Until recently, I spent a conservatively estimated forty-two-and-a-half of my equally conservatively estimated one-hundred-and-twelve weekly waking hours writing marketing and technical copy for a West London advertising firm whose portfolio of clients were majoratively located in Southeast Asia (– the former of those two estimates exempting the unpaid overtime my employer regularly encouraged me to work, and, obviously, my lengthy multimodal commute).
Because they had to be easily transcreatable in the first languages of several different client markets, the sentences I composed that were eventually approved by the firm’s head of copy usually read as though written in a quasi-Esperanto of as-broad-as-possible comprehensibility. Examples of such approved, essentially informationless product lines included: ‘The latest in natural skincare’; ‘Beauty at the cutting edge’; ‘Taking broadband to the next level’.
I hated my job, and the longer I remained at that workplace, the more I could feel my identity becoming warped by it; the edges of my personality being steadily remoulded. I was conscious that I was misapplying – day-in, day-out – what little talent I had. I wanted to write meaningful fiction the way I’d always planned, but had no time to do so other than in the evenings and at weekends – my generously estimated sixty-nine-and-a-half hours of leisure time.
Still, reading fiction felt like one of a very few strategies I had at my limited disposal for retaining some sense of selfhood while working in a place I despised but was also otherwise underqualified and in a financial situation too precarious to be able to abandon.
It wasn’t until I read the following in the author’s note that concludes the reissue edition of George Saunders’ debut story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline on my morning commute that some kind of formerly unreachable power key got tapped on in my brain:
This book was written in the Rochester, New York, offices of Radian Corporation between 1989 and 1996, at a computer strategically located to maximize the number of steps a curious person (a boss, for example) would have to take to see that what was on the screen was not a technical report about groundwater contamination but a short story.
Saunders’ demystification of his practice distilled in prose something I’d previously come infuriatingly close to thinking of myself, but had never been able to do quite so nakedly: namely, that I could exploit the inefficiencies of the modern workplace to create art – could forge for myself, if I guarded it closely enough, a vocation-inside-a-vocation that I actually cared about.
Fortified by the knowledge that one of my favourite writers had started out in conditions just like mine, from then on, whatever spare time I could salvage I spent constructing my own sentences and stories at my desk while pretending to craft marketing and technical copy. Unable to angle my monitor away from prying administrative eyes the way Saunders had, I wrote in the address bar of my web browser, in spreadsheet cells, in emails I addressed to myself. As a rule, I worked on my own writing only in the mornings, then powered through an entire day’s worth of ‘real’ work from lunch until six p.m.
When desperate, I faked conference calls, faked hour-long bouts of diarrhoea, faked taking up smoking so I could sit outside to continue fine-tuning then usually deleting the sentences I’d backed up on my smartphone – all of this I did on billable time.
I continued writing at home in the evenings and at the library on weekends. I told no one what I was doing. I printed out drafts of my stories using the industrial printer in the office’s backroom after everyone else had gone home. I recorded myself reading my own work aloud so I could listen to it on my headphones at my desk. I read David Graeber reframing the act of covertly labouring on one’s own creative projects from one’s sterile, corporate day-job as ‘spiritual warfare’. I read that William T. Vollmann wrote his first novel at the cubicle desk he not only worked at but also slept under. I read that when Alice Munro was first published, a local newspaper ran an article about her with the headline: ‘Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories’. I read Sheila Heti comparing the act of art-making to throwing handfuls of sand in the air to reveal an invisible castle.
Recently, I moved out of the city to stop worrying so much about money, and now I worry about money more than ever. This essay, though, is the first piece of writing I have not written – even in part – at a day-job desk. I am sure that before long, I will find myself again precariously employed as a contract copywriter. I am sure that in an age of relentlessly productive, decreasingly humane and increasingly optimised workplace culture – an age of ever-more detailed time-sheets and tech-enabled employee surveillance – the relative freedoms of office life that allowed writers like myself, Saunders and Vollmann to complete our earliest works at our desks will become near-impossible for future aspirants to avail themselves of. And I am sure that when that happens – when fiction writing once again becomes entirely the pastime of the already time-rich – we will all have a lot less fun reading on our commutes to the jobs we hate.
Photograph © Louis du Mont