting client, or even to have lunch with a friend who works in some unrelated field, or occasionally when I take myself somewhere busy just to get the hell out of my own way, I find my writing lurches forward in a more energized way once I crawl back into my office.

When I was a teenager, I used to think my father was a little bit crazy because he liked to sit someplace with a cup of coffee and do what looked like nothing. It usually wasn't by choice; often he was waiting for my mother to finish shopping, or had arrived hours early for a flight (in the days before airport security measures). I thought he was a bit daft for not doing something productive with his time, like reading. After he died and I discovered the short stories he'd written but rarely showed anyone, I realized his people watching had a purpose after all.

Maybe that's what I'm missing mostly, that rich experience of observing other humans, whether they're sitting across the table from me, or swirling about at a crowded conference. Lately I've realized that the first drafts of what later turns into some of my better work, tend to originate after a period of unusually frequent out-of-the-office experiences.

Any (non-writing) semi-intelligent person can probably see the logic in that: sit at the same desk long enough and nothing seems interesting; get out a bit and the whole world suddenly seems worth examining. Any writer should also understand that gobs of uninterrupted time don't necessarily translate into more words on the page; often it's the other way around.

I've been thinking about this recently probably because it's nearly winter again in the Northeast, where I live, and the temptation is great to stay home, warm but alone, to avoid going out when an email exchange might do the trick, to decline invitations that aren't strictly necessary.

I'm going to try to swim against that tide this year.

I'm going to see if I can get myself out more often, and how that affects the rest of my work life, and my writing in particular. Today I'm meeting a writer friend for lunch for no real reason other than we haven't seen each other in a while. I'm hoping to get there a little bit early.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Lisa! I needed to hear that I have to get out to observe, take in all the sensory bits, in order to put some of them down on paper in the guise of habits my characters have, or exactly how the bite of 27 degrees feels in the nose! I went snowshowing with my golden retriever the past 3 mornings, and this is like the miracle at Lourdes for someone who loves long, lauguid mornings goofing off at the kitchen table, thinking of writing, then getting distracted with something else. Looking forward to working with you in Boot Camp. Kate

kario said...

It's all about balance, isn't it? I find that the temptation to sit at home and write is very strong, too, but I do go nuts if I do it for too many days in a row (and my kids notice before I do!).

I will never forget an assignment Hope Edelman gave us in a writing workshop once: go out for lunch by yourself, sit in a busy restaurant, and eavesdrop. Then you'll discover how people actually talk and your dialogue will be more realistic. It changed forever the way I write dialogue.

Alexis Grant said...

I can so relate to this. But you know what? It's always greener. Now that I'm back in a full-time job, I so miss those days when I went right from bed to my desk to write, without even changing my clothes.