Junod is on deadline now, for a book about his father. But under the pall of the coronavirus pandemic, his usual places of refuge are not available. In his Facebook post, Junod described what he’s ended up doing to find some quiet solitude:
“I go to church. No, don’t worry — I haven’t gone the way of those convinced that the pandemic heralds the fulfillment of the latest apocalyptic fantasy. But there’s a Baptist megachurch a mile-and-a-half from my house. It has parking lots — vast, plentiful and mostly empty. I drive there with a lap top and a bottle of water, climb into the backseat of the car, and, with the windows open, write.”
His post went on to describe an encounter he had with a police officer who wanted to know why he was hanging out in the backseat of his car in a mega-church parking lot. (No spoiler here, but it ended well.)
After reading Junod’s delightful little narrative, I was left with another question: How are other reporters and writers are finding the needed time and right space to write when so much has changed.
I reached out to several to see how they are making do in face of a wrecked routine. The solutions vary, but all have had to adjust. Those adjustments depend on the type of projects they are working on, whether they freelance or work on staff, whether they have young children at home, even the layout of their houses.
Pamela Colloff: From long stretches to 30-minute bursts
Throughout her career, Pamela Colloff (formerly Texas Monthly, now ProPublica and New York Times Magazine) has done everything she could to separate work time from family time. When she’s deep into a writing project, she structured that part of her life so there was as much uninterrupted time as possible:
“With few exceptions, I didn’t meet friends for coffee or lunch during the work day. I tried to make every minute count because I had a hard stop at the end of the afternoon, when I had to pick up my kids from school. I worked at my office in downtown Austin, and I didn’t maintain a work space at home; I liked having two separate places for work and family.”
No more. Colloff now shares a home office with her husband, and is learning how to work in 30-minute increments that happen between parenting duties: helping the kids with homework, taking them on walks, organizing off-screen activities.
“It requires an entirely different way of thinking that is not conducive — for me, at least, — to immersive writing. So now I’m focusing on reporting that I can do in small chunks; phone interviews, archival research, and that sort of thing.”
Even so, Colloff counts her blessings.
“I never, ever lose sight of how fortunate I am simply to have work, and to have the opportunity to keep reporting and writing. Not having enough hours in the day for my work is a luxurious problem.”
Sam Borden: Elsa and Anna in the background
There have been several changes that Sam Borden of ESPN has made when it comes to his signature in-depth features. But the biggest challenge has been location. He is used to writing in hotel rooms when he’s on a road trip for work. There, he was alone and could give his full attention to a story.
“I work in an office in my house, which is very near the kitchen and the kids’ play room. During the day when they’re at school, that’s fine. But now it’s taken on a different tenor in terms of volume and distraction. I’ve gotten very adept at being able to write while hearing music from ‘Frozen 2’ and ‘The Descendants.’” (Borden’s daughters are 6 and 9.)
His writing schedule also has also changed. Instead of blocking off extended hours of writing time and refusing to move on to a new section of a story until he is perfectly happy with the previous one, Borden finds himself working on multiple sections of stories in short bursts throughout the day.
“The opportunities to really fit in writing are much shorter than I have when the kids are in school. Now I’m really spending time, when I’m out for a walk or in the shower, outlining whatever the section is, and then immediately going in and writing that down somewhere with paper and then forcing myself to just write that section.”
Janet Reitman: A window over a garden
Author, profiler and justice reporter Janet Reitman thinks she is pretty lucky when it comes to changes that COVID-19 has forced in her work. For one, she still has projects to work on; she just finished an oral history, focused on the first fatal outbreak of the coronavirus in a federal prison, for the New York Times, and she is at work at another book.
So, as with the others, the biggest change for her is where she writes.
“I have, for years, worked at a different place because I like to go off to work. So I was renting space in a kind of co-working space. Now I’m working in a little home office. I close the door. My dog hangs out in the office with me all day. It’s a little bit of an adjustment. But I have a window. I’m looking out the window and there’s a beautiful garden and birds are chirping.”
Bradford Pearson: The race to make the 5 a.m. feeding
When magazine writer and author Bradford Pearson was writing his book, “The Eagles of Heart Mountain,” (due to be published early next year by Atria) he did the vast majority of his writing at the Athenaeum, a 175-year-old private library in Philadelphia that rented working space to young writers.
“It’s this beautiful old room that nobody really knows about. And it was cheaper than a co-working space, and there’s nobody ever there.”
