working from home is great until it isn’t

When I first moved out of London — and don’t worry, this isn’t one of those “why I left London” diatribes, although I might write one of those one day, who knows — I was absolutely convinced that I didn’t want to work from home. I was excited to be freelance, yes, but I was also completely sure that if I worked from our house I would never get anything done. I am a creature of completely contradictory motivation levels: I did write the entire first draft of my 85,000-word book in seven weeks, yes, but I also regularly record podcast episodes at 3am on the day they’re supposed to be published. I needed a properly separate “work” environment, I decided, in order to trick myself into doing more of the former and less of the latter.

So I hired a small studio space in the trendy artsy district of Liverpool and filled it with random books, boxes of papers that wouldn’t fit in the house, and a grimy Ikea desk. My husband and I would leave together in the morning to take the train to our places of work, even though only one of us actually had to exit the house in order to get paid.

I never liked working at the studio, for lots of very obvious reasons including: it’s a 30 minute walk from the train station and it rains a lot here; the place is incredibly dusty and it makes me sneeze constantly; and the people I share the space with do things like sculpture and textile art that can get pretty noisy. But, I kept going because it was where I worked. Also, I didn’t want to have to move the miscellaneous boxes of papers again.

Then, about six months into this arrangement, we got a dog. Initially, I thought I’d just be at home for the first month or so while he adjusted to life with us, and then dog and I would together go to the studio every day so I could work. Except, we haven’t been once. It turns out that doing that hour-ish journey to the studio by train and on foot was one thing alone, but when loaded up with all my work stuff as well as the things Morris the dog would need to stay entertained during the day, it seems like such an expedition. There always seemed to be something that I needed to be filing urgently that made setting off on this voyage impossible; therefore, we just stayed at home.

It was always a temporary situation, though. I was still someone who didn’t work from home, even when another six months had passed and I’d only made occasional trips to the studio to check on my books. I bought a desk and turned the walk in closet off our bedroom into tiny office, but it still wasn’t my “place of work”. Even today, more than two years after I moved here, I still tell people about the studio as if that’s a significant part of my working routine rather than a ridiculous book storage situation I need to sort out.

Even while I was internally travelling to work every day yet actually only journeying as far as my desk-in-a-cupboard, I was getting very used to all the perks that come with working from home. I can walk my dog whenever I want, cook whatever I fancy for lunch, get chores done when I need to avoid a task I don’t want to do, receive parcels on the first delivery try (I never have to go to the sorting office anymore, it’s such a gift). I eat better, sleep better, and exercise more now that I don’t have to commute. I’m really lucky.

I’ve been focusing very hard on remembering that last part this week, though. A falling-domino series of household problems including a broken boiler and a leaking shower meant that we needed to get workmen in. And suddenly, I’m “working” from home in name only. There’s bashing and crashing and things being hoisted through windows that are clearly too small to take them. Constant decisions must be made about plasterboard and picture rails and thermostats. The water supply had to be off for an entire day, and so I spent ages walking to the station (with my dog) to use the toilet there, and then to the drinking fountain at the other end of the village to fill up a variety of containers for cooking and washing. Some of them leaked in my bag on the way back, but let’s pretend I didn’t get upset about that.

Earlier today, someone took a chisel to a wall and accidentally punched a hole in a pipe though which a huge slapstick squirt of water erupted, instantly soaking the entire room and causing the ceiling below to gently descend onto the kitchen floor.

I essentially live, and work, on the set of Home Alone. I have never wanted more to be at a desk in a noisy, windowless open plan office with too-low ceilings. I crave thin grey carpet. I miss being constantly interrupted by people who want to show me their tweets.

And yet, and yet. Getting to work where I want is an immense privilege, I know. For all of the times I’ve whipped up Alison Roman's #TheStew for my lunch and thought smugly about the sad overpriced salads I used to eat to break up the work day, there will be weeks where chunks of the wall mysteriously fall into the neighbours’ garden for no apparent reason. I used to hide in the toilet on a different floor at the office so that nobody I knew would see me coming out with red eyes. Mopping the ceiling off the floor seems quite fun by comparison.

Things to read, watch and listen to:

Thank you very much for all the kind responses to last week’s letter, I really appreciated them all.

There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I do daily podcast recommendations at The Listener, I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter.

am i a writer?

What is my job? This is something I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. I have work enough to fill my days and the last year has been my most positive to date in purely financial terms. But when asked by a friendly, curious stranger what I do, I get stuck. I usually mumble something about podcasts and use that as a conversational escape route into a new subject — people either want to know what a podcast is, or they want recommendations of new ones to listen to — and thus I avoid answering the question properly.

