It was just a casual conversation, and although I bristled when I heard the words, I didn't say anything. I didn't argue, I didn't set her straight. I can't even tell you why. But later, I couldn't stop thinking about what my friend said. She asked for a favor.
"You're not working, so you probably have time to..."
"Of course I'll do it," I said.
Later I realized that, in my reticence, I'd let my friend believe she was right about me. I wondered, is this what non-creatives think of writers? That we don't work? When, in fact, we are working constantly, whether or not our word counts, publishing credits or bank balances reflect it.
Even when we are not clacking out words on the keyboard -- butt in chair, as Anne Lamott says -- we are always writing in our minds and hearts and souls. We agonize for hours trying to get one sentence perfect. We research. We edit. We rewrite. We pitch. We polish. We rewrite some more. We recall entire conversations from ten years ago and fragments of yesterday's dialog to use in our stories. Random bits like, "You're not working, so..."
We go hiking, and while we're on the lookout for rattlesnakes, coyotes and wildflowers along the trail, we compose paragraphs and plot next chapters... While we're stuck in traffic, we rethink the last few pages we've written; we can't wait to get back to them... In the grocery store, we mentally describe the lustrous hue of an aubergine, the glossy braid of a challah loaf or the round fleshiness of a freshly-cut swordfish; we wonder how to work those images into a story down the road.
In the waiting room at the dentist and the vet, we pay attention to how people cross their legs, bite their lips and hold their purses; we notice the tone they take when speaking to children and dogs. We stare a little too long at elaborate tattoos and crazy shoes storing away mental pictures for future characters in projects yet-to-be.
Even when we procrastinate, we are working, because we are so consciously aware of the fact that we are NOT producing in that moment but we're thinking about WHAT we're going to say when we actually do sit down at the computer. As we watch TV and movies we guess the plot twists, roll our eyes at the obvious and blurt out the next line, believing we would have written it better, our creative selves always at work. We can't even read for the sheer pleasure of it. Everything is a dissection: Look at the way she spun that phrase... an artful job of moving around in time... too many adverbs... so many exclamation points!
And as we try to calm our brains enough to sleep at night we remember a forgotten detail and fumble in the dark for a pen or the notes app on our iPhone, jotting down some gem that, honestly, might not seem so noteworthy in the morning.
No, I don't punch a time clock, work on the assembly line or have a corner office. I may have the flexibility to run you to the airport, take my mother to the doctor, or babysit my sister's kid, but it's not because I don't work. It's because the kind of work I do affords me the luxury to make my own hours, to choose my projects and create a life that works for me.
If you don't think writing is work, why not take a week off your job and see how many words you crank out... find out what the process feels like... research a medical condition to give your dying character... craft some sparkling, realistic dialogue... write your second draft... submit what you've written to an editor... get your butt back in the chair to fix the things she didn't like... pitch a story to a newspaper or magazine or a book to an agent, then wait in the dark and lonely silence for a response that may never come... Dust yourself off and start all over again... Then tell me I don't work.