Pearson finished all of the writing on his book before the pandemic hit. Now he’s working on edits, and trying to get future freelance assignments lined up. He does that from his kitchen table, often while watching his 3-year-old and 8-month-old. His wife, an attorney, also is working from home now.
They both work whenever they can. Their older child still spends three hours in her room for quiet time during the day, and if they can get the baby to take a nap during that time, well, that’s golden.
“We can kind of sit there and furiously work or do whatever. It’s definitely hard trying to get into an actual groove.”
If Pearson has to really sit and write, he does so at night, after everyone has gone to bed. That usually starts around 10 p.m.:
“You’re still sitting at a small table in a communal area trying to write.”
But he pushes through, while simultaneously hoping it’s not his turn to get up for the baby’s 5 a.m. feeding.
Michael Graff: An office in search of a door
More has changed in Michael Graff’’s life in recent months than just the disruptions of the pandemic. After running Charlotte Magazine in 2017, he freelanced for a couple of years. Last year, he became editor of the daily newsletter, Charlotte Agenda. Then, in early March, he signed a contract on a co-authored book, about election fraud in North Carolina; He and his writing partner signed a lease for a small co-working space on March 1, and had to pay the first two months’ rent up front. They’ve not been in the office space since.
And on March 6, Graff’s first child was born.
“I used to write at the dining room table, but I’m pretty much exclusively in my office now. One of the things I’m looking for is a door so that I can close it when I need to work.”
One of the pieces he wrote in that space was this essay on bringing a child into this chaotic world.
Justin Heckert: Clearing through the clutter of the guest room/office
Justin Heckert‘s freelance career includes a rich in publications and awards (he was named CRMA Writer of the Year in 2012). Unless he’s on the road reporting, he’s almost always written from home, which these days is in Charleston, S.C. But when got back from a reporting trip to Los Angeles and Tampa just before Charleston shut down, he took a look at his home office and realized he had some work to do.
His home office has been in a guest bedroom on the second floor. It has a wood floor and lots of windows and natural light. But over the last couple of years, Heckert has let it go.
“I’d gotten kinda lazy, dumping magazines and books on the floor, I’d left transcription pages and lots of notebooks stacked on the floor, receipts from reporting trips on the floor and on my desk and used as bookmarks, video-game cords and other stuff on the floor — a bunch of crap that anyone else would consider junk.”
He knew he’d now be spending a lot of time there. Luckily for Heckert, his wife Amanda Heckert, the deputy editor at Garden & Gun magazine, was also working from home. About a week into their self-quarantine, she helped Justin cull and file and clean.
“It took a whole weekend. I’ve worked from home since 2006, but never in a space like this, and Amanda has been working from home, now, too. I love having her at home, even though it sucks she has to be; and she lent some of her time and decided to help me when I threw my arms up about my office, not knowing where to begin.”
Having a clean office has been a comfort, Heckert said: .
“And almost, like, inspirational, just to spend time in here writing, not tripping over stuff.”
Rachel Monroe: Obsessing over plants instead of words
Rachel Monroe spends more time in her garden than at her writing desk these days. She’s a freelancer, author (“Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession,” volunteer firefighter — and, by her own description, a deadline driven writer. Right now, she doesn’t have a lot of deadlines.
“I coped by planting a big garden and some fruit trees, and in the morning, when I would typically be writing, I instead obsessed over my plants.”
She’s doing a lot of reading and research for stories that she hopes to one day report and write. As for writing, she is pretty much limited to her journal and a new book proposal.
“Like everyone. I’m having to adjust my expectations for myself — which is painful, but really important.”
Robert Sanchez: Forced to find a new routine
Robert Sanchez, a senior staff writer at Denver’s 5280 magazine and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine, Esquire, and Men’s Health, generally writes his stories in libraries. A creature of habit, he’s written at least 30 stories from the same three tables at the University of Denver library. Now he’s working on a big piece for 5280 that he knows he is going to have to write from home.
“Honestly, the idea scares me. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to put together 5,000 words with a wife, two teenagers and a golden retriever puppy within close proximity.”
While the Colorado stay-at-home order might ease soon, Sanchez is unsure what that will look like — or if he would be willing to go where large groups of people might gather. That means he has to develop a new plan for his writing.
“That will probably mean very early mornings and very late nights, when the house is quiet. I’ll have to adjust my schedule, and I might go with less sleep for a couple weeks. If that helps my process, those changes will be worth it. I just hope this isn’t my new normal.”