The other day my daughter walked into our family room and asked me for a ride somewhere. I didn’t turn my head; instead I waved her away, “Shh—I’m working!”“Umm, you’re watching TV,” she said.
“Yes, I’m watching TV. It’s the last episode of Downton Abbey and yes, I’ve seen it three times. It’s called feeding the muse. Plus, no one can create a character arc like Julian Fellowes did with Mr. Barrow—there’s much to learn here.”
My teenage son arrived in the kitchen after basketball practice and called out to anyone who’d answer, “What’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
“I don’t know,” I shouted, “I’m a little tied up right now—dinner’s gonna be late.”
A moment later he popped his head into the den. “Are you reading a book?” I detected a little sneer in his voice.
“No. I am not reading a book; I’m working. And yes, I’m reading a book!”
I have a similar response to when a passenger in my car tries to change the radio dial while I’m listening to a song. Especially melancholy music, or anything by The Eagles or Teddy Thompson or Chris Isaak. I have been forever in awe of lyricists and their ability to dispense a lifetime’s worth of emotion into a single lyric line.
If you think about it, a writer’s work is never done. Whether we are having a cavity filled, waiting for a late night subway, coaching a fifth grade softball team, changing a flat tire, or, dare I say, lounging under a swaying palm on a St. Bart’s beach, we are working.
I had no idea, one day, as I was shopping for groceries, that my conversation with the produce guy would yield a scene for my novel in progress. I was in a hurry, looking for a bag of carrots, when I semi-jogged through my grocery store’s produce department. It was very early in the morning and no one was there. As I leapt through, cauliflowers began to avalanche from the shelf. I turned to look and saw a figure of a man bend down to pick them up. The produce guy. He had been there the entire time. But he was quiet and still and skinny and wearing a green apron so that he virtually camouflaged into the asparagus.
I was stunned that I didn’t notice him. It made me think about how often he’s there going unnoticed. I said, “Oh, hi!” and unleashed words from this guy that must have been bottled up for decades. He did not stop talking. I subsequently ran to my car and sat for an hour writing the scene that would appear in my first psychological thriller. It’s actually one of the lighter scenes of the book. What ensues is a strange and humorous conversation over apples.
Another one of my characters has a trait I borrowed from someone I had “met” when I was just starting out in the business world. At a time when I had no interest in writing and no idea I’d ever be an author. I worked with a woman whose aunt called regularly, and I’d sometimes answer the phone. The aunt spoke with a British accent. However, my colleague told me that her aunt was born and raised on the upper east side of Manhattan.
When she was in her forties she visited London and fell in love with the British and their accents and adopted an accent herself. She very convincingly spoke with this accent for the rest of her life, back in New York. I would never have dreamt at the time that I’d someday write a book in which one of the characters shared this same personality quirk.
Of course the very thing I’m calling “work” is living and experiencing. And being acutely observant while we are experiencing things both in and out of our comfort zone and habits. Paying attention to details, not only when we are going through the motions of our normal day, but seeking out experiences which are foreign to us. Or scary. One night a few years ago, I was driving in an unfamiliar town, following a friend’s car to his house.
A fierce rain storm unsettled me as I tried to keep up with his little silver car through road construction and detours. At a traffic light we were separated. He got through and I remained behind. There were tons of cars on the road, and once I got through the light, I noticed tons of little silver cars. I had no idea which one to follow. And out of this moment of panic and the idea that I could be following the wrong car somewhere, came the idea for the beginning of a new book.
This power of observation will aid few people in the world. Spies, nosy neighbors, and writers. Our ability to pry out the oddities, or the ordinary, so that in an instant our readers will slip effortlessly in step with our characters and relate deeply with them, or conversely, be made uncomfortable about the peculiar that we’ve teased out.
One of my most successful “work” activities, believe it or not, is napping. (I’ve had a heck of a time convincing that one to the family.) But honestly, when I am in a relaxed state and drifting off to sleep, I often experience a rush of ideas that don’t and won’t come to me when I’m at my computer. It’s as if I’ve given my right brain essential stillness. A break from noise and distraction. So you see, even when writers are resting they’re working!
So toil on, my fellow writers! It’s often grueling work, but someone’s got to do it.
Category: How To and Tips