One of the more unpleasant parts of meeting new people is explaining what I do – or don’t do – during the work week. I have always dreaded being asked what I do for a living. Saying “I am a writer” is too mortifying for words, and what’s more, in Los Angeles, I have to further explain that no, I’m not a screenwriter. (Stage director, train engineer, doctor of philosophy – someday I’ll tell my children to never take a job that requires them to constantly say, “No, not that kind.”)
No one knows what writers do – hell, I don’t even know what writers do. In the last decade I have written corporate memos, software instruction manuals, trivia questions, travel guides, and crafting how-tos. I’d call myself a hack, but I think hacks get paid better. So when someone asks me what I write I try to answer as vaguely as possible. These days I mostly do “creative” writing, a phrase which puts listeners in mind of grade school essays written on that paper with the two solid lines and the dotted line in the middle, but when pressed I usually say that I write comedy and then immediately regret saying that.
Now that I work only part-time and stay home with my two children, I have to further explain that my job is to write comedy for free only some of the time. If there’s anything that makes you sound lazier than that, I’d like to hear it. The very worst part about working from home (besides the lack of free coffee) is that no one will ever believe you are actually working. “Working from home” is treated as a polite euphemism for “sleeping all day,” when in fact trying to meet a deadline while locked in a house with a two-year-old and a three-month-old is like trying to pick your handcuff lock from the inside of a submerged steamer trunk.
Judging from their comments, what people envy most about those who work from home is that they can “wear their pajamas all day,” a lifestyle boon we share with infants, in-patients, and, I suppose, professional pajama models. Personally I associate wearing pajamas past noon with times of great emotional or intestinal distress, and am more likely instead to put on something much too nice and then trump up some flimsy excuse for wearing it (Oil change? That calls for pearls!) but then maybe I’m just too spoiled from sleeping all day to appreciate the freedom that comes from dressing like your dog just died.
I used to work in a fancy office with elevators and cubicles and glass-walled conference rooms and people you see for years without ever saying hi to, and I felt very grand. But often these jobs were in publishing or in technical writing, where the work required access to expensive printers and dual-monitor computer schemes, whereas now all my job requires is a laptop, an internet connection, and a total lack of human dignity. Best of all, I had coworkers, people with whom and about whom to gossip, people you could eat lunch with and join for happy hour and invite to your home for a dinner party and watch mix awkwardly with your other friends.
One might ask why I choose to work from home when I clearly miss the old days of fancy clothes and free Nature Valley granola bars. The reason is simply that it costs more to pay for full-time daycare than I can earn as a writer, which anyone who has both read my writing and met my children will agree is totally fair – giving the world a 500-word musing on “What If Chaucer Wrote For Gawker?” simply does not equal the effort of cleaning 16 ounces of Greek yogurt out of my daughter’s hair.
Like many freelancers, I’ve combated the pajama-wearing blues by taking my laptop on the road. These days I do most of my work from coffee shops. Working at a coffee shop keeps me on my toes: I can’t afford to eat as many pastries as I would at home; I’m too afraid of random violence to sleep in public; and I feel like people notice if I go a long time without typing something. Sometimes I’ll type something, lean back, and murmur approvingly, just like I used to do back in the old cubicle. Occasionally I’ll laugh quietly to myself, shake my head in fond disbelief, and give a little shrug that says, “Can you believe the stuff she comes up with?” The “she” in that sentence is me.
Someday when my children are all grown up I’ll be back to water cooler gossip and structured waist bands. After years of working from home, I can’t wait to jam the printer and chat in the break room, but I don’t know if I’m responsible enough anymore to be around all that free coffee.