I miss working with my hands

A career in technical writing is a sedentary, almost motionless desk job. The greater endurance you have to sit still and keep your hands on the keyboard or mouse pad, the more productive you’ll be. I am starting to miss working with my hands, and walking around.

During the past few weeks, the “Mr-Fix-It” section in my brain kicked in. A while ago, I had the idea of fixing everything that is broken with my house. To list what I’ve been doing, I dug out my window wells, built a dirt sifter to sift the gravel from the dirt, reattached drain tubes, refinished a dining room table, stained a new dresser, bought and cut slats for a twin bed, reattached a chipped Formica piece on a kitchen island, reattached a wood corner to the same island, and glued and nailed a broken dresser drawer.

I fixed a broken crib wall, gathered up all my clothes that need mending, vacuumed inside and under the couches, steam-vacuumed the floor mats and rugs in my minivan and car, had a mechanic install new back brakes and resurface the rotors of my front brakes, removed dozens of stepping stones from my yard to improve water drainage, made a trip to the landfill to throw away yard trash, reattached a missing bolt on a chair, fixed a problematic sprinker (with help from a friend — thanks Cameron!), repositioned the angle and aim of all my yard sprinklers, reprogrammed the sprinkler timing, and did a few other projects.

Sanding a dresser

This is an old dresser I restained in my garage.

In contrast to more physical labor, working on the computer puts me in another mode. It’s the quiet, motionless tapping of the fingers, the almost imperceptible click of the mouse. Others around me assume I’m doing nothing, and I just might be. I can work a full day creating topics for a manual, but at the end of the day, I don’t have much to show for it. Progress is slow and under-appreciated, not to mention nearly invisible. I rarely get to see someone actually use the product to find an answer or solve a problem. The sedentary life kicks in, and the blood in my arms and legs slows down to a trickle. Check my pulse — I may not actually be alive, sitting there so quietly, moving so little, all day long, every day.

As my weekend ended and I returned to work — reluctantly — I passed by an old construction worker. Our floor is being redesigned, and there’s a whole construction crew clanking and banging away all day. As one older construction worker walked past, he had a slow, tired gait. His eyes looked propped open by coffee. White dust lined his hair, and his hands looked rough and swollen and dirty. He glanced at me with a heavy sigh and continued slowly down the hall.

Yeah, I’m starting to enjoy my desk job again.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

15 thoughts on “I miss working with my hands

  1. Sharon Burton

    Aren’t you guys expecting a new baby? This sounds a lot like the nesting behavior pregnant women do the last 2 weeks!

    And can you come by my house? I have a few things…

  2. John Paz

    Tom,

    You touched a nerve with this post. I understand the topic of this post more than most.

    Before I discovered the bountiful life of a TW (only partially sarcastic there), I was a blue-collar employee in various industries. Retail, roofing, work-study, fast-food, you name it. I worked a lot of low-paying jobs during college, but I could always find happiness in simple work. I knew what to expect every day and I never worried about being bored.

    I miss the days when I finished my work early, parked the box truck under some shade, and had lunch overlooking an orange grove or a lake. I miss talking to people-someone’s face, not their instant messenger-about things that had nothing to do with work. Or just working hard and feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

    I’m a people-person and an athlete, so work as a TW often leaves me restless and with stores of unused energy I have to expel with rigorous exercise. The feelings sometime brings shame, because I make good money and I’m good at what I do, and in most contexts I enjoy the work.

    But you hit the nail on the head: “Progress is slow and under-appreciated, not to mention nearly invisible.” Which is the opposite of most blue-collar jobs; when you sell something, it’s gone. When you fix something, it works. You don’t need four-hour meetings to figure out exactly what the customer wants.

    Spending 40+ hours a week creating useless documentation for non-existent end-users is my idea of hell, and sometimes I wonder if I made the same salary would I consider going back? I don’t think I would, but man do I miss the days when I didn’t need a liter of coffee to stay awake at work.

    Thanks for the great post. Now back to “work.”

    John

    1. Tom Johnson

      John, great comment. I probably spend 4-5 hours a week playing basketball. Maybe if tech writing were more physical, I wouldn’t need to play so much.

      I know it’s easy to romanticize jobs involving more physical labor. No doubt every job can be drain. I should really get up and visit more users, interact with more project members, insert myself in more meetings, and so forth.

