A clean office is a bad thing for a writer.

Anne Lamott, the author of Bird by Bird, opened one of her lectures with this: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”

I don’t have a child, but man, does that hit home.

My office has three states:

  1. Hot mess – If the office usually looks like it’s exploded, like it does now,  I’ve been busy working in it. The closets are open, the desk is surrounded by paper, pens, packages of Kleenex, chargers and a few unidentifiable objects. Things (plants, books, papers, cats) are hanging off my bookshelves. My closets are open and things are falling out. That’s what it looks like now.
  2. Cold mess – If there are a lot of boxes and laundry baskets in the middle of the floor and it hasn’t been vacuumed in a long time, I’ve been avoiding it – and my novel – for a long time. I’ve just kidnapped my laptop, closed the door and fled. This is what it looks like after the holidays.
  3. Clean –  Have you ever seen Poltergeist? Remember the little psychic lady who says “This house is clean”? If so, you know how creepy “clean” can be. It is the worst state for me office by far. Everything is tidy. Spotless. Dusted. Everything’s been filed. The carpet has been cleaned, the laundry is gone, and worse, the desk is immaculate. If my office looks like this, it means something’s wrong; I’ve spent a lot of time in there but all I’ve been doing is cleaning.

I’ve done that sort of thing for weeks at a time; gone up to work and ended up dusting the room instead, or rearranging the books on the shelves. It’s a habit I started in college, when during my sophomore year, I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to work unless my tiny room looked like a glossy page out of Dorm Beautiful.

It was the sort of habit that kept me  – for years – from working on my writing, which is strange, because when I started writing as a child and teen, I was able to write anywhere, under any conditions – it didn’t matter if the room was messy, or the radio loud, or conversations happening around me, or if my mother was asking me to please come downstairs and do my chores. I just wrote for the sheer joy of it. Very little was able to stop me. I think that year in college, is when I realized exactly how badly I wanted to be a writer, and also, that if I sat down to write, I’d have to take the next step and finish something. Then I’d have to show it to someone else. And then they might reject or criticize me, and I could very easily fail at what I most wanted to do with my life.

So instead, I cleaned.

I carried my Clean Desk Rule out of college and into the world with me, and I allowed it to expand. At one point, I couldn’t work until my whole apartment was clean. It’s worth noting that the Clean Desk Rule never applied to my workspace in the newsrooms I worked in; I was always on deadline, regardless of the state of my desk. The work had to be done.

Those days are over. Right now, my office is a hot mess.

Allegory of Music.

The Allegory of Music, by Filipino Lippi.

There is just enough room on my desk for my laptop and my hands. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is taking up half the left side of the desk and threatening to slide off a copy of my manuscript. The bookshelves and tables overflow with tangles of charger cords and craft books. One of the walls is hung with rejection letters. The floor under my feet is strewn with copies of literary magazines. I look like an allegorical painting, only without the flowing robes and hair and classical allusions that you see in Renaissance works like The Allegory of Music. Instead, I’m The Allegory of The Contemporary Fiction Writer, clad in grubby jeans and a tee shirt I got for free somewhere, hair stuffed under a baseball cap from my MFA program.

What changed? I think I started looking at writing differently when I joined my MFA program, but when I left my newsroom job, that’s when things really changed. Writing became my job; not something I wanted to do in a distant, perfect future, but something I was already doing.  Just as I didn’t bother cleaning my workspace in the newsroom before getting to work, I don’t clean my home office before getting to work.

The work needs to be done. Even if there’s a body in the sink.

I’m pleased to report that the office hasn’t been clean in some time.

You can still have bad days when you work for yourself.

Bad day work from homeBack when I used to work for a company, I always wanted to work for myself. I wanted to get away from other people’s stress, to not be told what to do, and to do more creative work than I had been doing. I wanted to work from a home office, make my own hours, fix my own lunch in my own kitchen, write with my cat on my lap and take regular yoga breaks right behind my desk whenever I feel like it. (That last one would have been very distracting in a working newsroom.)

