Creating on Command: Writing from the 9-5

I work as a writer, and have for the past two years. I’ve done so in various industries, contexts, and for a wide range of pay. Sometimes it's been satisfying, sometimes less so. But as of now I can say I am ‘making it’ as a writer.

Ideal brainstorming territory: with a notebook, sitting in a corner of a museum. 

Ideal brainstorming territory: with a notebook, sitting in a corner of a museum. 

Writing professionally has come with varying degrees of success and angst. Particularly when I’m working on someone else’s project, it’s been a constant battle to find what works best for me—what will allow me to be an effective and professional creative while maintaining my sanity. A considerable part of this journey has been working through the difference between freelance writing for work from home (which I am now) versus being a member of a company working in an office.

I did not like writing in an office.

The job wasn’t the problem. I worked with a multimedia production company in Dublin that specialized in a range of industries and formats from commercials to filmmaking for museums. I was constantly presented with new topics to research and new writing formats (writing and editing image captions for a touchscreen is a whole different ball game than creating an original script for a Viking museum, believe me). These projects resonated with my multidimensional work interests—I was never trapped in a single, plodding subject or limited to the same kind of writing week after week.

On top of that, I also really liked my coworkers. I had a part-time schedule and was able to innovate new ideas (such as revamping their blog and social media) and felt that my colleagues supported and appreciated me doing so. I learned a lot from the graphic designers, web developers, and animators on the team.

Being assigned projects was also fine. Most of us writers are more or less deadline-driven, and I'm no exception. It’s also familiar territory after so many years of school—I was given an assignment and a due date, and then produced the work on that timeline. Maybe because of all those school years, external pressure is a helpful motivating force to frame my time and expectations for a job. So deadlines weren’t the problem, either.

The problem, for me, was the fact of the office and the 9 to 5.

It was frustrating, because it seemed like things all added up in the ‘positives’ category. I liked the office. I liked the work. I liked my coworkers. But I hated being cooped up in one place, feeling watched and limited in mobility as I tried to corral my brain into creation. There were days when I would arrive, greet my coworkers, and type away in prim, straight-backed authority for hours until lunch, cruising through assignments and feeling at the top of my game.

Pictured here at a colleague's desk. No, I did not know how to use any of the technology you see around me (photo from  South William Street ). 

Pictured here at a colleague's desk. No, I did not know how to use any of the technology you see around me (photo from South William Street). 

But that’s not how it worked most days.

Most days, I would fluctuate wildly between writers’ block and hyper-productivity. I would look out the window. I would try mightily not to look at Facebook. I would try to remember when I last got up for a cup of tea (it was Ireland, after all. Tea was a major structuring component of the day). I would then write in crazy sprints, checking off all tasks on my list and distributing the finished products to the next members of the team. Then I would have to wait until they got around to that part of that project, at which point they may or may not call on me for more input.

I spent a lot of time with that sense of ‘hurry up and wait.’ Or with the anxious sense of needing to create NOW, because the team was waiting on me… and feeling like I could sort my thoughts out if only I could walk around the block. But you can’t go wandering off when you’re on a deadline and everyone is watching. Even if you know that wandering is part of the process.

So not only was I looking out the same window day after day, guiltily aware of my coworker’s seemingly myopic attention to his computer screen, but I was also monitoring the direction of my creative impulses––pulling them back from whatever nugget of thought was developing naturally and shoving my nose in whatever needed doing right then.

Even with the freedom to create my own projects and a genuine interest in the work, I lacked the autonomy and space to work in the way that is best for me. 

Structuring my time

When things are going well, I work in quick, hyper-productive bursts. I spend a lot of non-working time mulling work projects over in my mind. It’s taken me less than ten minutes to write this post so far. Four hundred words of a first draft in ten minutes. That happened because I spent several days drawing out inspiration, dreaming up certain phrases, and carrying the idea with me as I did the dishes, took a walk, read a book, called my mom, and decided against vacuuming. Like many creative people, I work when I’m not working.

This does not translate when you’re trading your time for a paycheck.

After all, how do you invoice for a half-an-hour daydream? And how do you daydream and futz around with other tasks when you’re at an office, with coworkers nearby? What if you crave a different vantage point, a moment to stretch your legs, the chance to settle into a different kind of chair?

You can’t. At least, not in offices outside Silicon Valley, where I hear they’ve mastered the creative office space.

I ended up leaving that job when other opportunities arose. Leaving was semisweet—I was proud of the work I did there, and grateful for the chance to have moved into a career writing space because of them.

But when I left, I did not imagine finding a new ‘day job’ writing gig. I didn’t picture an office setting.

Instead, I imagined writing from my own cozy space somewhere, or working in coffee shops and visiting clients at their offices. I dreamed of working in shared spaces with other creatives and of taking my computer and work with me on the road.

Two years on, I’ve done all those things. I’ve worked from trains and friends’ homes and while hiking. I’ve gotten up early and written late into evenings. I’ve worked from every ‘sit-able’ surface in my house. And while it’s possible I might have an office job in my future, I hope I’ll keep moving forward with what I learned in Dublin: my particular style of creativity is hard to kickstart in a stationary 9 to 5.