  3. Anne Sandstrom

    I’ve always said, “A good writer walks around.” Of course, if you work with remote teams, that’s not always possible. I’d estimate that I spend about half of my time listening, observing, and asking questions. Lately, I’ve been likening the researching/writing aspect of being a TW as being similar to that of a reporter. I’m trying to be “first on the scene.” Fortunately, many of our users are internal, so I can post “breaking news” to our internal web site.

    As for doing things hands-on, I find it very satisfying. Last winter, I did all the demolition of my second floor (ripping out 5 layers of old flooring and all the sheetrock). And I installed all the duct work for the heating system in my old house. But the truth is, that kind of work day in and day out wears on the body.

    So, in spite of the fact that NOBODY does tech writing as a hobby (bad sign), I’ll stick w/TW for now and be a weekend warrior on house projects – just as long as I don’t wind up on Renovation Realities. (It’s the funniest show I’ve ever seen.)

    1. Tom Johnson

      Anne, I’m impressed at your ability to renovate your house. Wow. I am lucky if I can successfully sand and finish a piece of wood.

      You’re right that physical labor wears on the body. I’m sure I would quickly tire of it. Probably all I need to start doing is working out at lunch.

      Interesting point about no one doing tech writing as a hobby. You’re absolutely right about that. There are sometimes documentation volunteers for open source projects, but it’s not like people write pages and pages of help material unless they’re compelled. Hmmm. This gives me a lot to think about — maybe I will quote you in an upcoming post.

  4. mike

    This is basically the thesis of two books (that I can remember, and probably of many more). The first, of course, is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig (http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Motorcycle-Maintenance-Inquiry/dp/0061673730/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1282769828&sr=1-1), in which one of the theses is the value of hands-on mechanic-ing. The second and more recent is “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” by Matthew Crawford [http://www.amazon.com/Shop-Class-Soulcraft-Inquiry-Value/dp/1594202230].

    1. John Paz

      Mike,

      Too true mate! One of my favorite tech comm professors assigned that book as reading my senior year. A quality read, ever more so for us TWs.

      My mother (an English Professor) and my uncle (a Lit Professor) love to talk about this book, if only because my uncle went out and bought a (decrepit) moped after reading this book. Needless to say, the moped ran for a month, then we put it out of my mother’s misery.

      1. Tom Johnson

        During the summer after my senior year in high school, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Don Quixote, and a Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. After that, I set out cross-country on my Yamaha 550 cc., but my experience was lonely and uneventful.

    2. John Paz

      Didn’t mention which book I was talking about. I hope you all can forgive my carelessness. I am ashamed. (not really, but I blushed)

      The above-mentioned book was Zen: And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    3. Tom Johnson

      Even deeper, the shift from agricultural production to the industrial revolution had the same effect. People were no longer smiths, farmers, or merchants working directly with products that they made or handled. Instead, they worked in factories all day, in assembly lines, contributing to something they never completed themselves. They lost a sense of ownership and craftsmanship. This shift changed a lot of the work morale (that’s as far as I can remember).

  5. Craig

    I sometimes miss working with my hands, the way Dad would when he came home from work in the 1970s. He had a workshop in the basement and was always building and fixing things. My granddad did much the same in his day. They were true hands-on fixers. These days, I ply my fixing skills, such as they are, to plumbing. Mostly toilets. I’m not too bad at it. I recently adjusted a toilet that was running and had phantom flushes. It was satisfying to accomplish, and I saved myself a $130/hour plumber call. But I’ll take the mental workouts offered by technical writing. Oh, My Better Half wants to paint our bedroom. I think I’ll be working with my hands again….

  6. Stuart Edeal

    Tom,

    Great stuff, as always. Your list of things that you have been doing shows that you are indeed a “Renaissance man”.

    I have been also working on “hands on’ activities lately:
    - rewiring some outlets and lights in the basement
    - wiring my house for cable/internet/telephone line
    - installing a home server for backup and media storage
    - landscaping in the backyard
    all while learning my ropes at a new job.

    Life is fun!

  7. Michele Guthrie

    Interesting; I hadn’t thought about the connection, but I wonder if this is why I’ve gravitated more and more toward creating visual art (with my hands!) over the last few years? It’s definitely a different “creative” experience. Thanks for setting off a thought-storm in my head :-)

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