It’s not a real problem, this lingering lack of definition, especially compared to everything else happening in the world. It doesn’t stop me sending in invoices or buying food. I feel awkward even articulating this, because 2019 has been a good year for me. My first book came out and received good reviews. My podcast won an award. I get asked to be on Radio 4 more regularly now.

Yet it has been niggling away at me, the feeling growing stronger in the months after the book was published. I kept having to provide my bio for events I was doing, and every time I proofread what I had written before I sent it I thought: this doesn’t make any sense. In these short summations of myself for festivals and museums I instinctively don’t include any reference to most of the work that pays my bills (that is, writing about podcasts for an industry focused newsletter and editing audio). If I only did the stuff listed — book reviewing, freelance journalism, occasional broadcasting — I would be going hungry. But my other work just doesn’t seem literary enough to mention.

A very wise friend of mine who I consulted before leaving my magazine staff job in 2017 to go freelance warned me about this. When you have a full time position at a publication people have heard of, she said, it’s so easy to explain what you do that you don’t even think about it. But once you become self-employed and put together the work you want to do from lots of different disciplines and outlets, you have to come up with your own job title. In one way it’s incredibly freeing, but it can also feel like a chunk is missing from your sense of identity. If you’re someone who gives work an important place in your life (and I am, to a fault) not being able to easily say what you are can feel like you’ve failed.

For the first two years of my freelance existence, I think I was so busy writing a book and learning how to earn money that I had no time to think about what I might call myself if anyone were to ask. Now, things have slowed down a bit, in a good way, meaning that there’s suddenly time for these doubts to float to the surface.

There are plenty of books, podcasts and other media out there aimed at freelancers. A lot of it puts a positive spin on my question. Choice is freedom! Embrace the many hyphens in your job title! I don’t begrudge any of these things their cheeriness. Self-employment is at its highest since records began; it’s a label that now applies to nearly 5 million people in the UK. There’s no need to treat it like some shameful fallback option. It’s right that commentators are pushing towards a new and positive way of thinking about work.

Exploring this topic further made me realise that I was asking myself the wrong question. When I say “what is my job?” I think what I really mean is “am I a writer?”. That’s a title with fluid and shifting boundaries. Is it a label a person can choose, or does it have to be awarded externally? In a general sense, I really don’t think there should be any objective criteria for saying that you are one; deciding what is and isn’t “writing” feels like an impending horror show of elitism and tone policing. And yet I still feel like it’s not something I can say about myself.

I’ve got my own internal idea of who a writer is, which I’m constantly measuring myself against. A writer is someone who makes their living from publishing books that are critically acclaimed and/or bestselling as well as clever articles that a lot of people read. The writer publicly performs the role of “writer”, whether that’s by deliberate reclusiveness or by publicly sharing iterative details of their work online.

For this reason, this article about “the journalist as influencer” and the image management now necessary to be considered a successful writer in the age of the internet really spoke to me. I realised just how many of my own assumptions come from years of consuming the carefully curated writerly personas of people who are better than me at social media.

“One must have a persona on the persona-based internet, but the persona must be honest, or at least maintain the appearance of honesty,” the author of the article, Allegra Hobbs, says. She admits that she lacks the “effortless knack at existing online” that makes this possible; I do too. I’m not temperamentally suited to condensing anecdotes about my writing work into clever gobbets for other people to enjoy. I have far too much self doubt for that.

Later in that piece, Hobbs points out how gendered this feeling is, and how the question mark never seems to appear after the word writer when it’s being applied to a man. “The question of how to optimally present oneself online feels distinctly feminine, and this feels unfair even as the skill is somewhat advantageous, but mostly it feels inevitable. We are socialized to be highly attuned to making ourselves palatable for an audience, to be pleasing to the eye and the ear,” she says.

This made me think of all the years I spent as an editor, making other people’s work sing and ensuring that it got the widest possible readership online. During that time, I saw a lot of confident, mostly young, men sail straight past me and into the officially-sanctioned role of writer. Remembering that now, I don’t think they were worrying about whether or not to post a screenshot of their work in progress on Instagram.

Hobbs concludes by pointing out that it’s delusional to think that one can opt out of this structure. The self-appointed gurus who advocate leaving social media and swapping your laptop for a typewriter don’t exist in the same reality as me. I can no more escape the writing on the internet publicity machine than I can the more material inequalities that come with being a woman. Writing is not just writing anymore, if it ever was. The way writers are remunerated is set up to reward those who are good at inhabiting the role of writer as well as at doing the work.

