A couple of months ago I whispered the word "egg" into a microphone for close to two hours.
Actually that's misleading. I whispered, spoke, and shouted some one-hundred English words, including "fish" and "ghost," into a microphone for close to two hours. And I struggled to leave. Only after some stalling on my part ("Another take for 'wharf'? No? 'WHARF'. You sure?") the ceremony of my leaving began: the unlocking of my airtight booth, an offering of Diet Dr Pepper from the studio mini-fridge, and many thanks for my time, conspiratorial and sarcastic because of how long the job had run over, all issued with the soft-edged grumpiness only a sound-engineer can possess.
I imagined climbing back into that booth. Digging my nails into the carpet. Offering other services. I could organize their payslips. Bring glasses of water to voice talent. I could watch that mini-fridge, in case it haywires and the yoghurt becomes room temperature. I can stay. We can be a team.
Of course I did none of this.
Wrapping up a day at one's odd side-job in corporate voiceover should not be particularly difficult. I struggle because of the other job. The writing.
Writing as I do it, and have done it for the last several years, is lonely. It maps itself on a rotation of cafes, libraries, and one friend's home, where every few weeks she'll let me sit at her dining room table if she happens to be working from home. While she takes calls from real, human co-workers, I slap at ⌘F to check that I haven't used a starfish metaphor more than once. And I return home without any real sense of the progress I've made, trying, with violent force, to alter my DNA into that of a person who simply cannot bear to work in an office.
Because I love an office. I desperately need a team. My gigs outside of writing, however fleeting, allow me to feel something like camaraderie, however one-sided or—frankly—imagined. In most cases, writing is totally team-less. The trouble may have started with the spaceships.
In the late 80s my father had finished a long run of creating text-based adventures, the proto-video-games that don't belong in the same phylum as the first-person shooters and self-generating Furry fantasy universes of today. Around the time I gained self-awareness, he and his studio (at a combined age of about 95) were deep into developing a space game, one with actual visuals—melees, planet systems, alien races, and ships. My brother and I devoured every detail, only coming to appreciate the genuine narrative elegance of the universe that those dudes had created—in their rented studio above a Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area suburbs—a couple decades later. But the groundwork had been laid in thick pixels: Ships. Light-speed. Sci-fi. My wheelhouse, my world.
Soon after that came the Hollywood behemoths, and then the literature: Larry Niven, Zenna Henderson, and Ray Bradbury's short stories, which my pre-adolescent brain was perfectly primed to absorb in all their eerie sweetness. Somewhere around this time, the more specific idea of a rag-tag team of oddball space pioneers, clustered within the confines of a charming but outmoded ship, must have imprinted on me. Yes. This is surely what my adult professional life would be: An unlikely team (perhaps a straight-shooter, a loose cannon, an allegiance-less alien, never happy to be in close quarters with squishy humans, abrasive, even cruel, but prone to occasional bouts of reluctant heroism) coming together for a shared goal. Where the only escape from my scrappiness, poorly regulated interpersonal intensity, and radioactive fondness for shared war stories would be the cold vacuum of space.
I have occasionally found this in my working life, in contracted projects and stopgap jobs. But more often than not it feels like a devil's bargain: the prized shared workplace, at the cost of writing. It took me years to accept that that was not a price I was willing to pay.
And so the cafes. The harshly worded emails about libraries' wifi capabilities. Begging friends for the use of tabletops and bodily proximity.
I have recently begun to schedule travel for the sole purpose of working along the way. I work well in motion; a lot of people do. Solitude in transit goes through a funny arithmetic, transforming into a kind of fuel. Maybe it's something from the limbic system: the quick innovation needed by animals in flight. It seemed decadent at first. All those fares to Orpington or Solihull, only to pivot on the platform and come straight back. Recently, however, I treated myself to an actual destination: Berlin, where May-Lan Tan, friend and author of exquisite, hypnagogic fiction, invited me and a journalist friend to stay. Our goal was simple: Work. Whatever that looked like.
It worked. We worked. Long stretches of silent, harmonious concentration were intercut only with the stray pancake break. So much of the spaceship was there. The containment. The shared purpose. Even something alien in the air, making hours pass, uninterrupted by ego or itchy feet.
One evening after deciding to walk across Friedrichshain to find a nightcap, we managed to lock ourselves into into May-Lan's building. Rusty knobs, Altbau ghosts, who knows. We banged on the wall of the neighboring graphic design studio until eventually a startled young man let us out.
The air outside was nice. It wasn't a vacuum. Just air.