On Writers and Writing

Dawg and I accomplished exactly nothing this weekend other than the cornhole tournament.  This new work schedule, four long days followed by a half day Friday, is just as great as it sounds.  If you have Friday afternoon off every week, you can take care of errands and socialize and go for runs and travel, and so of course this Friday I came home, crashed, and slept for four hours straight.

It wasn’t just staying up too late to see Wylie Hunter on Thursday, or any of the other goings-on that kept me up past bedtime every night last week.  It’s that I’m kind of exhausted from writing all day.  It’s ridiculous.  I mean, once I was in Ghana and I saw a crowd of women, women wearing gorgeous long dresses with their hair up in turbans and with babies tied to their backs, making gravel by hand in the sun by the side of a road near Cape Coast.  (There were a handful of men nearby, watching in a casual way, each of them with one eye barely open,  napping on tables in the shade.  Totally irrelevant to this particular story, but it has always annoyed me.  I mean, dude, if you’re going to watch a woman make gravel in the sun while you lie on a table in the shade, at least offer to hold the baby.)

Anyway.  That memory has always been kind of a touchstone for me when I catch myself trying to convince myself I’m doing something particularly difficult.  I’ve never made gravel in the sun with a baby strapped to my back. There are people in this world who do that for a living, and they do it smiling, and they do it gracefully, without any assistance from the men on the sleeping tables.  They do it in stunning African dresses.  Thus: I am not about to complain about working in my beautiful office at a computer all day.

So far I really like my job.  There’s an array of coffee choices, and my boss is great, and I can look out my window and see the rain coming from miles and miles away, and watch it wash over Raleigh block by block, and then see the sun come out again. (It’s my second-tallest job ever, my first tallest being at the skydeck of the Sears Tower, which is why my lego Sears Tower sits on my windowsill.) It’s always about 72 degrees in my office, and I can listen to music if I choose.  I have a comfy chair.  I have a standing desk, too.  I have two whole desks I haven’t even used yet.  This is a cushy arrangement.

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And yet, and I say this with all seriousness and without any judgement on the subject: I understand why writers tend to drink to excess. I had a professor who used to talk about writing our architectural history essays as “wrestling that alligator to the ground,” and that’s what it feels like.  You start with an encyclopedia’s worth of information on something, and then you winnow that down to eight or ten pages of notes, and then you pare that down to about twenty bullet points, which you then distill into one finely crafted paragraph. I wish, sincerely wish, that I, or anyone else who writes, could just start with that finely crafted paragraph, and then go have another coffee.

I can’t.  You can’t.  We can’t.  It’s all part of the process.

Harder than the distilling is the filtering.  Because the minute you sit down to focus on something you’re writing, the flood of Other Things comes burbling up to the surface, first just an annoying little trickle, then a stream with some force behind it, and then an absolute torrent.  That’s where I think the drinking comes in, if you’re a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald or a Joyce, trying to stop that torrent of distracting thoughts.  I know what I’m supposed to do to stop this, actually:  it’s the thing where you get up and, first thing in the morning, before your coffee even, you write three longhand pages of the first stream-of-consciousness stuff that comes out of your head.  You write it all out of you, whatever is on your mind, even if you think nothing is on your mind, until you feel empty.  Then you can drink your coffee, and start writing for real.

I don’t have the discipline to do that right now.  It’s all I can do to walk Dawg and have some oatmeal and get to work.

My strategy, right now, is to keep sticky notes next to whatever actual work I’m doing, write down whatever thought is driving me to distraction, and promise to deal with it later.  Song titles. Grocery lists. Overdue thank-you notes. Questions. Resolutions and vows. Calendar items.  Anything taking up mental space which should belong to the task at hand.  Some days I’ve only got one sticky note at the end of the day.  Some days it’s, like, twelve, and half the stuff on them doesn’t even make sense.

I’m not going to start drinking to excess.  The only substances I abuse are caffeine, and sometimes dark chocolate, and sometimes trash television, but there’s nothing good on right now since it’s summer re-runs.  I’m going to handle the distilling of huge volumes of information, and the onrushing distracting thoughts, by getting used to the entirely new level of concentration and alligator-wrestling it takes to be productive as a writer.  And not as, you know, a writer of occasional frivolous blog posts, but a professional writer, at 3 pm on a Tuesday.  That kind of thing.

On the other hand, despite the mental exhaustion, sometimes it feels too easy for this to be an actual job.  I come to work, and the people are lovely and easy to work with, and I have work to do all day which I enjoy, and it’s work I’m good at, and it’s work I know how to do without much direction.  Because, although it’s not obvious from my resume, I guess I’ve always been a writer in one form or another.  Now it just says that on my business card, too.

Hm.  I’ve never tried picking a job that felt like a natural fit before. I think I might be on to something.

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2 Responses to On Writers and Writing

  1. Tracy says:

    Nice, subtle capture of the correlation between writing and making gravel by hand. Yep. Gin?

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