Thursday, September 13, 2012

Yes, It's Work! (September theme) Tracy Barrett



It feels almost silly to have to say this, but writing really is work.

My last day at the day job!
I quit my day job four glorious months ago. I'd been at the same job for 28 years, and a lot of my identity was tied up in it. So was a lot of my social life. So, obviously, was a lot of my income! But it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t do either of my jobs at the level I wanted, and one had to go. I can’t imagine not writing, so good-bye day job.

In the four months (and two days) since, I’ve been surprised at the number of times people have asked me what it’s like not to work. They often go on to say that they wish they didn’t have to work either. When I hesitate, wondering how to answer, they sometimes realize their mistake and hastily correct themselves. Usually they don’t.

When I remind them that I'm still working, and that by resigning from my day job I went from two and a half jobs to one and a half, they look mystified. Even after I explain that the half is being Regional Advisor Coordinator at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—a hefty volunteer position—some of them still don’t figure out that writing is the one of the one and a half,” that I’m still working, only now at a job without a guaranteed income and with no benefits.

I asked my brother-in-law, a composer who works from home, how he deals with people thinking he didn’t work. He said that it hasnt been an issue for him. He thinks this is because people assume that men are working, even when they’re at home. But I know men who write who deal with this, so I’m not sure he’s right. I think it must be something else in his case—how he talks about his work, or how he manages his work day, or some other secret—that keeps at bay the assumption that he’s not working.

Ah well. I’ll continue to remind myself that people who say this don’t mean any harm, that it’s not their fault that our society doesn’t see creative activity as labor. And I’ll work to change this misconception, one person at a time!

17 comments:

  1. I totally understand what you're talking about, Tracy. I took the full-time leap at 24, straight out of grad school; in order to do it, I lived at home. So not only did people act as though I wasn't working, I was suddenly one of THOSE kids who live in their folks' basement and play with the computer all day. Nothing could have been farther from the truth--I worked far harder "doing nothing" than I did in grad school.

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    1. Did you come up with any snappy responses that weren't obnoxious? I'm still working on that!

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    2. I never did, Tracy, but check out this oh-so-true story: A rep from the English dept. of my alma mater called a couple of years or so into my pursuit of publication, in order to update their records on graduates. When I told them what I was up to (I was, at that point, a good five years away from my very first book deal), the caller said (in a snarky, look-down-upon-me tone), "Yeah, we WONDERED if you were still doing THAT." It had this ring of, "We just can't believe you've chosen to WASTE YOUR LIFE." I couldn't believe it!

      I have no idea where responses like that come from, but there's not a full-time author out there who hasn't run into them, over and over again...

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    3. I hope that you've informed your alumni magazine about your publications and great reviews!

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  2. My experience exactly, Tracy. The best snappy response I have is, "Have you seen my latest book?"

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  3. Some people get it. Some people, I know, think I'm dabbling and playing and ... well, you saw my post. I haven't yet found the perfect answer, but an 'oh, I wish,' often leads to raised eyebrows and that opens door for me to explain how many hours I sometimes work in a week. Then they're quiet, though I'm not sure they believe.

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  4. Or maybe they believe that what you call "work" isn't really work--as you said in your post!--so that no matter how many hours you spend at it, you're still just futzing around.

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  5. Most people don't believe you're working unless you punch somebody else's time clock. They also believe that "set your own schedule" means you hardly ever work. If you don't have a boss to answer to or a workplace to show up at, yet you won't drop everything when Aunt Mabel needs a chauffeur, you can expect resentment, because after all you "could" do it. I don't think it really gets better over time, unless you are successful enough that people outside your immediate target audience know of your work.

    And all this just tells me that there are really not that many people who could handle self-employment. Most need that boss breathing down their neck.

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    1. Agreed, Marcia, and I think the problem is even greater for those of us who do something that many people, alas, see as not really necessary or even important.

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  6. I left my day job two years ago to write full-time, and just last week one of my former co-workers asked me how I was enjoying being "retired!" (I *think* he was kidding.)

    Congrats on taking the plunge and moving on to only one-and-a-half jobs, Tracy!

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    1. Argh, I get that question a lot. I think people don't really know how to refer to it. I suggest, "How do you life as a full-time writer?"

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  7. I wonder if people in Hartford wondered what Mark Twain was really doing when he would say, " Oh, I'm just working on a story about someone called Huckleberry Finn," when he was sitting on his porch. They probably wondered why the old goat didn't get a real job.

    What is really funny to me is the fact that I have had several "real" jobs where I didn't do much of anything that could be explained. They were respectable jobs, sort of like being Office Manager for the J.C. Dithers Company.

    I suspect there is a gender bias at work when people question if writing is a real job.

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    1. My brother-in-law suggested gender bias as an explanation for why he's escaped this assumption. Is that true for writers too? Chime in, guys!

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  8. I have people think I'm not really working all the time, so I don't know that it's a gender thing. It isn't from my perspective. I think it absolutely has to do with not being on someone else's schedule.

    If you don't have to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to get ready/get to work, stay late at a job doing overtime, plan your vacations around holidays, or do your errands only on the weekends, people think you have all kinds of free time and don't really work. They have no idea that you get your work done at other times. To be honest, I probably work more hours per week now than when I punched a clock for someone else.

    I'm very fortunate to live in an area of North Carolina with lots of artists. Within a thirty minute drive of our home are dozens of glass blowers, potters, jewelers, sculptors, woodoworkers, letterpress operators, painters, and more. That helps. Around here, when I tell people I write, I don't usually get the "oh, must be nice not to have to work!" All those artists know EXACTLY what it means to be your own boss and to work in a creative field with no steady paycheck. It's when I travel, (or go back to my hometown,) that I run into the "you're already retired!" mentality...

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    1. Good to know, Alan; thanks for your perspective.

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