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Working Hard or Hardly Working

"It is not always easy to tell the difference
between thinking and looking out the window."

Wallace Stevens

What is work, anyway? I mean: What is work to a writer? This is not a question we'd ask about the efforts of a plumber or a sales clerk, a nurse or an accountant. A carpenter. A barista. A bus driver. We can see that work. It happens in front of us, straightforward and understandable. The plumber installs a sink. The clerk rings up a sale. The lawyer deposes a witness. The nurse bandages a wound. But if you were here right now watching me work, this is what you'd see:

I stare out the window.

I bounce up and down on the big inflatable ball I sit on instead of an office chair.

I stare out the window. I do a few yoga stretches. I change the clothes from washer to dryer. I refill the water bottle. I bounce. I check to see if anyone has commented on yesterday's blog. I stare out the window.

Ah, and now, finally: I type words on my keyboard that appear on the screen. I look at what I've typed. I delete it. I type some more. Add, delete, move text. This is the real work, right?

No. The real work is the staring. And the bouncing. That's when I think, when ideas come (or not), when structure forms (or crumbles), when connections happen (or don't). It may look as if I'm doing nothing — the word "lollygagging" comes to mind — but most of the time I've got quite a few neurons firing. Most of the time, I'm on the clock.

But it's not just the line between work and daydreaming that is blurry when you're a writer. It is also the line between work and play, between labor and leisure. For example, I am a voracious reader, everything from biography to borderline chicklit, from The New Yorker to The Onion. I read J. Jill catalogs, Celestial Seasonings tea boxes, email from the personal representatives of Nigerian billionaires who need my help depositing money in U.S. banks.

Is this leisure or labor? Reading is a pleasure, a hobby, a form of entertainment, so I must be at play. Yet for me, reading is simultaneously, and always, research. I don't have to be poring over documents and scribbling notes on file cards to be actively researching. I can be — and I wish I was — sitting on a towel on the beach at Manzanita reading Jodi Picoult. That's research, too. When I read, whatever I read, I am immersing myself in language, hearing the sounds of words, swaying to the rhythm of sentences. Or, alternately, stumbling over a writer's clumsiness, skimming over the boring parts, learning what not to do.

I was working last Wednesday when I went to see Live Free or Die Hard. No, I won't try to take a tax deduction for the ticket price, but as I was shuttling popcorn from bag to mouth, I was also thinking: Plot, action, dialog (and yes, I admit, cool special effects). I am also working when I watch ER season 8 on DVD. All those characters, all those story lines... how do the writers do it without losing or confusing the audience? (And why can't George Clooney come back, just for one little cameo?)

I have also, in the name of work, taken a long, leisurely train ride from Los Angeles to Seattle, gotten a private tour of one of the finest botanical gardens in the country, tooled around the Mojave, spa-hopped through Tuscany, learned to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun, and watched an entire season of college women's basketball from the seats right behind the players' bench. Not bad for a working girl.

Of course, there was the work I did for Dancing with Rose, which I believe anyone would recognize as bona fide labor, that of the bending, lifting, sweating variety. As an aide in an Alzheimer's facility, I single-handedly cared for a dozen people who could not care for themselves. I showered them, brushed their teeth, toileted them, changed their diapers, hefted them from bed to wheelchair to couch and back again. I cut up their food, fed them, did their laundry. That was the tangible, visible work. The easily recognizable labor. And that was the easy part.

The hard part was the hours, days, weeks and months of searching for and finding the right words to tell the story, to make those experiences come alive. The hard part was being still, applying seat-of-the-pants to seat-of-the-chair. The hard part was staring out the window.

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Lauren Kessler is the author of five works of narrative nonfiction, including the Washington Post bestseller Clever Girl and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

÷ ÷ ÷

Lauren Kessler is the author of five narrative nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a...
    Used Hardcover $9.50

Lauren Kessler is the author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence

4 Responses to "Working Hard or Hardly Working"

    Suzi July 10th, 2007 at 11:38 am

    You read *Jodi Picoult*? Your secrets are revealed!

    I'm going to make sure my editors, freelance and "real" job, read this entry in your blog. Because hey, I think walking to the farmers' market definitely constitutes work. (As Adrian Nicole LeBlanc said, we get our ideas from walking down the street--or anywhere...and everywhere.)

    Good blogging so far. Isn't it fun? I look forward to the rest of your entries!


    Sarah Allen July 10th, 2007 at 2:11 pm


    Way to nail it. The habits of the writer who sees most every experience as a sort of research (at least this is what we tell ourselves), and whose hardest work likely happens away from the bouncy ball as much as on it. I recall an essay you wrote about a road trip with your kids where you decided to put down the notepad and just *be.* This blog brought that to mind.


    Sabena July 10th, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    And you do find the right words. Many right words. Which is why you can tell the Dancing With Rose story in a way that lots of people can understand, the reader can sit in each room with you as you talk with or spoon feed or bathe your charges. The sky blue pajamas mentioned at the right moment, the only moment that the reader needs to see and feel them.

    The thing I love about writing and about all creative work is that everything we think or experience or remember, everyone who touches us, figuratively and literally, ends up woven into the DNA of our creations. Everything. That’s the essential difference between doing work that is life-engendering and work that is life-deadening: creative work allows the creator to integrate the experience of life and form something new and alive.

    I read poetry aloud before sitting down to write prose, to remind myself that each word vibrates at its own pitch and together with others it needs to make music and not just clunky noise. Poetry is the vitamin form of all writing – the distilled nutrients of the sound and meaning of language.

    Writing is a wonderful, slow, sometimes painful, always relentless building and rebuilding, an abandonment of the work just long enough to take it up again with new eyes, and a continual questioning: What does this say? And why should I care? And finally, the question that is my promise to myself: Does this thing I’ve created improve the world I live in or degrade it?

    Dennis Cozzalio July 12th, 2007 at 9:35 am

    I don't write for a living, but I write, so it's easy for me to understand the process you describe, one of always having feelers out, actively observing, making the processing of the information you receive part of the pleasure of the activity instead of consciously categorizing it as a kind of necessary duty that comes along with the fun.

    I know that for some, who look at what a writer does from the perspective of one who performs the kind of easily recognizable labor you describe, writing must seem like a pretty cushy way to go about one's business. And compared to, say, pulling green chain at a sawmill, I guess I'd have to agree. Where I come from, a writer wouldn't be considered someone who works hard, and a measure of understanding of the difficulty of the craft might only come when the final product arrives (if it does), when comments like, "I could never express myself like that" or "How can somebody possibly focus long enough to write a book?" might be overheard.

    What's wonderful about your piece is how it explicates, to whatever degree that is possible with such a personal undertaking, the writer's process of preparation and shines a little light on how those words eventually manage to come. They don't just arrive out of the ether on a six-channel Dolby soundtrack the way Tom Hulce heard Mozart's music and scratched it down in "Amadeus." A good writer lives life, and it's from there that the ideas evolve and take on lives of their own, in the imagination and in the inspiration to research and learn more.

    Thanks for allowing us this opportunity to stare out our windows and into yours.

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