Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Not as easy as it looks

Terry Teachout has done the writing community a service today:
Very few people who don't write for a living understand that writing is work, much less that a writer who is sitting in a chair, reading a book or staring absently into the distance, may be as “busy” as one who is clicking away at his computer. My mother, for one, has never quite grasped this basic fact of the writer's life, which is why I find it hard to get any work done when visiting Smalltown, U.S.A. I once yelled at her for coming into my bedroom three times in a row and attempting to strike up a conversation while I was doing my best to polish off a column and e-mail it to a waiting editor in New York. I think it's the only time I've ever raised my voice to her, and I felt terrible afterward. (It worked, though—she didn't come back again until I was finished.)

I'm not proud to say that I, too, have yelled at my loved ones for interrupting my writing. But the thing even those who know me best just don't get is that even an "I know you're working, so I'll make this quick" interruption can knock me off track for anywhere from twenty minutes to an entire afternoon.

An accountant can go back to the top of the page and resume her number crunching. A hairdresser can pick up her scissors and get back to work. A schoolteacher can ask the freckly kid in the first row where she left off. But a writer can't always go right back to her work. Once her concentration is broken, she might not be able to find her way back, perhaps even for the rest of the day.

For a writer to crawl inside her imagination and begin harvesting words and sentences and paragraphs takes a tremendous amount of concentration. That's what writers are talking about when they say writing is work. Some days it's relatively easy to slip into the zone, and on other days it's next to impossible; yet when we sit down to write, we must find a way to do it because that's our job, especially if we're under a deadline.

That's why even the briefest interruption, something as quick and simple as, "Have you seen my car keys?" can make a writer scream. If nonwriters could understand how difficult it sometimes is to get into the zone, they'd know why writers are so terrified of being yanked out of it.

I know that accountants and hairdressers and schoolteachers work hard. But so do writers, okay? Even when it looks like we're hardly working at all. When a writer wears a blank stare, she's usually very, very busy. She's looking inside herself, trying to locate the rabbit hole so she can leap into it. Even if her hands aren't moving on the keyboard, she's working.

Maybe I should print this and tape it to my office door.


Anonymous said...

but are ALWAYS working! When are we supposed to get a little of your do I know when to call? I know (well, ususally) where my car keys are...I just like to talk to my favorite sister now and then.

And... the O&G business has its creative side as should see what when I am "creating" right now (okay, not right now, because I am taking a break on your blog). Problem solving can be creative.

When I am deep into a contract or title document...its not something you can "just pick back up" believe me. And I as well spend time looking out the window...but I am not thinking how tempting the pool looks, rather...if the mineral interest was conveyed in 1957, but land owner failed to correctly identify the tract of land, and then after he died in 1962, his estate tried to convey the same tract of land, described differently, but also incorrectly, with an effective date subsequent to the drilling of the second well, but prior to his demise the initial well was get the picture.

I think the problem you have is one shared by MANY people who do their work at home or in a more casual setting....people tend take your work effort more casually. So, it tends to require even more concentration.

That said, I will go back to work.

love you,

Brenda Coulter said...

First of all, you can interrupt me anytime. <3<3<3

Second, you're right about people who work at home understanding the frustration of constant interruptions. And certainly writing is not the only job that requires intense concentration. But creating a story takes something beyond concentration. Many writers speak of being visited by "the muse". I've never used that word, but when I'm in the zone, I am not really writing; the writing is happening to me. (All the writers are nodding their heads right now. Hard.) A writer will often read over what she wrote yesterday and have no idea where those words came from; she'll have no conscious memory of putting them down on paper.

So I wasn't talking about a simple break in concentration. I was referring to being deserted by the mysterious force we call "creativity". Does that make any sense at all?

Number Two Son is playing the Wallflowers so loud the house is trembling. The neighbors are probably phoning and the police are not doubt pounding on my front door, but all I can hear is Jakob Dylan (Tris, is that how you spell his name?) singing about how he and Cinderella are gonna put it all together and drive it home with one taillight. (Don't ask. Either you know the song or you don't.)

Good thing I love the Wallflowers. And it's a good thing I'm answering e-mail, not trying to write romance. Hey, it's summertime, and sometimes you just need to kick back and groove a little.

Hey, Ian! Turn it up some more!

Brenda Coulter said...

By the way, Tristan asked me the other day whether the title of the new Wallflower CD (Rebel, Sweetheart) was a description or a suggestion.

Beats the heck out of me. What do you people think?

Anonymous said...

yes, that's the way you spell his name, and I have read that Jakob will only say that "rebel" is a verb

good music, no matter what

okay, go create...I really am getting back to work now.


Brenda Coulter said...

You neglected to point out that I misquoted the lyrics to "One Headlight." I was singing it (yes, I know all the words) as I wrote that paragraph and somehow wrote "taillight" instead of "headlight".

So "Rebel" is being used as a verb, not a noun. Good. I was hoping that was the case. ;-)

Okay, everyone, I'm done talking to my favorite sister now, so please feel free to comment on today's post, which was actually about writing, not Jakob Dylan.

Anonymous said...

I was chatting at a conference some years ago with a writer I used to read (but haven't read in years, now), who managed to raise a LARGE brood while becoming a popular romance writer. (I won't mention her name, but you'd recognize it.) She said she learned to tune out a lot of noise (something I can't do that well), and she printed out a sign for her "office" door that said something like--and my memory is sketchy, but this catches the drift--"Unless you're bleeding or dying or the house is on fire, do not knock on this door or otherwise bother me while I'm working! I mean it!"

It helped. :)

Heather Diane Tipton said...

Oh.... I sooo love this post. Try only living in one room with two other adults and see how nutty you get when you are trying to write. LOL

Katrina Stonoff said...

Hear, hear!

The sign sounds good to me. Maybe it will point out just how important this is.

However I find that when I'm in the "zone," my family often cannot get my attention at all.

"Mommy! MOMMY! The house is burning down!"

"Just a sec, hon...," I say, still tapping furiously and without looking at her. "I just need to finish thi...."

But revising! Sigh. Interrupt me for 10 seconds, and it takes a week to get back where I was.