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November 16, 2003

  • Things To Do When You’re (Not) Writing
  • imageThe writer’s life is a difficult one. Nah, who am I kidding? The writer’s life isn’t actually all that difficult at all. I string together sentences in an intelligent, poetic way and by doing this I occasionally make some money and, sometimes, I even create honest-to-goodness art. It’s not a bad vocation to have, really. I prefer it to cleaning urinals and property development—two other careers that I’ve sampled and would prefer not to try again.

    What is difficult about the writer’s life is pretty much endemic to any career: accomplishing a particular task by a particular time. In short, the deadline. Whether you’re stringing together sentences in an (allegedly) intelligent way or putting up drywall in an (allegedly) efficient way, it’s the deadline that always gets you in the end, taunting you always with the same question: are you going to deliver the goods, or not?

    The deadline is inevitable and inviolable. What makes it unique to the writing life is the peculiar behaviours writers exhibit while trying to deal with it. In particular, the activities writers do to displace themselves from what they should be doing.

    Take how I recently handled the writing of a workshop I had to give at a conference I attended this weekend. My topic was Popular Culture. My audience was a tough crowd of academics and very intelligent people. I needed to have an outline of my workshop written by Friday morning as I was traveling Friday afternoon and to enable this, I took the opportunity to work from home on Thursday. The following is an account of how I spent this Thursday ‘writing’. People of a sensitive disposition should look away.

    8am – Wake up. Look at what Beverly Thomson is wearing on Canada AM. Then check what Karen Johnson is wearing on The Weather Network. Then check to see what Lesley Stewart is wearing on CH Morning Live. Go to computer to START WRITING.

    8:17am – Decide that I’m actually still sort of tired. Stretch out on futon and doze with Canada AM on mute.

    10:14am – Wake up. Check out Ellen Degeneres’ talk show and am impressed by the way she handles daytime audiences. Go to computer TO GET DOWN TO WRITING.

    10:22am – Check work e-mail and answer it whilst surfing—ostensibly ‘research’ for my workshop—and making updates to Doctor Who Information Network website

    11:44am – Watch final 15 minutes of The View while doing dishes, then switch on last night’s time-shifted Train 48 while eating lunch.

    1pm – Go to computer to REALLY, HONESTLY, AND TRULY WRITE. But first I will check my e-mail one more time.

    1:38pm – Assess energy level and make informed decision to have afternoon nap.

    Astoudingly, I managed to complete the outline for my workshop by 11 that evening.

    Some would suggest this ‘dance of displacement’ is a natural part of the creative process—things don’t come together whilst sitting in front of the computer but rather during the times that one is not even near the computer. That’s possible. Or perhaps it’s simply that most writers are bascially idle people who need to stall until things reach an advanced state of crisis before they have enough adrenalin to produce something. Typically, I would like to aspire toward the former explanation, but I have cynical leanings toward the latter.

    Displacement activities for writers manifest themselves in unique ways. (I once heard a writer of popular Doctor Who novels say that he doesn’t engage in displacement activities and that he simply writes; And yet, the number of e-mails I get from this writer pointing out absurd websites dotted along the periphery of the Internet indicates he is lying to either himself or others). I know one writer who does a lot of work for a number of top-flight magazines, and I’m sure said top-flight magazine editors would be amused to learn that most of this guy’s day is spent playing on his X-Box. And yet, somehow some of the century’s best cultural criticism comes together between levels of Grand Theft Auto. One of my bestest and dearest friends needs to always talk out what he is writing, down to the semi-colons. When I edit his work for publications I produce, it inevitably involves hours of phone conversations with him talking about what he is going to write. It works for him too—his writing is always pure genius.

    Over the past year or so, I’ve tried to become a more disciplined writer—this very column is evidence of this—but even now I find myself relying on a few tried-and-tested displacement activities (not involving daytime television) to get me focused on what I’m doing.

    First and foremost, I make tea. Before just about every major task at work—particularly if it involves writing—I go to the kitchen and make myself a large mug of tea. What has become particularly comic about this act of beverage preparation is the fact that 95% of time I don’t even drink the tea, at least not while it is hot (I’ve had more large mugs of tepid and/or cold tea since I started my latest job in June than is strictly decent to mention). Making the tea seems to help me psych myself up for the task at hand.

    Tactic number two is to check e-mail. E-mail is a brilliant temporary distraction, and if you can get yourself on multiple Internet mailing lists like I am, you can be distracted pretty much any time of day or night. The great thing about e-mail is that it’s usually a concentrated burst of distraction—brief, and not too detailed—unlike surfing the web. Unless e-mail from someone you want to flirt with arrives. At that point all bets are off.

    When I become desperate—i.e. When a deadline looms and I’m no closer to having anything and making tea and checking e-mail doesn’t work—I engage in increasingly riskier forms of displacement activities, such as buying (or even making) cookies and eating them while pacing around my workspace, often moaning things like “Why the hell didn’t I take up carpentry instead?” Admittedly this is actually only riskier in terms of the potential for weight gain, and for annoying co-workers. 

    There are many professions that allow you to goof off, but writing lets you goof off in the hope that you’ll actually accomplish your goals on time. All in all, I’d still have to go with my earlier assessment that this is a pretty nifty vocation. And if this column is any indication, I wrote it in under two hours and only checked my e-mail twice during the writing of it. Considering what I’m capable of, I’d say that I got off lightly. At least I don’t have to drink any cold tea this time.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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