The truth about writers
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:
naked girl imaginer
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.
8:23. Subject lets cat out.
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.
9:35-9:40. 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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