These days I do all of the above. I’m an adjunct professor, freelance writer, author and artisan. I manage all these projects from my home office, which is, in fact, equipped with both a cat and a yoga mat. It’s exactly what I wanted when I was employed by a larger company. But here’s the thing I didn’t expect:

I still have bad days.

I know. This sounds incredibly naïve.

But here’s the thing. Back in the day, I blamed my bad days on my job, on my work, on my deadlines, on the office itself, on the time it took to commute to work, on the paycheck, on my schedule… you name it. Me having a bad day wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of something around me.

Now when I have a bad day, I’m forced to admit that the problem isn’t my office, or my work or my commute. The problem is me.

Last week, for example, was a terrible work week. I sat and stared at the computer screen and was unable to summon a single thought. I tried to write my book. I tried to create a lesson plan. I tried to post here. I did force some work, but it wasn’t that great, and all I wanted to really do was click over to Facebook and just watch the status updates scroll on by. At the end of each day, when I’d come downstairs, I’d feel guilty about the crappy work I’d produced and the hours I’d wasted.

Back in the day, I would have blamed those bad days on my job. But now I see that my job was unjustly blamed for some of the problems that I create on my own.

This is not to say that jobs don’t create stress. Of course they do. Conflicts with other people, difficult assignments,  tough deadlines, long hours, those weird industrial lights that are part of so many offices and stores… working in an office or a shop or a school carries all kinds of stress with it. For the most part, my life is a lot less stressful now. **

But all the previously-stated  stresses were never my biggest problem. My biggest stressor always was an internal voice that told me I wasn’t working hard enough or well enough. That’s still my biggest stress, whether I’m in the classroom or writing at home. It just took me getting my dream job to understand that I’ve been my worst taskmaster.

Or, to be a nerd about it, working from home is like visiting Lothlórien. One carries one’s own bad days in with them.

But I digress.

So what to do about it?

Well, to be honest, there are always days when I could work harder. I could shut off the Internet, close my door, and work like the devil himself was behind me, screaming obscenities.

(I mean that the devil would be screaming obscenities, not me. Sorry if that was confusing. Although screaming obscenities would totally be cathartic and it would give the neighbors something to talk about. Everybody wins.)

Or maybe I should use those days to complete different kinds of tasks. If I can’t write, I can find a home for one of my short stories, or an essay, or an article.

I can use the time to book an appearance.

In extreme cases, I can do what I did last Thursday, when I despaired of ever writing another word: I bleached the life out of the bathroom.

working from home bad days

I only advise this in extreme cases.

Generally, though? I think I’m going to have to start being easy on myself in the guilt department. I think it’s fine to expect a lot of myself and to apply pressure in the beginning of the day. It’s fine to make myself work hard during the hours I’ve set aside for work. It’s even fine to give myself hell for being on Facebook during working hours because hey, unless I’m building my platform, I have no business writing a status update.  I think any boss would agree with that.

But guilting myself when a workday didn’t go as planned serves no purpose whatsoever. And that’s what I have to give up.  And for some reason**, I know that will be the hardest thing for me to do.

Workers from home, do you have the same problems? How do you deal with it?

*Example: In my previous life, I might have to take a break from typing something because someone who was deeply unhappy with something I wrote was waiting for me at the front desk. Today, I had to take a break from typing because the neighbor’s mastiff, in a fit of friendliness, stuck his head through our fence.

**Growing up Irish Catholic, maybe?

Dear college professors, I’m sorry I never truly appreciated you.

I was an indifferent student.

It’s true. I shouldn’t admit this, because now some of my own college students are subscribed to this blog, but I was woefully immature as a college freshman.

I grumbled at assigned readings, as if they were a punishment rather than a necessary part of a course. In-class exercises were designed to make my life miserable. Working in groups was something the professor made us do because he or she was lazy and did not want to lecture. Projects? Mid-terms? Final exams? Early morning classes?  All of these things were like Biblical plagues to me.

