The Work Takes Work

So I want to spend the rest of this week discussing two things: THE WORK and THE LIFE.

These are both topics that will take more than two days to discuss, of course, so I will undoubtedly come back to them in the future — but I want to start the conversation now because I just read this Man Repeller article titled Freelance vs. Full Time and BELIEVE ME IT IS RELEVANT.

Actually, it’s relevant in more ways than one. The piece is a discussion between freelancer Meghan Nesmith and full-timer Logan Sachon, both of whom were former colleagues at The Billfold (Logan being one of the original Billfold founders).

So I hope they won’t mind that I hinge this blog post on a quote from Logan, about what she initially thought freelancing could be:

The dream was to go on a long walk in the middle of the day, to meet friends who are also freelance in the middle of the day, to not get out of bed until the middle of the day, to knock off for happy hour at 4PM. (To not … work?) Whenever someone Instagrams from Central Park in the middle of the day, or posts a picture of a cake they just baked to procrastinate for a few hours — that’s the stuff that makes freelancing really attractive.

If you read the whole piece, you’ll understand that both Logan and Meghan immediately disavow this “dream” of the no-work freelance life — because, of course, it is completely unrealistic. Freelancers work very hard. (Ask me how I know.)

But I want to call your attention to the disparity between “the dream” and the work of doing your work.

If you want to bake a cake, you don’t need to become a freelance writer first.

When I teach my writing classes (and by the way, you can sign up for my next online class RIGHT NOW, it starts Jan 12) I ask my students to spend some time writing about their ideal workday. Where would they sit? What would they wear? Would there be a cup of tea nearby? What sounds would they hear (and/or block out)?

This is a super-common workshop activity — I first learned about it from Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft — but I add a twist. I ask my students to consider their ideal workdays in conjunction with their other responsibilities.

That was the part I hated most about the Wishcraft exercise; Sher shares all of these ideal days from workshop participants, and very few of them involved any work. They slept in and baked cakes and met friends for lunch. One woman, who claimed to want to start a family, described her ideal day as being alone, on a horse, while pregnant.

You get where I’m going with this. If you say you want family but your ideal day is spent alone, or if you say you want the freelance life but your ideal day is spent not freelancing, well… I think the thing you want is not what you say you want.

Same goes for whatever big creative project you dream about doing. Do you want to make the project, or are you making the project because you hope that when you’re done, your life will look more like your ideal day?

If you want to bake more cakes, you can just bake more cakes.

And if you want to start a freelance career or complete a big creative project, you’ll need to figure out when you’re going to do the work.

This is why I ask my students to imagine their ideal workday in conjunction with their current responsibilities. First, it acknowledges that the work is work, and second, it acknowledges that you probably already have a bunch of stuff chomping at your time.

(Later in my class I give students a grid with a week’s worth of hours in it, ask them to block off all of the hours they already have committed to other responsibilities including commuting/hygiene/sleep/family/etc. and ask them how many of those remaining hours they want to commit to THE WORK. It’s kind of a sobering exercise, unfortunately — and you can do it at home, here’s your grid! We’ll discuss time management and how to find more time for THE WORK at some point, because it is a super-important topic.)

Don’t let your fantasies about THE LIFE get in the way of THE WORK.

I know I know, it’s like day two and I’m already lecturing, but I fell into this trap myself over the past year, even though I know better, because it is a very powerful trap with a really big gravitational pull. (More on this tomorrow.)

Let me quote Logan again:

I don’t even know if I have a dream job. I think if I’ve ever had one, it would be being like, a New Yorker writer who works on long stories, like Kathryn Schulz or Ariel Levy or Elif Batuman. 

I know I know I know I am pulling the dreamiest quotes out of what is a very practical interview about the realities of freelancing (which you should GO READ and then DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS), but I’m doing this because I spent the past year telling myself I wanted to be like such-and-such a person* and I wanted their level of fame or whatever, and when I asked myself why it was because I saw a photo of their office and it had musical instruments and plants in it.



And then it was like well, that problem’s solved, now I actually have to think about what work I want to do with the rest of my life.

(Obligatory yes I know not everyone can just buy a piano.)

That’s where I’m going to begin tomorrow, if you’re interested in following along. ❤️

*okay okay it was Maggie Stiefvater, go read her commandments of life and then tape them to your desk if you find them as inspiring as I do

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