Office Hours And Real Jobs -- by Susan Price
|By Sun Ladder, Wikimedia
This peculiar guilt about working was intensified by the knowledge that, come Monday, when everyone else went back to work at tills or desks or production belts, she would be meeting another writer friend for a laugh and a chat. Out of step, you see. She would be working when everyone else was free (interesting phrase, that) and she would be free when everyone else was, presumably, not free but enslaved to their jobs again.
I told X that I sort of knew what she meant, though I wouldn't say I've ever felt guilty about it. I was working on my front garden one morning when a neighbour greeted me and said 'it was nice to see me up and about at this hour for a change.' Cheeky b*%g@. Yes, I often get up at hours considered 'late,' but that's often because I worked through the evening and into the night, while others were in the pub, watching TV or in bed. I don't begrudge them their time off at all and I'm perfectly happy with my irregular hours. What got my goat was my neighbour's implication that because I wasn't 'about at this hour' very often, I was somehow less virtuous or worthy than him but never mind, he approved of my efforts to do better. My goat was especially got when I considered that most of my neighbours, if they admitted it, probably resented having to get up early. My father, who got up at 6am and earlier for decades, certainly did.
I remember giving a talk once and one question from the audience was about 'my working day.' Did I work set hours, did I have a routine? No, I said. I only really like routines when I know I can change them any time, on a whim. If I have a deadline, I will work day after day, although I never work to strict hours. For example, I might do an hour at 8am, have breakfast and do various chores, return to work at 11, work until 5pm, take a break, start again at 7 or 8 and then go on until 11pm, or 2am. The next day will be a variation on that theme and so on until the deadline's met.
When I don't have a deadline, I might go for days without writing. Or not. I might go out, meet friends, garden, read... Until a scene has crystallised in my head and then I might spend several days where I write for 12 or even 18 hours, taking only short breaks and eating at my desk, until I've written and rewritten that scene.
The woman who asked the question was happy with this answer and interested. She had writing ambitions and had been given the idea that all writers were organised and disciplined -- that, in fact, they worked 'office hours'. I reminded her of the great Eddie Braben, comedy writer for Morecombe and Wise. When asked about his working hours, he said: "I'm always at my desk by nine-thirty a.m. sharp every morning and I work right through, without any interruptions until as late, sometimes as, oh, nine-thirty-five a.m." He went on to say that he embraced any and all opportunities to take the dog for a walk, fetch a newspaper, make a cuppa, read the newspaper, let the dog out, let the dog in...
But there was in the audience another woman who had glowered through my reply and now had her say. I don't remember her exact words after all these years but the gist of it was that she thought it pretty poor show from me, to snore in bed while she was standing at bus stops and to go off on country walks and visits to places of historical interest while she had to work.
I don't remember every word of my reply either, but it could be summed up as: What is your problem? I work to earn my living, even if not to your hours. My work is of a quality that publishers pay me for and I meet my deadlines. I pay my bills and taxes and have no debts.
I've never taken money from the state because, when I applied as an unemployed teenager, I was already self-employed. This was because I published my first book shortly before leaving school and the earnings from it meant I was self-employed even before I became available for employment. This self-employment earned the lavish sum of roughly £2 a week. Unable to find work -- the Black Country was in the process of being closed down under the mismanagement of Tories Heath and Thatcher -- I applied for unemployment benefit. But I was Tory Ideal, self-employed not unemployed so I got nothing. I stopped looking for 'a proper job', concentrated on writing and managed to get by ever after. In high-earning years, I've paid high taxes which the Tories gushed up to their friends, to be locked away in off-shore tax havens, while ensuring that less and less money ever 'trickled down.'
I'm not looking for medals or sympathy. My way of life suits me very well -- but no one gave me this writer's life as some sort of charitable donation. I worked for it and earned it, often while scraping by on very little. That being so, what matters it to you, dear Angry Woman in Audience, or anyone else, if I choose to sleep half the day, shoot off to the Hebrides at a moment's notice or dig my garden while you're working? -- While you are sleeping or on holiday, I'll very likely be working,and that's fine by me.
My friend X laughed at the tale of 'woman in audience' and said it reminded her of when her husband had first made the risky jump to self-employment. Suddenly, he wasn't leaving the house at the same time every morning and returning at the same time every evening -- in fact, for weeks at a time, he was at home. He did the shopping, he was seen pegging out washing, he collected the children from school. Looks were cast askance. Passing neighbours -- rather like mine -- made remarks like, 'Nice to have a chance to work on the garden.' (Said with a certain pointedness.) And, 'Still on holiday?'
What her lovely neighbours didn't see, X said, was the fact that he was at home because, despite great efforts, he hadn't managed to secure work for those weeks -- which meant much less money coming in or even living on savings. (God, and aren't writers familiar with that?) The miffed neighbours didn't see the worry about whether he was going to be able to make a go of self-employment, and whether he'd be able to get a job again if he failed. They didn't see that, even though he was at home, he didn't spend all his time pegging out the washing and picking up the children. They didn't see the hours and hours he put in, writing letters, making phone-calls, drawing up quotes, chasing work...(Reader, I'm glad to able to tell you that Mr X did make a success of self-employment and he and Mrs X and all the little Xs lived happily ever after.)
But what is this really all about, this strange guilt on one side and jealousy? Is it about non-conformity and suspicion of those who don't do as everyone else does? -- If 95% of people lived as I do, would they be suspicious and jealous of those who kept strict timetables? Would the neighbours be saying, "Still going to work?"
Or is it simply understandable envy of those who have the option of sleeping until they wake instead of having to spring from bed when the alarm goes off at six? Envy of those who can go down to the river on a hot day instead of being stuck in an office?
What do you think? -- And have you ever experienced this strange guilt about working while others are relaxing?
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