Research repeatedly shows that that the average author in the UK makes less than the minimum wage from their books. Unless you have a private income (and let’s not ignore the fact that some of the extremely self confident writers out there do) then doing other work, whether it’s the kind of more commercial writing and editing that I do, or something completely different, is a necessity. Yet author bios and social media profiles suggest otherwise; it’s a rare person who advertises that they are an author but also a receptionist, or a teacher, or a barista.

Whenever I do see a Twitter bio that encompasses the full range of what that person does for a living, my heart lifts a little. I love reading about authors from the past who were open about their other jobs, like Dorothy L. Sayers with her decade as an advertising executive, or Anthony Trollope at the Post Office. Knowing this feels like a small way of resisting the fantasy construct of literary writing as a lucrative profession.

This week, I’ve written about 5,000 words in exchange for money, but the proposal for a new book that I’m supposed to be working on has remained untouched. That’s why I’m sending this to you now, because these corrosive questions have started to get in the way of me exploring what I might do next.

I still don’t know if I’ll ever say “yes, I am a writer” when someone asks what I do, but I can at least get better at feeling comfortable in the cracks in between all the different things I might be.

I’m well aware that this kind of self regarding essay is not what you subscribed to this newsletter for. Therefore, I won’t mind (much) if you make use of the unsubscribe option at the bottom of this email.

To explain what’s happened: I stopped doing the original No Complaints earlier this year because that kind of curation no longer fit easily into the pattern of my days. When I was an editor at a magazine, I read the internet voraciously and found plenty of choice nuggets to send to you. These days I do more writing and listening than I do editing, and it became a struggle to fill that template. What had been a fun thing to send out for free became a worry and a chore.

Now that I’m exploring a different path, I want to do more writing and less linking in this newsletter. I really enjoy the way people like Anne Helen Peterson, Ann Friedman, Helen Lewis and others do their emails, and I’m going to try moving more in that direction myself.

My first book was partially a memoir, but as one reviewer pointed out it was “intriguingly light on [my] own biography”. What I’m considering writing next will be more straightforwardly about me, and I think I need to practise putting myself on the page in order to get better at it.

So, in the future you can expect some chunky pars of my thoughts at the top and then some links down below. I hope you find at least some part of this useful or enjoyable.

Things to read and listen to:

On Iceland, authenticity and “overtourism”.

How to only eat the good fruit.

Legacy wealth in the African-American community.

The joy of Janet Ahlberg.

What happened with the Booker Prize.

Taylor at the tiny desk.

This audio essay about line dancing.

Is there such a thing as a “feminist” private members’ club?

There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I do daily podcast recommendations at The Listener, I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter.

Cupboard, Cake and Cranks

No Complaints #172

My desk is in a cupboard, and I like it that way. I can shut myself with just a lamp on and write knowing that nobody else can see what I’m putting on the page. I’m in there right now, in case you were wondering. This is how I wrote most of my first book, and all the time I was in here doing it I never gave any thought to what happens once you finish writing and open the door again. But that time has now arrived — the book is out in less than a month (pre-order it, do, if you’ve ever enjoyed any of these emails I send).

So, I have to get out of the cupboard and tell people about it. This isn’t something I’ve ever done before and all the uncertainty and newness is making me want to write things again, real things, that aren’t part of my job but just things I have to say. So, I’ve made a little place where I’ll do that — if you’d like to see some pictures and words related to the book, and other things, then register your interest here. If not, no worries, keep scrolling for today’s links.

Things to read

“To me, crispy gone soggy (CGS) foods hold an appeal that transcends the technical—there is something grander, more existential, almost spiritual at play. To experience CGS is to experience process, to access a magical, ephemeral space between here and there, past and present, crispy and soggy. There is a beautiful tension that exists in this liminal space, one that reflects our own ecstatic human in between-ness—to have been born and know that we will die. To experience CGS is to come face to face with our own mortality and the way that we conduct ourselves in that context.”
On the necessity of having a favourite texture of food.

“Let's look at the numbers, shall we? The author has written 179 books, which have been translated into 43 languages. Twenty-two of them have been adapted for television, and two of those adaptations have received Golden Globe nominations. Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she's at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A few times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)”
Howwww are you doing this, Danielle Steel?? Is this real?

