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Playing Solitaire

December 29, 2009

I recently asked another writer how his work was going.  His response was “I had a terrific day, I changed all the punctuation on that draft I started yesterday”.

I knew exactly what he was talking about because it  would have seemed like a productive day to me.  It’s also accurate description of a writer’s work day,  genuinely circuitous forward progress:  Onward and upward with the literary arts.

One of the least appealing aspects of the work world is having to spend hour on hour, day after day with other people (hell is definitely other people) in an office or academic environment.  I’ve never been a great one for regular working hours but I’m a demon when it comes to doing my own work. The price I pay for being a freelance writer  is being alone for long chunks of time. Being alone as an artist is nothing like being alone as a writer.  Artists don’t really notice they’re alone:  friends drop in, the radio or TV is on, you can do your work and talk on the phone. It’s relatively physical work and even if it does involve a computer there’s a lot of visuality going on. Because I do both, I know the difference between being alone in your studio and being alone with your word processor.  Writing makes smoking and drinking a really attractive addition to your workday.

I’ve had a number of arts residencies that threw artists with fiction writers together.  During my stays I’ve noticed that artists rarely get out of bed ’til late morning.  Conversely, the writers get up early and write in the morning and early afternoon working no more than 6 hours per day (more if there’s a deadline).  They then shoot out of their rooms for a bit of drinking and talking til a late evening beddy-bye.  Artists shuffle in to eat dinner, socialize a bit and then go back to the studio and work ’til 3am or so.  My point is that writers work to an entirely different rhythm.  When they complete what they consider to a reasonable amount of writing, they flee word processor  and solitude to  get socializing ASAP.

To give a more detailed picture of the writer’s job, I asked my friend Caroline Hagood, another freelance writer, to describe what her day.

Letters to Myself: The Life of the Freelance Writer

It’s hard to explain the peculiar existence that is the freelancing life to people who don’t, well, freelance. Sometimes it becomes difficult to separate my personal life from my professional one since both occur in pajamas, with 5 cups of coffee, and my ancient, chubby cat with the crazy eye on my lap. These are strange and wonderful days.

Let us imagine for a moment a day in the life of the freelance writer (okay, it’s me). Mid-morning finds me padding into the kitchen for a snack in my uniform of ragtag, and probably unsettling to the outside eye, assortment of pajama clothes. A little bit of work later, there I am shuffling (and sometimes marching, depending on how much coffee I’ve consumed) back to the kitchen for my reward for said work—some combination of meat and cheese if I’m lucky, cold soup out of a can if I’m not. Often, when feeling particularly dedicated to a project, I transform from writer to adventurer. I know I must eat to go on, so I dutifully forage for sustenance and then slurp my Progresso so that I can sally forth, trusty steed (okay, it’s the same fat cat with the oddball eye) beside me, to add another sentence to my city of words.

Really, all the hours of work, cans of soup, and pajamas to launder, come down to that one shining moment in the verbal zone. This zone often emerges out of the most difficult of writing tasks; you know the ones: they initially appear so confounding and insurmountable that you avoid them for as long as you can. Avoidance techniques differ from person to person, but my evasion is usually of the aforementioned meat and cheese variety; but it can also involve a number of pointless activities, including, but not limited to, internet research that is really just gussied up social network prowling, searches for long-lost items that have fallen behind furniture, and the organization of the iTunes library; the one item it never seems to include, though, is cleaning—a fact immediately apparent upon entering this scribbler’s apartment.

However, on those rare occasions, the avoided chore becomes a piece of writing I can be proud of. Watching that growth process, which many people describe as something that takes place outside of them, is rather extraordinary. It may not be the same as seeing a human born, but these word babies are the closest we logophiles get to that maternal miracle. Face it folks, sentence spawning is sexy.

Yet the maternal imagery doesn’t end there. As my link to just about everything writerly, my computer has become the umbilical cord that connects me to my aspirations. Every morning, I wake up and rush to turn it on, hoping to find a missive alerting me that I have become a writing success overnight (please note, this missive has not yet arrived). One of the most thrilling aspects of the life of the cyber-scribe is the refresh button, which seems to offer an eternal promise of newness; with a single click, everything could change.

The flipside of this button’s potential ecstasies involves refreshing up a storm and seeing, with supreme glee, that I’ve received a message, only to discover that it’s a) a rejection letter, b) the last person I would ever want to hear from in my life, or, worst of all, c) a piece of writing that I’ve emailed myself. I often use the email method instead of the perpetually misplaced memory stick that contains all my important writing, proudly purchased from a guy at Radio Shack who promised it would “change my life.” It didn’t; what it did do was remain permanently lost, causing my inbox to bulge with souvenirs from writing travels past.

If my email is ever successfully pilfered, the pirates will find themselves with slices of thought fraught with inconsistencies, typos, and, my personal favorite, evidence of interest lost. There is one reason, and one reason alone, however, that I would recommend that you don’t engage in this method of cyber memory: good old auto-epistolary disorder, or the unfortunate ailment that comes from accidentally receiving letters from yourself. Let me put it this way, there is nothing more deflating than waiting for a sign of extra-writerial life, only to find that you have been contacted…by your own writing.

Ah well, what’s a gal to do? The writing has become the best of friends over the years; indeed, the sound of a computer turning on has replaced the turning of a knob or the thump of a door in my social sonics. At certain points, living becomes writing with brief, almost surreal, interludes of “real life.” It starts to feel like my stories are reality and the outside world is the mad thing I’ve invented. Yet, at the same time, I need that outer world to write about and, oh that’s right, to have some extra-writerial fun. I’m telling you, the life of the freelance writer can be so insular that next time I receive a letter from myself, I’m going to respond. You never know, there may be some rich pen pal potential there.

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