ON JUNE 2, I RAN INTO A WRITER'S BRICK WALL. I had been researching a long article for The New Yorker for a year when I learned that an event critical to the article would not take place for at least two months. The bad luck was perhaps good luck. For the past 12 years I had gone nonstop from one book-length article or series of articles to another and was suffering from a mild case of burnout. I had previously, during inauspicious times at my Smith-Corona, daydreamed of changing careers. I was especially tempted by the practice of criminal law, but between me and a position as an assistant district attorney were three years of law school. My daydreams don't usually last three years.

A speedier solution appeared on Page 1 of the employment section of the Sunday newspaper, where a dozen companies were offering temporary jobs as clerks, receptionists, typists, secretaries and word processors. I decided to become a temp for a month.

On Thursday morning, June 4, I went to the Connecticut Avenue office of Temporaries Inc. and filled out a form that asked me to list my previous secretarial experience. There wasn't a lot to list. I had worked as a secretary just once, after graduating from college. That was 29 years ago.

I was handed a written test to determine my proficiency in spelling, grammar, vocabulary, arithmetic and filing. When I came to the sentence "Some employees act (like, as if) they had nothing to do," I opted for "as if." Janet, one of three enthusiastic young women who were interviewing prospective temporary workers, was pleased that I scored well, because all she could say about my employment record was "I bet we won't be able to find the advertising executive you worked for in 1958."

Concern about a prior reference seemed to vanish after Janet's colleague, Kelly, gave me a typing test and clocked me on her stopwatch at 90 words per minute. I then after Janet's colleague, Kelly, gave me a typing test and clocked me on her stopwatch at 90 words per minute. I then took (and passed) a dictation test, using the Speedwriting I'd studied to become a secretary in 1958 and which has been invaluable to me as a journalist. Janet's other colleague, Cindy, offered me membership in Temporaries Inc.'s credit union and health- insurance program, and told me to go home and call in every hour or two for a job the next day.

By noon I knew the agency's telephone number by heart. By 2 p.m. Cindy had a 9-to-5, $9-per-hour position for me at a small law firm at 13th and K. I was to report to the office manager on Friday at 8:45. "Arriving 15 minutes early on the first day demonstrates your professional readiness to do a good job" is one of the principles in Temporaries Inc.'s catechism.

The only two people at the law firm at 8:45 were the senior partner's daughter and the firm's law clerk; they invited me to join them for coffee. A partner arrived shortly after 9 and showed me how to enter data on an IBM-PC pertaining to a case the firm was litigating. When the office manager came in at 9:30, she gave me a series of odd jobs. The first was to type 50 envelopes on a Xerox Memorywriter, an electronic typewriter far more resourceful than any I'd ever encountered. She taught me how to use a postage meter, a hole puncher, a sophisticated copier and an electric stapler.

I have spent the past years researching articles in slums, prisons, mental institutions, hospitals and mountainsides in Papua New Guinea. The only office I am familiar with is The New Yorker's, which is notorious for its intransigent squalor and obsolescence. The magazine's copier and postage meter are off-limits to writers, the non-electric staplers tend to malfunction, and the standard-issue typewriters are aged manuals with sticky keys. Perhaps that's why I felt like Rip Van Winkle in a space-age toy store as I played with the law firm's unfamiliar gadgets. I had to keep myself from punching holes and putting staples in papers that didn't need holes or staples and to stop watching the high-speed copier spin out copies, lickety-split, and concentrate instead on billing the copying jobs to the appropriate client.

The day whizzed by. I found it far less taxing to help other people do their work than to do my own, and felt happily liberated from the assorted struggles of researching and writing: chasing elusive facts and dealing with sources with selective memories, conjuring up article ideas, devising seductive leads and searching for transitions from one idea to the next.

I was tired and took a nap as soon as I got home. My husband Neil and I usually write until 6 a.m. and get up at 1:30 p.m. Whenever I switch to a day schedule, I have jet lag for the first few days. I woke up hungry -- there'd been no time at the law firm for lunch. Over dinner, I asked Neil about his work, and he asked me about mine. I chattered on -- and on -- about the law firm's glorious machines and about a company name I had come across, Pandemonium Enterprises, one every non-fiction writer would find too good to be true.

