Writing Life

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For many years now, writing has been at the center of both my professional and private life. I write for profit, I write for pleasure, I write for peace of mind, I write because I have no other choice. I am not JUST a writer, but I have slowly come to fully realize that a considerable part of my life and love could be summed up under the title “writer”.  I wouldn’t say I am an Author, as I do not write novels or creative works of non-fiction and would not take on the dignity of the title, but Writer sums up what I do quite nicely, maybe with a slight tweak…Writer and sometime Poet.

That being said, what does a writer actually DO. Write? Sort of. It’s well..complex. The following article by Robert Lennon answers the question admirably, and also provides some insight into the creative process and the price it often demands from our time and the sanity of our loved ones.

The following is reposted from the LA Times.

The truth about writers

What do they really do with all that time?

By J. Robert Lennon

Ask a writer what she values most in her creative life, and she is likely to respond, "Time to write." Not many of us have the luxury of writing full- time; we have spouses, families, day jobs. To the people closest to the writer, "writing time" may seem like so much self-indulgence: Why should we get to sit around thinking all day? Normal people don’t require hour after continuous hour of solitude and silence. Normal people can be flexible.

And yet, we writers tell our friends and children, there is nothing more sacrosanct, more vital to our intellectual and emotional well-being, than writing time. But we writers have a secret.

We don’t spend much time writing.

There. It’s out. Writers, by and large, do not do a great deal of writing. We may devote a large number of hours per day to writing, yes, but very little of that time is spent typing the words of a poem, essay or story into a computer or scribbling them onto a piece of paper.

Recently, I timed myself during a typical four-hour "writing" session, in order to determine how many minutes I spend writing. The answer: 33. That’s how long it took to type four pages of narrative and dialogue for my novel-in-progress, much of which will eventually end up discarded.

Let’s assume that this was an unusually brisk day. Let’s estimate that, in general, I spend between 30 minutes and an hour writing, on days when I’m writing at all. What this means is that, even at my absolute peak of productivity, I am actively writing less than 5% of the time. Considering how many days of the year I don’t write at all (most weekends, all holidays, teaching days, sick days, days of self-doubt, hangover days, bill-paying days), I could easily revise that figure down to 2%.

Should such a person, a person for whom writing consumes 2% of his life, even be called a "writer"? Given this logic, here are some of names by which I might more legitimately be referred:

eater

sleeper

bus rider

naked girl imaginer

child reprimander

internetist

cougher

But back to those four hours a day, during which, on those days when I do write, I am supposed to be writing. If I spend less than 25% of that time engaged in the act of writing, what do I do with the rest of it?

To answer this question, I surveilled myself during a recent writing session. The results are below.

8:04. Subject says goodbye to older son leaving for school.

8:05. Subject turns on laptop and sits on sofa in pajamas.

8:05-8:23. Internet.

8:23. Subject lets cat out.

8:23-9:07. Internet.

9:07. Subject lets cat in.

9:08-9:15. Really fast typing.

9:15-9:17. Subject makes toast.

9:17-9:30. Subject eats toast while rereading article in local paper about rural UFO cult.

9:30. Subject puts extra pair of socks on over extant pair of socks.

9:31-9:35. Deleting.

9:35-9:40. Re-creating deleted text almost verbatim from memory.

9:40-10:26. Internet, including 20 minutes spent writing, revising, and ultimately abandoning angry Internet message board post.

10:26-11:14. Intense self-doubt.

11:14-11:31. Subject showers, dresses (including two new pairs of socks).

11:31-11:49. Really fast typing.

11:49-12:01. Bathroom break.

12:01-12:05. Frenetic typing accompanied by quiet sinister chuckling.

12:05. Subject saves file, turns off computer, makes sandwich.

As you can see, writing makes only brief appearances in that chronology. Indeed, it would be easy to make a case for "non-writing time" as an alternative, perhaps superior, designation for what is presently called "writing time."

The truth, of course, is that writers are always working. When you ask a writer a direct question, and he smiles and nods and then says "Well!" and turns and walks away without saying goodbye, he is actually working.

If a writer is giving you a ride to the bus station and pulls up in front of the supermarket and turns to you and says, "Enjoy your trip!," she is actually working.

If you are a child, and your writer parent is scolding you for failing to do your homework, and then he or she suddenly stops, blinks twice, and tells you to go spend the rest of the afternoon playing video games and eating Pirate Booty, then he or she is actually working.

To allow our loved ones to know that we are working when we are supposed to be engaged in the responsibilities of ordinary life would mark us as the narcissists and social misfits we are. And so we have invented "writing time" as a normalizing concept, to shield ourselves from the critical scrutiny we deserve. Indeed, even writers who don’t write fiction are engaged in the larger fiction of imitating normal humans whose professional activities are organized into discrete blocks of time.

If you have any questions, please write them on a postcard, slide the postcard between the pages of a library book, and return the book the library. I will get to them when I’m finished writing.

Lennon’s most recent novel is "Castle." He teaches writing at Cornell University.

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2 Comments

  1. It’s not wrong. Though I’d add in another few categories:

    * staring up vaguely at the ceiling

    * speaking aloud lines of dialogue randomly

    * reading (or, even better, my favorite trick: reading a few pages, pausing, closing the book, holding the cover whilst pondering intently the solution to the last chase scene…all of which looks like just standing there like a fool holding a book)

    I’m still hoping someday the girl buys me a mini-fridge stocked with cheese and lemon lager, and sets it and the computer up in a little room that I can paper with all the photos and quotes I snip out of magazines. “There,” she will tell me. “Write.”

    And I will quite happily spend 2% of every day in that room for the rest of my life.

  2. “Intense self-doubt” comes close, and yet, it doesn’t actually match my personal categories of:
    * Fighting with homunculi over how the present sentence should provide the connective tissue between the previous and future sentences
    * Distract the homunculi by playing repetitive Flash/Java-based game
    * 5 seconds of sheer panic at hard deadline approaching, which stuns the homunculi into a stupor, during which I can actually get to WRITING

    One of my favourite writers, a cool, strange, somewhat pretentious guy named Michael Ventura who writes/wrote for the LA Weekly, once wrote that one isn’t a writer because they want to write, but because they HAVE … there’s not much choice in the matter. Write or Die, as P. Diddy would say. Scared me right off of considering myself a writer. But all of the grad school writing (not all of it strictly necessary to graduate), 3 blogs, 2 Twitter accounts and not a standard week going by without thinking “THIS would be a good topic to write about” … perhaps I should change my assessment of myself. Not that I would say I’m a good writer … yet.


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