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.