On Monday, Temporaries Inc. came up with a job for me as a secretary in the publications division of a religious organization. My hours were 9 to 5, and I was to be paid $8.60 per hour, with one unpaid hour for lunch.

The law firm had been agreeably busy: Didi, at the temp agency, had warned me that some clients didn't hire a temp until they had a backlog of work. The religious organization was somnolent. My boss was a nice, easygoing man whose assistant was on vacation. The division's receptionist showed me how to operate the switchboard; I was to relieve her during her lunch hour and her mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. Otherwise, all I had to do was answer my boss' phone and handle his secretarial chores. There weren't many. On Tuesday I typed and Xeroxed three memoranda for him and answered the phone at the reception desk three times between 1 and 2. On Wednesday morning I attended a two-hour meeting with my boss and five members of his staff, took notes on what was said and drank a great deal of coffee. On Thursday I helped my boss revise a report and typed an abridged version of the minutes. On Friday I typed one memorandum and one letter before he left at 11:15 for the weekend.

Contrary to popular wisdom, New Yorker staff writers are not on salary. We are paid per article, indeed by the approximate number of words in an article. The word rates are extremely generous, especially for fast writers. Like a dozen of my colleagues, I am convinced that I am the slowest writer on the staff. It takes me between a year and a half and two and a half years to write a series of articles. Some years I earn next to nothing; other years I earn enough to grouse about paying income taxes and the self-employment tax, which in 1986 was 12.3 percent, compared with the 7.15 percent employed people contribute to Social Security.

Because I tend to be paid on an every-other-yearly basis, I have never figured out how much I earn per hour. I take an evasive attitude toward some of life's potentially unpleasant truths. If, as I suspect, writing pays between 6 cents and $6 per hour, I prefer not to know it for a certainty. I was certain that writing was hard work and that it paid less than $8.60 per hour, so on Tuesday and Wednesday at the religious organization, I marveled at my good fortune. There I sat, raking in $8.60 per hour for picking up the phone three times. I was also pocketing $8.60 for two hours' worth of typing and Xeroxing, and $8.60 per hour for four hours of reading. While on this paid vacation, I was learning a foreign language -- office-speak. It contained unfamiliar verbs, for example "to liaise," "to access" and "to source" (as in the phrase "to source vendors"). The memos I typed were few, but they were always "pursuant to" previous correspondence and alluded to "ongoing" communication. The one report I'd revised referred to constant activity -- weekly core management meetings and weekly management checklists, monthly operational meetings and monthly productivity reports, semi-monthly vendor payments, semi-annual and annual performance evaluations. I was just lucky to be temping on a slow week.

Or was I? By Thursday I felt uneasy. My mind seemed to be turning to cotton candy. During the receptionist's breaks I was no longer reading, I was doing her crossword puzzles. I was on the verge of laughing at the corny jokes people told. ("What's Irish and stays out all night?" "Patio furniture.") When I left at 5, I had to stop myself from saying "Bedtime," as several of my co-workers did.

On Thursday after work, or more accurately non-work, I went to a shoe store between the office and the bus stop and bought two pairs of shoes on sale for $38 a pair. I have often read newspaper accounts of how many weeks or years benighted workers in the Soviet Union toil to earn a suit, a television set and a car. On the bus home, I found myself translating my $76 purchase into hours worked. I had spent almost nine hours' salary (before deductions) on shoes. Last summer's white heels and beige heels had worn out, and these new shoes hadn't seemed to be an extravagance until I realized I couldn't afford them on a temp's wages. A number of single women in the office were presumably earning about what I was. I brought a sandwich from home; everyone else in the office went out or sent out for lunch. They were more expensively dressed and didn't act concerned about money. On Friday I got up my courage to ask one woman where she'd bought the pretty dress she was wearing. She gave me the name of a store that sold clothes on the layaway plan "for only a $2 service charge."

