Five Months In

In September 2015, I dropped out of the day job circuit and started writing full-time.

(The economics of this aren’t what I want to write about, but I will say this much: John Scalzi was right when he said if you want to be a writer, marry someone fiscally responsible. That, on top of a long career in a lucrative field and a HUGE amount of dumb luck, put me and my family in a position where I could do this. It’s a massive, massive privilege, and I remember that every day.)

It was a difficult decision. Money and I have a fraught relationship. Earning a paycheck, paying my own way, being productive in the world have always been tied to my ego in ways that aren’t necessarily healthy. Apart from semesters in college (I didn’t have to work during the school year – another privilege, courtesy my parents), I’ve more or less always worked a day job. I temped when I couldn’t find decent full-time work. I didn’t always manage money well, especially when I was younger; but there was always steady cash coming in.

Writing is freelance. You’re paid by the piece. I’m fortunate, in that I’ve got contracted stuff ahead of me, so I can predict, for a little while, what my income will be. But it’s not the same as seeing a check every two weeks. Budgeting is a different animal. Taxes get complicated fast. (I used to do our returns – I find it fun – but we have an accountant now.)

But the financial piece, as it turned out, wasn’t the hardest change. As with any new job, the hardest change was the change to routine.

I’d worked from home at least some of the time for the last several years, but when you’re connecting to a nine-to-five office, there’s a built-in structure there. With freelance, nothing is built in. I’d read enough from other freelancers to know that my success was going to depend on coming up with a routine and sticking to it.

This is one of those things where having kids really helps. With kids in the house, nobody sleeps in. So starting the work day at a more-or-less ordinary work time has been easy. (I even have a workout schedule, which has lately fallen victim to The Cold That Won’t Die, and I know, but until I can climb the stairs without wanting to curl up and die at the top I’m staying off the treadmill.)

But as it turns out, when I’m alone all the time, I get…kind of weird.

I’ve always suffered from anxiety. Maybe to a diagnosable extent; I’m not sure. But I seem to have a need to always be worried about something. Without the distractions of other humans, this often turns into hypochondria. I have had, in my head, all the diseases since September. This, as it turns out, is a marvelous procrastination tool, and also keeps me from actually enjoying what I’m doing.

I think, in my case, some of it stems from guilt: for quitting my day job, for bringing less money into the household, for having the privilege and luck to be able to do this full time in the first place. Look at all those other writers, I think. They work harder than you do. They deserve this more than you do. Who are you to take this opportunity? Be miserable, dammit!

(I make light of it, but it’s a genuine problem, and I have to say if you find yourself a doctor who actually listens to you, stick with them. Hypochondria doesn’t mean nothing is wrong, it just means you jump to every possible conclusion at once. Persist, get answers, don’t be dismissed.)

Part of dealing with the persistent hypochondria has been to get myself out of the house. There’s a Barnes and Noble fifteen minutes up the highway with a coffee shop and free WiFi, and I’ve taken to going there a few times a week. Of course, me being me, I feel obligated to spend money in exchange for the free WiFi. (Another advantage of a regular job – usually you at least get free coffee.) So I indulge my latte addiction and have too many snacks, and I get some exposure to Other Humans.

Who are fascinating, as it happens. Generally I’m under headphones, but I so often get little windows into other lives while I’m sitting there. Sometimes they’re lovely windows. Sometimes they’re horrifying. Sometimes I want to help, but figure I shouldn’t butt in (although there was the one guy trying to change a plane reservation – he wasn’t a native English speaker, and the airline rep wasn’t a native English speaker, and they were both constantly misunderstanding each other, and given that I didn’t speak either of their native languages I probably couldn’t have helped much, but still).

One day, I encountered an elderly woman – the sort of woman who does her makeup like it’s a mask, with lines around the edges and sketched-in eyebrows and really big hair. She was clearly known to the staff, and went from table to table chatting with people. Initially I was dreading her approach…but then she stopped, and mentioned how fast I was typing, and how she could never do that. She asked what I was doing, and I said I was a writer. (Yeah, I don’t get tired of saying that.) She told me how long she had been coming to the bookstore, and how they were always changing the layout, but she didn’t know why. She said she’d lived in the area all her life, and loved it. She said her children had moved her down to Florida so she could be closer to them; but she’d moved back, because Florida. (Florida is a lovely place, I am told, but I too am a New Englander through and through.) She spent possibly three entire minutes with me, and it was lovely.

It’s weird, in a way, being a writer. I’m an introvert, and will almost never seek out company in places like that coffee shop; but I get such pleasure out of little moments like that, bits of conversation that show me tiny pieces of other lives. It also reminds me that not everybody in the world is a jerk, which is an easy thing to assume if most of your picture of other humans comes from comment sections on the Internet. People are subtle and layered in ways they don’t always appear to be at first. Everyone has a story, and it’s not always the one you think it will be when you first see them. We all come to this place from different routes.

It’s been odd, treating writing like A Business. Some of that has been imposed, and I mean that in the best sense. I am writing to contractual deadlines, and there’s promotional stuff to do as well. I’m still getting my sea legs on all of that. Some of it is fun; some of it is hair-raising. Some of it is mundane and simply must be done. All of that helps the transition, because it reminds me that, at least at this point in my life, my writing is A Business. It’s my job. I am being paid to do it, and that means it deserves my time and my attention and my perfectionism.

Which brings me to the weirdest part of all this.

Yesterday I turned in a big edit. It was a huge amount of work. I put in an insane number of hours. My family forgot what I looked like. In the end, I still missed some things; but I got through it, and I’m not displeased with the results. (We’ll see if I still feel that way when it gets read!) But it was clearly, undeniably work, and I promised myself I’d take a few days off afterward to relax.

But what is it I do to relax?

I write.

It’s a funny blurring of lines that’s happening. For decades, I wrote for fun, for therapy, for the need to express myself. No deadlines, no goals except what I defined for myself. Now, it’s for-real work. Now it matters to people who are not me.

Which is what I’ve always wanted.

But what happens when my most important coping mechanism becomes my job? What happens when what I used to do to escape is also the thing I’m escaping from? How does that work?

I’ve joked, many times, about having no hobbies. This comes up a lot these days, because I’ve been asked in various ways since this all started what I do for “fun.” The answer, throughout my life, has been: I write. But now people want to know what else I do, what my other interests are, and it’s…a meaningless question.

I read, I listen to music, I people-watch at coffee shops. And then I write it all down.

I may, at some point, go back to software. I don’t like to close doors. And I miss it, sometimes. There’s a joy and a precision to programming that is very different from the pleasures of writing fiction. I’m not dreadful at it. I still read the tech blogs, and my Marvelous Spouse still keeps me in touch with the latest and greatest languages and tools floating around the industry.

And…wow. You think the people-watching in coffee shops is good? Hang around with career programmers for a day. Dilbert notwithstanding, there are some fascinating people in that business. Some remarkably wonderful ones, too.

But it’s hard, especially with the chaos leading up to Release Day, to imagine having the time, to picture going back to writing for two hours after The Kid goes to bed. It is work, this writing thing, and I’m learning there are only so many efficiencies I can squeeze out of it, even with an entire day to work with.

They say the average person changes careers three times in their life; maybe, for me, this is the first change.