While my more academically-minded friends preferred tests with essay questions because they’d be able to BS their ways out of an answer they did not know, I preferred multiple choice, because I could pick the likely answer and be out of the test room quickly. I had a 1 in 4 chance of being right, which I figured were pretty good odds. You almost don’t even need to study for multiple choice. I liked True and False questions even better.

Admittedly, I test well. And I’m also a decent aural learner, so I was able to pick up information from in-class lectures. I must have been a frustrating student though, because although it was my education, I was never proactive about it. At least not as an undergrad.

What gets me now is my attitude toward my professors and the reading they assigned me. While I was freaking out because I had to read a novel in a week (no big task for me when it was a novel I wanted to read) or furiously powering through an all nighter to write the paper that would serve as my final exam, I would picture my professor relaxing at home, calmly watching television or sleeping peacefully while I wrestled with my work.

Now I know that few – if any – of my professors were relaxing while I did my readings.

I have class tonight. I just re-read my readings for the third time, completed several pages of notes and an outline,  and did a lot of supplemental research and prepped the class website for this evening’s class.

It might be said that I’m still cramming for class, but the difference this time, is that I did all my work back in November. Now I’m doing it again, but I only teach two classes. What must my professors at college, who taught at least four sections apiece, have been doing with their time before every class? And they made the lectures look effortless. They knew their readings backward and forward.

So if anyone who taught me at Trinity College between 1996-2000 – whether you were a full professor, grad student, or (like me) adjunct – is reading  this post, please know that Ann J. O’Connell, Class of 2000,  is sorry she took you for granted.

Making time for work, or, This novella ain’t gonna revise itself.

Today, I’ve spent a lot of time dodging people, and trying to make the time to write and revise. It’s imperative that I make the time work today, because I have a half-revised novella on my hands, and I’m due to send it out next week. The prose ain’t gonna polish itself, amirite?

But for some reason today has not been a day of quiet, thoughtful work. It’s been an obstacle course. My phone is ringing. The dog is needy. My neighbor would like to talk to me, right now. Another neighbor has decided to start mowing his lawn with the loudest lawnmower ever invented. My husband, busy with his own job, needs me to run an errand. On that errand, I run into people who want to speak with me and ask me how my summer has been and what plans I have for fall. When I come back, my cat has decided to impress me by attempting to eat a Nintendo DS charger. Sweet lord.

I understand that none of these (except for the charger-eating cat) are unreasonable things. Running an errand while my husband is busy is no big deal, it’s good that my dog is affectionate, and most people actually like to make small talk. It’s polite. They’re being nice. I’m the unreasonable one.

None of the people I met this morning know that I’ve been revising in my head since I woke up. None of them know that while they are talking about their plans for the rest of August, I’m thinking Do I just cut out the first two pages? But then how can I make the opium den believable? And do I really have to lose the part about the chickens on the Fung-Wah bus? I mean, come on. Everyone likes chickens.

No. The people I met this morning just think I’m a rude, distracted-looking woman who hasn’t showered today, and was late for my errand thanks to two wrong turns and a near accident. It’s probable they think I have a decreased mental capacity, or that I’m insane and need to be confined.

Evidently I think I need to be confined as well. Right now I’m holed up in my office, hunched over my laptop. I’ve seen myself in the mirror. I look like a crazy person. Maybe we should pad the walls in here.

Why am I writing this instead of revising? Two reasons.

First, because I need to vent. I’m afraid that if I don’t vent, I’ll burst into tears and shriek Leave me alone, I’m thinking about chickens and whisper videos, dammit! at the next person who asks me how I’m doing today.

Second, because I think it’s important to write and think about making the time to work. So often, I put off the things I want or need to do because people are calling me, or because I forget that writing is my job, or because I enjoy writing so much that it can sometimes feel like play. But writing is work, and in this case, for me, it’s serious work because someone is waiting for it. This is a discussion writers need to have often, because I think many of us forget that writing isn’t just fiddling around with a pen and paper or a keyboard. It’s serious work, and requires a commitment.

And now that I’ve said all that, I’m hitting the “publish” button and logging out so that I can get to work.

Now.