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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Writing is Work

When I’m home I write at the public library, which thankfully is only a fifteen-minute walk. There are a few people I see there pretty much every day, and I wonder what their stories are. There’s one guy with a long scraggly beard, black ball cap, and a mini-shopping cart full of tattered papers that has a disconcerting whiff of all his worldly possessions. He regularly curses at his laptop. Another middle-aged man spends all day, every day at the computer terminal in the café; and another, who looks to be about my age though he’s gone almost fully gray, sits nearby at the DVD station watching crime dramas or episodes of “The Office.” Yet another man, also about my age, sometimes reads and sometimes wanders around not looking at anything in particular, as if he’s forgotten all about the books. Are they between jobs? On disability? (It’s a pretty safe bet the laptop-shouter is.)

Maybe I’m nosy, but I prefer to think of myself as observant. Isn’t it part of my job?

Of course, the ironic thing is that I, too, am a regular, and it’s very possible they speculate as to what I’m doing there day in and day out.

But you know what I’m doing. I’m writing.

Okay, so I’m also checking Twitter and Facebook, flipping through the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and browsing the audiobooks. But I’m mostly, mostly writing.

I’ve been writing full time since 2006. It’s something I fell into, because I didn’t have a day job to quit when I got my first book deal. All this time I’ve been feeling that I should try to stick as close to a 9 to 5 schedule as possible–I know a few writers, like my friend Christian, who do—not because it suits my rhythm (it definitely does not), but because it’s what people expect, simply because it’s how they work. And I’m slowly coming to the realization that I have to stop worrying what people think of me.

When I lived in Galway, I had a roommate who was a “mature student,” which is what Irish students call themselves when they’ve come back from a break in their studies. I’d say he was a couple years younger than I was (I was 27 at the time). He’d come home from a morning lecture right around the time I was fixing myself some breakfast, and he’d invariably make some comment about my being home in the middle of the day. In the very beginning, of course, I’d told him I was a professional writer and offered to lend him my books, but he made it clear he wasn’t even the slightest bit curious. It was garden-variety ignorance on his part, and not a big deal at all in the cosmic scheme of things, but it did grate on me to hear the television blaring in the sitting room as I was heading out for the library. “Mature,” my foot.


Me, working. Don’t believe me? Read chapter 25.


I know it sounds ridiculous to think that someone who is self employed isn’t working just because they don’t work on somebody else’s schedule. After all, what’s the point of being self employed if you can’t make your own hours? Someone who’s never been self employed isn’t necessarily going to understand that, however. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, also known as the Yarn Harlot, touches on this in an excellent essay on people’s tendency to confuse “work-at-home writer” with “stay-at-home parent.”

I absolutely concede that it is pretty amazing to be able to go to work in my underpants, but I feel like after almost a decade of trying to balance my culture’s perception that I’m unemployed with the reality of having a full-time job, I’ve decided it’s a diaper of a different colour.

Actually, the really sad thing is that the clueless mother who asserts the author doesn’t need summer childcare, is herself self employed.

Although I don’t have children, I found myself getting really excited over this piece, because it touches on an (albeit minor) frustration I’ve been nursing for years. It annoyed the hell out of me when I was feverishly trying to finish writing my guidebook and a visiting relative kept making remarks about my being anti-social. It bugs me when someone asks for a favor during the day, because after all, I don’t have anyone to answer to. And even though he doesn’t mean anything by it, it niggles at me when my grandfather jokes about my being “retired.”

The ability to use what flexibility the job granted me was amazing – but the difficulty of having that work respected, and protecting the time to do it was almost impossible.

Maybe the trouble with being a writer is that everyone else thinks they can do it too. They could, of course, but how many do? Writing is real work, but people don’t see that when working looks to all the rest of the world like staring out the window, reading a book, or scribbling on a napkin.

So the next time you see me doing any of those things, will you do me a favor? Don’t assume I’m not.

[Photo by Kelly B.]

6 Comments to Writing is Work

  1. April 23, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I am finding myself (almost painfully) yearning for this. I’m praying for this. Preparing for this. And I thank you for the insight offered here. I am considering this a career move and expect to throw myself into the effort with the same vim and vigor as I’ve thrown myself into every job I tackle…but not everyone will see it that way. I’m encouraged by your conviction.

  2. April 23, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    you speak the truth! so glad you wrote this post.

  3. April 23, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I love this, Camille! My ex used to continually complain I “didn’t have a job,” yet at the same time ask why I was on the computer all the time. Um, that is my job. So I could definitely relate to this.

  4. April 23, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I agree completely.

    But this is an example of a more general phenomenon: People don’t understand that thinking is work.

    A great many people believe that something is only work if it is tedious, mindless, physical labor. They think that anyone who spends most of the day sitting at a desk, whether it is a writer, manager, or mathematician, is just hanging around while the ideas come to him.

    In fact, the brain uses about a quarter of all the energy consumed by the human body. Solving a difficult problem lowers the blood sugar by a large amount. Thinking is physically exhausting.

    And thinking is the most productive work that people can do. The difference between mules and humans is not how much physical weight they carry; it’s how much they think. The critical step in creating a better world is thinking about how to do it.

    The work of a writer will be respected when all knowledge work is respected.

  5. April 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I think the same can be said for daydreaming. Since I work a day job full-time, it becomes so easy for me to push aside daydreaming (which is important to the creation process) as non-“working” time, thus belittling it’s importance.
    It’s the world we live in that dictates that work must be done during “specific” work hours (ie, 9-5). We, as writers, make it as what it truly is, whether we do it at night, in the middle of the day, or in the wee hours of the morning.

  6. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    April 25, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    I personally need more structure in my life and for that reason (one of many) I could not be a writer. I would not choose a 9-5 per say, but I need an office, colleagues, deadlines, and expectations or else I’d be worthless.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.