Resourceful writers can supplement their incomes by doing even less remunerative work. Since 1983, I have given myself the pleasure of reading manuscripts for a book club. I generally read and evaluate one manuscript every three or four weeks. I am paid $30 per manuscript. I called the book club and asked them to please send me 10 manuscripts as soon as possible.

Before I left the religious organization, I knew where my next $8.60 was coming from. Janet had called to say that from Monday, June 15, to Wednesday, June 17, and perhaps longer (some temp jobs are for an indefinite period), I would be doing secretarial work for a small foundation at 21st and M engaged in lobbying for programs for the poor.

The foundation's administrative assistant, a friendly, business-like woman, greeted me at 8:45 with a two-page list of things to do. She told me she had worked for the foundation for six years and would be leaving on Thursday to take a position elsewhere. The foundation's secretary was on vacation and she wanted to leave everything in order for her successor, who would be reporting for work the following Monday if, when the boss came in, he made a final decision about hiring her successor.

The administrative assistant explained the phones, showed me my desk, my IBM Selectric (it was similar to last week's and would prove similar to next week's), the copier and the postage meter, and put me to work. The only missing object of significance was a coffeepot. "There's no coffee, but the boss will probably want some when he comes in," the A.A. said. "And he'll probably want you out of here so that we can argue in private about my successor."

I went through a stack of $300- to $1,000-per-person invitations to political fund-raisers the boss had received, arranged them in chronological order and typed them up so he could decide which ones to accept. I called around the city and the country and compiled a list of prominent Democrats and Republicans who had more or less tossed their hats into the 1988 presidential ring, complete with the titles of their campaigns ("Jesse Jackson's Exploratory Committee," "Babbitt for President," "Pete du Pont for President," "Americans for Robertson") and their campaign addresses and telephone numbers. I welcomed the boss' arrival. "Sure, Sharon," he said, five minutes after I had been introduced as Susan, "I'd love a small coffee with milk, not half-and-half, from Yummy Yogurt around the corner, and get some for yourself."

After my return, I made copies of 20 checks the foundation had received from contributors, alphabetized them in geographical order (Idaho, Illinois, Iowa), stamped them "for deposit only," added up the total on a calculator and filled out a bank-deposit form. I typed a memo to the foundation's 10 board members, alerting them that the scene of a meeting had been shifted from a hotel in Long Beach to another in San Diego, and then telephoned them with this information because the hotel reservations had to be made before the memos could possibly reach them. I designed three versions of an invitation to a party the foundation's lobbyist would be holding on Wednesday -- one done with the Orator ball of the typewriter, one with a Magic Marker and one with a fine-point felt-tipped pen -- so that the lobbyist would have a choice. (It was the most creative thing I was ever to do as a temp.) The day sailed by just as it had at the law firm.

Tuesday was less busy than Wednesday. It was a fine day, with ample opportunities to get coffee. So was Wednesday. In addition to the customary phone-answering and typing, I placed several calls for the boss -- to his health club, to a clothing store, to a restaurant and to the office of a senator to verify an appointment the boss had to give him a $500 donation. I was asked to stay for the rest of the week although, as it turned out, I would be idle most of the next two days.

One friend who knew how I was spending June asked me if I was having trouble "passing" as a temp. "You're such a purist about the English language," she said. "Whenever I tell you I went to a 'fun party,' you insist that fun isn't an adjective and therefore can't modify a noun like party. How do you keep yourself from correcting your employers' English?" I told her I'd been on my best behavior. I hadn't reacted to the "fun meetings" that consumed so many of their days.

