I wasn’t supposed to be in town this week. I was supposed to be in New Mexico, about 30 minutes from Albuquerque, at a writing retreat. I’d been looking forward to it since April: the desert, the solitude, the productivity. Though I’ve been incredibly fortunate this summer, having traveled to Yale (three days) and to DC (two days, commuting) for training in digital storytelling and media appearances, respectively, neither of those opportunities — as useful as they’ve been — afforded me quiet, unmarked time to write. The writing retreat would’ve given me seven whole days, the longest stretch of time I would’ve spent away from home and away from my daughter not just this summer, but in the five years I’ve been a mother.
I was really ready for it.
I’d envisioned myself writing at least one (but ideal two) nonfiction book proposal(s) and finishing the rough draft of a YA novel, returning home with reams of handwritten notes for new projects, my brain swept clear of its dusty preoccupations. (In all my fantasies about free time, my reach exceeds my grasp.)
The trip didn’t pan out. I thought I’d have childcare for the entire week. I didn’t, and I couldn’t get an alternative solution together in time to attend.
The irony is that this was still the most productive writing week I’ve had in quite some time — distractions, kid in tow, and all.
I wrote two essays on Sunday, one that would run on Monday, the other on Tuesday. I spent the middle of Sunday night, between 1 am and 5 am, turning around edits on the Monday piece, and spent Monday afternoon turning around edits on the Tuesday piece. Then I turned my focus onto a piece that was due on Wednesday, one that required interviewing (and transcribing an interview) and watching a documentary. On Tuesday night, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun’s Insider blog called at 9 pm to interview me for a column called “The 410 in 140,” which focuses on Baltimoreans who use Twitter in noteworthy ways. I managed to file the essay with interviews late Wednesday (after staying up until 4 am Tuesday night/Wednesday morning to work on it); the piece ran Thursday. Thursday, I also pitched what I’ll be writing for Monday’s column with The New Republic and Thursday’s contribution to the Washington Post Act Four blog.
Today, I’ll be attempting to schedule and conduct interviews for the Monday column, as well as doing research for it.
You can find all this week’s essays and the Baltimore Sun Insider interview, in order of publication, here:
That level of productivity, when coupled with all the other demands on my time and resources, comes at a cost. And the anxiety I feel about generating ideas, meeting deadlines, and writing well — every time — is compounded by the freelance net 30 (or 40 or 60) payment terms. When I’m writing anywhere new, I’m never quite certain when I’ll be paid (and the onus is, of course, on me to invoice for payment in a timely manner, which I don’t always remember to do, because: other deadlines, responsibilities, invoices, obligations).
I love being this busy with the work of writing. I don’t love what the business of freelance writing does to my heart rate and stress levels. I hope it will always be okay for me to express that here, at my personal blog, without seeming ungrateful for the opportunities I’m being afforded. I wish I’d had access to this level of candor about the business of writing when I was, say, 18 and picking English as a college major, or even 26, when I borrowed thousands in loans for my creative writing MFA. I don’t believe in discouraging anyone who aspires to a career in new media writers, but I do believe they deserve to know what awaits them. I think more of us are being open about the rigors and challenges attendant to this life — and that can only benefit future generations of workers.
I’ve been giving some thought to how much of my life is spent online. One of the questions I fielded for the “410 in 140” piece was about whether or not I feel a pressure to use Twitter constantly. The answer is tricky. The relationship between the freelance writer and social media is an essential one. In much the same way that syllabi and lecture prep, grading, and holding “office*” hours are necessary, unpaid labor for adjunct instructors at colleges, social media use is necessary and unpaid labor for new media writers. It’s a basis for research, a space to solicit interview subjects, a platform for carrying out the kind of intellectual debate I imagine goes on between colleagues in the brick-and-mortar newsrooms to which I don’t have access (only, on social media, that debate is more inclusive, occurring as it does across class lines, regardless of city, state, or country of residence, with far more diversity along race, gender and disability lines).
I can say for certain that, to whatever extent I’m on anyone’s radar as a writer about culture, race, motherhood, or anything else, it’s owed to my online presence. Everyone goes about growing a readership differently. My way has been slow, with an emphasis on quality over quantity (even now, though it’s thrilling to occasionally discover raw numbers of clicks or unique visitors, I try not to linger too long on the size of an essay’s reading audience. I care more about how memorable and affecting a piece is, what — if anything lasting — it contributes to the larger discourse on an issue, and what — if anything — it compels a reader to do). Interacting with people online, thanking them for reading and sharing my work, trying to emphasize to them that we’re in ongoing dialogue and that I’m trying not to write at them, so much as to them, and that I’m not interested in having the last word on any topic, simply because I’ve been fortunate enough to have my word published — these are the cornerstones of approach to writing for new media and for growing an audience in a grossly oversaturated market.
But I do crave a greater sense of balance. I envy my friends who nobly take “social media breaks,” a week here, 30 days there. I covet how refreshed they always seem when they return. I’ve never been good at cutting off any activity or person completely cold turkey. I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of discipline or simply that I’m better at making long-term changes when I do so gradually and moderately. But I probably won’t ever have a long lapse of online silence. A day here or there, where I’m on deadline or actually (gasp) out gallivanting through the tangible, analog world around me, perhaps. But I imagine even then, I’ll tweet once or twice.
This is especially true now that I’m up to two weekly columns — one at The New Republic and one at The Washington Post Act Four. I can assure you that there isn’t enough pre-existing knowledge or opinion or insight in my head for me not to be reading news stories or engaging with other thinkers about the news of the day. The most efficient way for me to engage in that work is via my Twitter feed.
In the last few month of the year, however, I do want to make more of an effort to step away. Quality over quantity is a principle that needs to operating in my personal life, too. I’m quite proud of how much work I put out this week, over a number of publications. But this week was also supposed to be about retreating, getting some physical and emotional distance, and recharging. I’m hoping to make my weekend about that (… while also working on my Monday column).
*Adjuncts don’t typically have brick and mortar offices — and certainly not ones that they don’t share with anywhere from one to 40 other people.