“If people come over, I always offer to laminate something of theirs. I say: ‘give me something from your wallet, let me laminate it for you.’ . . . When I want to jazz up a meal, I’ll get out my Norpro hand-crank bean Frencher. . . My small box of small hats says small hats on it. I also have two boxes filled with googly eyes: one fancy, one not.”
Amy Sedaris and her must-have shopping list are both so pleasingly weird.

“Something that often gets left out of the diversity debate is age. The age at which singers’ voices are in their prime doesn’t necessarily coincide with when the singers are at their peak-castability. A combination of “aesthetic considerations” and economics (young, less-experienced singers are cheaper) means a lot of singers, particularly women, in their 40s struggle to find work, even though they’re singing better than ever.”
An opera singer on how looks influence her industry, especially for women.

Which is not to say that a diet of fresh foods, plenty of water, and eight hours of sleep every night don’t affect how your skin looks; studies have demonstrated links between all three and physical appearance, and they’ll help most people achieve the modest goal of looking totally fine. Unless you’re very young and even more genetically gifted, though, self-denial won’t get the results it promises.
The one fail-safe hack to get better skin is to be really, really rich.

Things to listen to

I am completely obsessed with the Bon Appetit YouTube channel; yes, I do like cooking, but mostly I consume it like I would a sitcom, enjoying the relationships and interactions between the different chefs. It follows therefore, that I would also be really into the Bon Appetit Foodcast, a podcast which is more of my favourite sitcom but just in audio form. Start with this one about carrot cake.

+Oh, also, don’t forget I now have a newsletter where you get three great podcast recommendations every day. Use this link to get it free for a month.

Things to watch

See empires vanish.

I haven’t even seen this film and I cried.

This really tasty.

Compulsory medieval thingamabob

Gone fishin’.

The guest gif

Me, always.

Hacking, Husbands and Heroes

No Complaints #171

A day late! But still here! I am trying to be better about doing this consistently, I promise. And if you ever miss me, don’t forget I now do a daily newsletter that you can sign up for here.

Things to read

“My friends reminded me to practice self-care, a well-meaning comment that I found unintelligible. Getting a manicure or a massage wouldn’t fix this. Nothing would fix this. And even if I had wanted to indulge, I was worried about how my behavior might be perceived. I had quickly discovered that a woman whose husband is objectively Not Okay is likely to be ignored, picked apart, blamed, and have her sanity questioned — especially if she is a black woman and her husband is a white man. So whenever the topic of self-care came up, I’d say something that would get them off my back, and then I’d get back to work.”
A great piece of writing about a terrible time. Email to Pocket.

“The substance of the blogs — guidance on motherhood and domesticity — is often so thinly reconstituted that it’s basically motherhood tips from a content farm. Rather than writing about their own personal experiences or expertise, the mothers producing it seem to be following a set of conventions that they learn in the online blogging courses they buy. The result is a uniformity of tone and content that fails to conjure anything real. It’s a simulation of motherhood engineered to earn a bit of income for mothers.”
Insight on the weirdly bland world of mommy blogging. (Everything is an MLM, don’t @ me.) Email to Pocket.

“Some argue that removing the app leaves women with even fewer options. The digital age has in fact allowed more women to escape oppression in Saudi Arabia. Previously, women needed the physical presence of their male guardians to travel, and some argue that Absher at least gives them an option of hacking their way out of the control of their male guardians.”
In case you needed reminding that the world is unutterably grim, in Saudi Arabia there is an “Uber but for women’s oppression” app. Email to Pocket.

“I don’t know what it means to have your body represented on screen in a way that isn’t somehow tied to magic. If the disabled body isn’t evil or mistaken (the hairy Beast, the green skin of the Wicked Witch, the disfigured face of Red Skull), it is always redeemed in the end—either through actual magic, like when the Maiden Without Hands has her hands grow back in the tale from the Brothers Grimm, or through the magic of the compensation theory of disability, which is what happens a lot with our superheroes.”
On superheroes and the portrayal of disability. Email to Pocket.

“The pizza delivery car pulls up outside. It’s right on time and so, so hot. The delivery guy hands it over with an appropriate smile and says, ‘Enjoy, I hope you’re not sharing it with anyone if you don’t want, I believe everyone is in control of their own bodies and should never be shamed for what they decide to eat or not eat.’ He makes no effort to come inside because that would be weird and alarming. I smile and give him a reasonable tip for his normal behavior as I shut the door. Time for The Crown.”
The real erotica that all women really want. Email to Pocket.

Things to listen to

I’m obsessed with this audio time travel project. It’s just so beautiful and surprising.