Like the Spartans at Thermopylae who fought the invading Persians, New Yorker writers are engaged in a rear-guard action against the improper use of the word hopefully. I told my friend I had typed "hopefully" any number of times without protest. She inquired how I had achieved this improbable feat. A simple combination of silence and memory, I answered. Every time I saw hopefully misused, I recited to myself the words of a columnist who inveighed against it with humor a decade ago: "Finally, there is the now pandemic 'hopefully' as a dangling adverb qualifying nothing in particular, as in 'Hopefully, it won't rain tomorrow.' Just what is doing the hoping here? It? The rain? Tomorrow? To such a remark, I'm tempted to reply: 'Despairingly, it will.' "

Another friend wanted to know if I wasn't worried that employers might find out I was a journalist and object to having me type their confidential memos. Experience had taught me that even if you insist on identifying yourself as a journalist, people often don't believe you. I had spent two and a half years at Creedmoor, a New York State psychiatric center, writing about a schizophrenic patient I called Sylvia Frumkin. Across the road from Creedmoor's grounds was a diner where I often took Sylvia for lunch. Sylvia, one of the regulars there, introduced me to the proprietor, who served as the diner's hostess and cashier, as "the woman who is writing the story of my life." The woman looked skeptical, so I confirmed the introduction. One day when we were seated in a booth adjacent to the cash register, a trucker was paying his bill. I could see the proprietor pointing to Sylvia. I overheard her saying "You see that one? She's your average patient with your average hallucinations, and she's in and out of Creedmoor. But {she pointed to me} you see the one eating with her? She's a new patient and she's really deluded. She thinks she can write books. She even comes in here with a pen and a notebook she scribbles in. I doubt they'll ever let her out."

Temps, I discovered, tend to be semi-visible. Most people eventually learned my first name, but others referred to me as "the temp" or "your temp" and had no interest in my extra-office life. (Perhaps this was just as well. I knew of temps who were vacationing schoolteachers, flight attendants between flights, PhD candidates and novelists, but I also knew of temps who had been fired when their employers had relocated or gone broke and others whose husbands had left them with children to support; they undoubtedly valued their anonymity.)

As I was standing barefoot on top of a desk at the foundation, helping the researcher hang a plant from the ceiling, Cindy called with good news about my job for the following week. I would be paid $9.75 as an executive secretary for a trade association at 19th and L. The bad news was that Temporaries Inc. had had a temp there for quite a while. When she left, she had informed the agency that a couple of people at the trade association were "kind of tough." Cindy told me, not for the first time, that the client wanted someone with initiative who could follow directions with little supervision. "Funny that no one ever wants someone lazy whom they have to watch over constantly," I observed.

"Um," Cindy replied.

By now I had become accustomed to Mondays that started with a bang and Fridays that ended with a whimper. At the trade association, all five days were slack. I spent a tranquil Monday answering phones, typing three envelopes, telephoning 12 people who had agreed to serve on a Dropouts Task Force to remind them (by way of their secretaries) that they were expected to attend a Wednesday breakfast at the trade association. I read one and a half book club manuscripts and still had time left over to try to figure out who the kind of tough people were.

On Tuesday I devised a typing test with nine insidious typos that was to be given to applicants for my job, my second most inspired feat as a temp. The trade association wanted to hire someone on a permanent basis the following week. The salary was $14,500, not only less than I was being paid but substantially less than I was costing the association. The markup on a temp is between 45 percent and 70 percent, depending on an agency's arrangement with a client. (The foundation was billed $14.45 per hour for each $8.60 per hour I was paid.) I then called the people who still hadn't committed themselves to the Wednesday breakfast meeting, read another book club manuscript and helped set up a buffet luncheon meeting.

I read two book club manuscripts on Wednesday between 9 and 2 before there was any typing and copying to do. On Thursday I typed up a summary of the Wednesday Dropouts Task Force meeting and called the members of a Nursing Shortage Task Force to remind them of a meeting they were to attend on June 30. Friday was another two-manuscript reading day. No one had been the least bit tough on me, and I couldn't help feeling flattered that for the past three Fridays my bosses had asked me to return to work the following Monday, but I liked the here-today, gone-next-week quality of temping.

