…Someone Who Does That…

Archie Goodwin, as illustrated by Austin Briggs for the Saturday Evening Post, 1958

I once met an important research scientist who travelled on average probably ten days a month, to other labs and to conferences and to give presentations. I asked him how he managed his travel, and he said blithely, “I have someone who does that.”

I did not. I spent far too much time on Travelocity, weighing the random alternatives of layovers and pricing and departure times.

Every creative person could use “someone who does that.” As an example, I’ve long been enamored of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, written over the course of forty years by Rex Stout. Although private detective Wolfe is at the center of each book, the heart of the stories comes through the voice of his assistant Archie Goodwin, who has an unspecified though crucial job description:

I know pretty well what my field is. Aside from my primary function as the thorn in the seat of Wolfe’s chair to keep him from going to sleep and waking up only for meals, I’m chiefly cut out for two things: to jump and grab something before the other guy can get his paws on it, and to collect pieces of the puzzle for Wolfe to work on.

Rex Stout, “The Red Box,” 1937

All of the novels are told in Archie’s first-person narration, as he goads and explores, acts as both security and investigative agent, negotiates with police and suspects and witnesses, and does the mundane work of bank accounts, taking dictation, and recording the germination records of Wolfe’s ten thousand orchids. Along with Archie, Wolfe also has a full-time gardener for his rooftop greenhouse, and a live-in chef/quartermaster for his culinary demands.

I’d go for that. I’d probably change some of the details, though, as I don’t raise orchids.

Through conversation with an artist recently, I’ve been led to imagine what kinds of work partners I’d find most valuable in my writing career. Lots of writers have had research assistants, for instance, tracking down data sets and making phone calls and transcribing interviews. Lots of writers have had proofreaders and editors (often known by their alternative title, wife), working behind the pages to make wild ideas legible. And of course, lots of writers have had support in childcare and housekeeping and meal preparation and banking and mailing (see also: wife).

Institutions are well equipped with support staff. Even the smallest college has an IT service group that makes sure that computing and printing and projecting and web connections are reliable, and swooping in to rescue the moment things go awry. Bigger colleges have offices of sponsored research, who investigate funders and manage interdepartmental agreements that grant proposals require, who read proposal drafts and track expenditures after the awards are made. Department secretaries schedule class times and rooms, wrangle course evaluations, assist with events.

In the world of gig employment, though, we have none of that support. Each writer, each artist, each adjunct teacher or Lyft driver is every department all at once. We are accounting and IT, facilities management and human resources, custodial and grounds maintenance, food service and housing, social life and professional development. All of which adds time to the nominal work week, an unacknowledged multiplication of roles.

I would happily conform to standard software and computing practices in exchange for someone else managing my technology, both software and hardware. The troubleshooting of web connections, the software glitches that accompany every update, the flinky Bluetooth interface between computer and printer, all that stuff that should be invisible but never is. I’d be delighted to give that all up.

I’d also be happy to surrender the process of sending material to literary agents and magazines. They all want something a little different, their own desires are remarkably opaque, the timing of their responses covers the full range between now and never, and every rejection is yet another nail in the bed we lie on. I’d be delighted to prepare all of the standard submittal materials, and leave it to someone else to investigate agents, respond to their individual requests for info, and track the responses. If I got a monthly report that said, “We submitted twenty two times, got fifteen rejections, one request for the full manuscript, and six with no response,” I could process that in less than a minute at a low emotional temperature, and get back to work.

I like to cook and make drinks, to do laundry and dishes, to go grocery shopping and visit the hardware store, to mow the lawn and shovel snow, stack firewood. But I could live a long and happy life without cleaning another litter box, paying the monthly bills, managing the expiration dates of subscriptions, scheduling meetings and phone calls, painting steps. All of those not only add hours to the work week, they take up mental energy more profitably spent doing my work and learning new ways to do even better.

It seems to me that many of us could use an Archie Goodwin, filling in the ten thousand unspoken tasks that can crowd the work aside. We need “someone who does that.”

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