The Writing Life: The Trials of the Six Foot Commute

I’ve been a full time writer since 1998.  That was the year when I lost my job as a tech writer about a month before I was due to get married, and about three months before the deadline on my latest novel.  My darling then-fiance-now-husband agreed that finalizing a wedding, and a novel and starting a job hunt might be a bit much all at once and we agreed I should go full time to see how it went.

Since then, it’s gone pretty well.  Ups and downs, yes, but in the main, pretty well.  But it also means I’ve been working from home for twelve years.  For twelve years, my commute to work has been no more than six feet from my bedroom.

This, obviously, has all kinds of advantages.  I can work in my bathrobe.  I can work around all the other responsibilities of hearth and home.  I can travel for research or conventions or the heck of it without having to rearrange my work schedule.

Turns out, however, it has all kinds of disadvantages.  Especially after the kid arrived.  Now that I’m also the recipient of the blessings of motherhood, and the darling husband is holding down a job as a lecturer at a major research university, going out in the evening after a long day’s writing in the in-home office is much less of an option.  So, I was having days when I never left the house. Then, while working in this splendid isolation with no boss looking over one’s shoulder, there’s the close proximity of the fridge.  And the television.  And my To Be Read pile.  And the laundry.  And I’m tired so why not a nap, or a pause to work in the garden.  And the deadline’s a year out, so I’ve _plenty_ of time…

Perhaps you begin to see the problem here.  It got worse when, in 2006, things kind of collapsed and I didn’t have any contracts for awhile.

So, to alleviate the isolation, I started heading out to coffee shops with my laptop.  This is a classic writerly solution.  And it’s a good one.  For one thing, I live in an area with an extremely high coffee-house to person ratio.  I prefer tea to drink, but will happily down a cup of decent coffee, most places have a few outlets, and sit, people watch and write. My favorite places to work are the cafes in bookstores.  Being surrounded by books while writing is really inspirational.  Infuriating, sometimes, but mostly inspirational.

And this was working fine for awhile too.  Then, two things happened: the major bookstores went to free WiFi, which meant I suddenly had a lot more competition for available outlets and the spaces themselves started getting a lot more filled up.  I also started adding up what I was actually spending on all that coffee.  And the muffins.  Did I mention the muffins?  Coffee shops have muffins.  And cake.  And cookies.  All sitting right there, available for a small fee to help you over that moment when you’re trying to think of the next word.

Enter, the Workantile Exchange.

Now, I’d seen this space coming together on Main Street.  It’s part of the co-working movement.  A lot of people who work from home or telecommute, have similar problems to mine, with you know, procrastinating, isolation  and muffins.  A lot of buildings in Michigan are sitting empty.  So, a group of people who wanted a good workspace got together with a landlord who decided it was better to get a little something than nothing at all for their space, and set up an open plan office with desks, chairs, lots of outlets, good WiFi and a discount with the local coffee roaster on the other side of the lobby.  For $100 per month, you get a space, internet, a fridge for your lunch and access to the microwave and electric tea kettle.  Oh, and a commuter bus pass.

So here I am, after 12 years of the six foot commute.  I’m making my lunch in the morning, dropping the kid off at school, parking in the commuter lot and getting my exercise by walking into town with my laptop in my backpack.  I set up at an available table, make my tea and get to work.   I work from about 10 to about 4:30, pack up, get my second bout of exercise by hiking back to the car.  I don’t know whether this will be a long term solution, or just a break in the routine.  But I do know this, since I’ve been doing this I’ve finished the re-draft of one book (on deadline), sucessfully re-plotted another due on June, and outlined yet a third due in September.  I have also radically decreased my intake of cranberry-orange muffins.

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The Writing Life: The Trials of the Six Foot Commute — 8 Comments

  1. I’ve been working at home for two years, ever since I moved to Austin to take a correspondent job with my company. And I love it. I get up, have breakfast, putter around, and then around 9 AM or so I turn on the work computer. No commute, no hurrying out the door, plus the big advantage of being able to cook a healthy lunch or to do laundry while working.

    But the reason this works so well is that I have immediate deadlines for my day job. And while I don’t have the direct gossiping socializing at work I used to have, I still can do that via email and occasionally the phone.

    And it isn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be to do my own writing around my day job, even though since I no longer waste time in commuting, not to mention in getting dressed so that I pass as an appropriate professional. Disciplining yourself to get work done when the deadlines are far off or ones you set solely for yourself is a bit harder.

    What I need is a co-working situation I can schedule for non-working days, or maybe evenings — blocks of time where I only do my own writing. I’m starting to think seriously about that, though the costs of the co-working places here in Austin are a little high for such part time use.

  2. I started working at the Barnes and Noble cafe on 80th and Broadway (waves a cross-country hello) when the Young were young and I had a full time job. Wrote two books there, and there were always people to watch your laptop when you went to the bathroom or upstairs to the stacks bookshelves to borrow a reference book. Then they covered up the outlets. So I moved to the Starbucks on 93rd and Broadway (another big wave!) where within a few weeks they knew my order when I walked in the door. The chairs were comfier, too. Wrote two books there, and then we moved out west.
    Since moving to San Francisco I’ve had a hard time finding the perfect writing place. The local library is nice–but they don’t serve coffee. The local coffee shop is good too, but I tend to eat more than I should.
    Still, working out of the house guarantees that I don’t sit about in my nightgown all day, or forget to shower until four pm, or distract myself by doing chores I would otherwise avoid like the plague.
    And Nancy Jane, I totally get the scheduling-writing-around-day-job thing; this week I had hell’s own deadline, and except for two mornings when I was waiting for feedback from my client, I got nothing done. Niento. Even when I wasn’t actively working on the project, it so consumed me that writing fiction was impossible. It’s part of the reason I’ve always liked work that used a different part of my brain–left the fiction part available for access.

  3. Using different brain parts for the day job is probably a better plan, I admit. Though doing legal journalism has taught me a lot about writing, especially on the sentence level — nothing like having to explain something complicated to teach you how to write a good sentence.

    And my current day job beats practicing law or running a nonprofit all to hell when it comes to doing things on the side. When I quit work on the day, I quit. I don’t worry about it or wake up at 3 AM panicking about all the things that could go wrong.

    I’m sitting here wondering about going to the library a couple of nights a week to work for a few hours. That might help. No coffee, but then I can’t drink coffee at night anyway.

  4. So, I’m at the Workantile today. And next door in the little coffee shop, they’ve got a barbershop quartet singing.

    I never got spontaneous barbershop quartets when I was working at home.

    That I regard this as a feature may be a sign that I’ve been in isolation just too darned long.

  5. I have two writing gigs and one transcription gig (and periodically pick up a bit of extra magazine and encyclopedia writing on the side).

    My SO and her best friend work at the same writing gig that I do for most of their income; they finish that to make the daily bread and then switch to graphic arts and noveling, respectively. I switch from it to do game design and horrifying things with spreadsheets.

    One thing that makes this all work is that we show up at one place with our laptops and cheer each other on as we chip web content out of the drivel mines.

  6. See, I =never= get isolation at home. One wife, one dog, two cats, three sons. After-school tutoring, piano lessons, upcoming violin lessons, sleepovers, other people’s children thundering through the house.

    And that’s during summer break.