"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.