At the trade association, so many breakfast and luncheon meetings were held in the conference rooms that I always had one, and sometimes two, free meals a day. None of my friends had had misgivings that I might gain weight as a temp, yet complimentary glazed doughnuts, salads, cheeses and croissants were an unforeseen unfringe benefit. My friends had also not predicted that my horizons would narrow as precipitously as they did. I was soon evaluating jobs not only in terms of whether coffee was available on the premises but also in terms of proximity to the N-2 bus I rode to and from work. Each week's job had brought me a block closer to one of its stops. No one had suggested that my end of the dinner conversation at home would get progressively duller. "I'll bet you didn't know that the headquarters of Gore, Haig, Laxalt, George Bush and Jack Kemp for President all have telephone numbers ending in the four digits 1988" (Week 2). "This morning I got a seat on the shady side of the bus" (Week 3). Or that I would start suffering memory lapses. I didn't care whether people forgot my name, but it did alarm me when I had two people on hold and forgot the name of the first caller and the name of the person the second caller was holding for.

I have always been diligent and wouldn't have believed how lazy I would turn in a matter of weeks. At the religious organization, I prevailed upon the receptionist to take longer lunches and breaks because I considered myself overpaid and underemployed. On the Friday my boss left at 11:15, I felt guilty about having nothing to do for five hours and tried to invent work. One of the memos I had typed for him was about his vacation -- he was going to Europe in the fall. I had asked if he was a member of any Frequent Flyer clubs. He had said he belonged to only one, so I telephoned six other airlines that afternoon to request Frequent Flyer enrollment forms for him. By the time I got to the trade association, I volunteered to do some typing for the administrative assistant who sat next to me because she was under siege. Once the siege lifted, I became one of those grammar-test employes who were acting as if they had nothing to do because a good deal of the time I didn't and, what was worse, I didn't want to do anything except read until it was time to go home.

As a writer I had frequently dreaded the passage of time. If I was on deadline, I was sorry it was Friday. I remember being grateful that 1984 was a leap year because it gave me an extra day to try to finish an article. As a temp, I was transformed into a malingerer and a clock-watching nine-to-fiver. I started to look forward to Friday afternoon on Tuesday morning. When I called my husband around 2 p.m. and he asked how my day was going, I said, "Fine, and I've got only two hours and 47 more minutes left to stay here." He laughed. "You sound like a short-timer in the Army," he said.

Not that I did much when I got home. I was still napping before dinner long after I should have made the transition from nights to days. The less I did on the job, the less I did in the evening. I baked more batches of blueberry muffins on week nights than I'd baked in my life. It wasn't until the weekend that I had the intellectual energy to type up reports on the book club manuscripts.

Friday, June 26, was my last day at the trade association. I had made my annual appointment at the ophthalmologist for Monday, June 29, well before I started temping, and had notified Temporaries Inc. that I would be unavailable to work on Monday. I came home from the eye examination with my pupils dilated. My vision was blurred, and I lay down. My mind was also blurred -- metal-gray desks, pink telephone message pads, blinking red hold buttons, "May-I-ask-who-is-calling?," Muzak, Rolodexes, ladies' room keys, in-boxes, out-boxes, styrofoam coffee cups, messengers coming and going, office gossip.

I had earned more than $900, and I was glad my days as a temp were over, particularly after it turned out that they weren't -- quite. Kelly from the agency phoned at 9:15 on Tuesday and said the loan division of a commercial bank at 18th and K needed a secretary within the hour. I hadn't made it absolutely clear that I wouldn't be available on Tuesday either, and Temporaries Inc. had been unfailingly solicitous about getting me jobs and reliable about mailing my weekly paychecks. I dressed in haste and put in my last six hours as a temp.

It is Monday, July 6, 1987. I am no longer a burned-out writer, I am a burned-out temp. I am ready to spend five days writing one page. If it was good enough for Flaubert, it should be good enough for an ex-temp. I am ready to accept the challenge of writing an article without referring to a person or a building as "nondescript." As Harold Ross, The New Yorker's founding editor, insisted, nothing is indescribable. I even have an idea for an article. I write a first sentence.

On June 2, I ran into a writer's brick wall. ::