I’ve also done something things where you can listen to me talk recently: I was on the BBC’s Podcast Radio Hour this week and on The Allusionist podcast talking about detective fiction and pseudonyms. You can also here more of the latter on my own podcast, Shedunnit.

Oh, and I now have that daily podcast newsletter you should sign up for.

Things to watch

I am afraid I haven’t watched anything this week other than old episodes of Gilmore Girls! So . . . you should do that. Start at the beginning.

Compulsory medieval thingamabob

When you read a mean comment on the internet.

The guest gif

Me, receiving an unreasonable email.

Frida, Food and Fear

No Complaints #170

Two things I need to tell you before we get to the links today.

  1. I’m starting a new DAILY (that’s right Caroline, you have to do it every day) podcast recommendation newsletter called The Listener on Monday 15 April. Three great podcast episodes in your inbox and your feed, every single day. If you’ve ever enjoyed a podcast I’ve put in No Complaints and thought ‘I’d never have found this myself’, this will be like that except more so. It costs $5 a month, but I have a special link here that will give you a month for free. It’s first come first served though and there is a limited number of these trials so get clicking if you want one.

  2. We’re having a little meetup/gathering/drinks to celebrate the launch of The Listener, 6-8pm at Drink, Shop & Do by Kings Cross Station in London. If you are free and want to say hi, do come along. Totally free, you can just turn up, but if you have any questions about access etc hit up Hopefully see some of you there!

Right, back to the usual stuff.

Things to read

“The discovery was a shock. But for Aaron, the human remains sunk below a layer of concrete in his boyhood home snapped the jumbled pieces of a family mystery into place. In January 1993, his mother, Bonnie Haim, had vanished. Police suspected her husband, Aaron’s father, Michael Haim, of killing his wife. Those suspicions started with what Aaron, who was then 3, had told authorities.”
Honestly, the wildest true crime story you’ll ever read. Email to Pocket.

“Dorsey’s comments didn’t raise a flag for me. They looked like the front of the United Nations building. But it’s easy for Dorsey, a man who’s hacking his own biology, to say these things and be defended online. I’m frustrated that I’ve been conditioned to raise an eyebrow when a powerful woman like Jenna Lyons says she only eats two tomato soups for lunch each day — but that when a powerful man, Dorsey, describes eating habits that have clear potential for real health damage, people will rabidly defend him.”
At what point does tech bro biohacking become just another potentially harmful personal habit? Email to Pocket.

“But here’s the most surprising thing about all these spreadsheets: They’re enjoyable. You could use productivity apps to track your habits, but they’re not as endlessly customizable, creative, or purposeful as spreadsheets. It’s fun to puzzle out the best way to organize them and maximize the amount of information you can include without making them unwieldy. And it’s a joy to see them fill up and show off all the books you’ve read this year or how much you’ve exercised.”
Finally, I feel validated for my extreme spreadsheet addiction. Email to Pocket.

“The popularity of these graphic accounts runs contrary to Instagram’s reputation as full of only the glossiest fare, from cosmetics to the cosmetically-enhanced. They’re memorable, if nothing else, and often mesmerizing; I had a nightmare that featured the black ooze in a @crimescenecleanersinc post about a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Revulsion, it seems, can win just as many followers as beauty and fame.”
Unlikely Instagram influencers alert: crime scene clean up experts. People really love looking at pictures of decomposing bodies, apparently. Email to Pocket.

“I do, however, very much enjoy the non-spam correspondence. An email is a glimpse into another life, a fragment of a story. Maybe I love getting other people’s mail because I am a fiction writer. Maybe I’m a fiction writer because I love getting other people’s mail. Chicken or egg, I do not know. All I know is it gives me a little rush. I read my misdirected correspondence carefully. I read it nosily. I read it with a little voyeuristic thrill and odd surprising pangs of envy. Rationally I know that to share a name with someone is a simple, random thing. Irrationally I can’t help but feel connected to the other Rachel Lyons of the world.”
I loved this piece about the little secrets we know about our internet doppelgangers (not least because I have someone who I think of as “the Other Caroline Crampton” who has been mistakenly telling people my email address is hers for years; I know how much her house sold for, for instance, and how her children are getting on in school). Email to Pocket.

Things to listen to

Jonathan Zenti’s Meat. Susan Calman’s sadness. Samin Nosrat’s fears.

Don’t forget, great podcast recommendations like this every day if you get on this link fast enough.

Things to watch

Yes, Frida.

I should probably try this.

I would watch a romcom about the two lead vocalists here.

Compulsory medieval thingamabob

Gone fishing.

The guest gif

Keep smiling.

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