What I’m working on:
I’m freelance, no regular paying gigs. I used to run a small graduate program in science writing and worried, when the program was taken out back and shot, that I wouldn’t remember how to scramble. No worries.
I’ve just finished a story on how galaxies manage their gas supply, which is way more interesting than it sounds, though you’d think I’d know by now how to make it sound as interesting as it is. The story is for Science, for an editor with whom I’ve worked a few times, and a top editor with whom I’ve worked many times. And though I feel at home with these editors, I’m scared to pieces. I’m not sure how enthusiastic they were about the story in the first place, and I’m pretty sure they’ll notice the artfully papered-over gaps in it, let alone the gaps I didn’t even find. I’m worried that these editors with whom I’m so comfortable will be disappointed in me and tell me to write it over again from scratch, or they’ll maybe tell me it’s not even worth saving and here’s $10, go buy a drink. I’ve been a professional writer for maybe 30 years, and terror and despair and self-doubts never go away. I’m used to them. The solution to the problem is easy anyway: I trust that the editors are unlikely to kill the story; and if they do tell me it’s terrible, I’ll fix it.
Also, I’ve just been outmaneuvered by a reviews editor at Nature into reviewing in a small number of words two large, substantive books on related and difficult subjects, which is a real honor, except for the pay that no self-respecting freelancer should ever work for but hey, honor.
And next I have to think up another story to sell to someone. I should probably be trying to think up another book too. Right now I have nothing in mind for a story but I’m full of hope and optimism. I have even less in mind for a book and won’t discuss it.
And I also am a leading nag at The Last Word on Nothing. I don’t mind nagging because it doesn’t take long and it does get people writing those wonderful posts. I love LWON. The posts are fun to write and I love the freedom of no editors. I don’t remember any other writing I’ve done because it’s fun and feels free. No money is involved with LWON, which undercuts my argument with Nature completely.
Where I work:
I live in Baltimore, close to Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute, both of which host talks from which I get story ideas. I rent a room (for some reason called a suite but is nevertheless pretty cheap) in a building that was an old sailcloth factory, turned into mostly artists’ studios. I’ve been in this building for decades and find working around other people who are working makes working more likely. If I had a home office, as so many writers do, I’d be ironing rather than writing; I’d rather do anything else than write; I don’t know how writers write at home.
At my office I have three bookcases and two tall file cabinets full of books and papers and notes from the olden days. Sometimes I look at them. I have three long IKEA tables that I’ve strung in a line and cover with present, past, and future stories, in an orderly manner. I love these tables and every morning when I come in, for a minute they make me feel in control of my work. I have an enormous, glorious geological map from the USGS of the whole United States throughout all time, and this I look at a lot.
The following is boring. I apparently need boredom to work.
When it’s not too hot (not over 83 degrees) or too cold (not much under 30) or raining or snowing, I park my car at the office building and walk the six blocks into Hampden, the mill town that grew up around the sailcloth mills and is now just another neighborhood in Baltimore. I go to the same grubby coffee shop every day and have a sesame bagel, cream cheese on the side, plus coffee. I eat most of the bagel and read Science and Nature quietly. Then I walk back to the office, avoiding dog poop, saying hello to the people on the sidewalk who say hello back. At the office, I 1) see if LWON needs fixing; 2) tweet and Facebook the day’s post; 3) answer email; 4) read Twitter to see what’s going on in the world of science writing; 5) wonder how soon I can have lunch. Throughout the day I answer emails obsessively and immediately. After lunch I work pretty steadily, with Internet breaks, while my office, which faces the wrong direction, gets brighter and more wide awake. This is jarring but I try not to notice. I quit about 5:00, then drive the 15 minutes on neighborhood streets through occasional traffic to get home.
At different periods, I’ll need to travel and I do it, laptop, smart phone and all. I really hate travelling; it feels like a duty I have to do so I can get back to being bored. I’m lucky enough to often have the people I need to interview already in or passing through Baltimore. I do like getting into my car and driving the 10 minutes to their offices for the interviews.
Most productive part of my day:
Getting my brain to think takes forever, and getting it to write takes longer. But usually it starts ticking over around 11:00, breaks for a short lunch, and keeps going off and on until about 3:30, unless I get obsessed, then it’s more like 5:00.
Most essential ritual or habit:
Breakfast in the coffee shop, reading.
Smart phone, which I don’t turn on except when travelling.
I have a laptop at home but I can’t work on that cramped keyboard. I have a desktop at the office. It’s just the usual Dell.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
I’m so ashamed. I really have none. MS Word, for crying out loud. Skype phone so I can use the headphones and leave my hands free to type. I hear about the things that other writers use and once in a while I try one so I don’t feel too backward. I always think that habits of interviewing and note-taking and writing are so idiosyncratic, I don’t know how other writers adapt to these apps and tools which they didn’t design. I have a regular desk chair and sit in it until my back hurts, then I stand up for a minute. I wish people would stop writing stories about sitting for eight hours being a health hazard.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Screwing around on the Internet. Me and everybody else.
My reading habits:
I read the NYT and WSJ book reviews, the NY Review of Books, Science, Nature, and lots of longreads and features online. That’s professional reading. My personal reading is always fiction. I read it at night when my eyes are really too tired and computer-buggy to read, so each book takes a long time.
I’ve always needed a lot of sleep and on a regular schedule: 9:00 p.m. to 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. I’m ashamed of this too—it seems so weenie-like. And as I said, boring.