Monday, October 24, 2011

Write Wherever/Whenever? Yes, You SCan!

The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything.
                                                     -John Irving

The picture to the right shows my writing desk. Made of solid wood and topped with a plate of glass, this desk sits next to a window overlooking trees and a nice view of the Ford Parkway Tower. Each one of the desk’s drawers is crammed with writing utensils, paper, items of inspiration to help me compose. I have a comfy chair and a cushy couch if the desk isn’t doing it (or, more likely, is covered with papers). There’s also the Hamline Bush Library, with its variety of tables, carrel desks, and overstuffed chairs. Any one of these would make a good writing spot and you might think I get most of my pages written at these places.

Except you’d be wrong. Most of my writing happens at work.

Before you contact my boss to get me in trouble (or steal my job), I should tell you what I do. I work in an office as an administrative assistant, and after I’ve set out the coffee, checked the electronic documents, alphabetized the filing, and typed any dictations in my inbox, my duty is to scan each file from the prior year onto a database and then shred the file. I really like my job but I like the scanning part of my job the least of any task. It basically entails making sure each page goes through the scanner smoothly, the office equivalent of watching paint dry. But it gives me lots of time to think. And thinking, for me, equals writing.

Much of the writing I do happens well before I put pen to paper, or more often, my hands on a keyboard. I form sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, in my head. I ruminate. I mull. I let my thoughts turn over and over like rocks in a tumbler until I’ve polished them enough to present them to the world. I'll scribble a line on whatever scrap of paper comes closest to my pen, but most composition I do happens in my head.  I write this way on the bus, when I’m walking to class, while washing my dishes or cleaning the tub—any spare moment I get. This includes the times at my job when my only task for the day is to scan.

On those times, I will open a blank document (such as I have right now) and type while the scanner reads each page one at a time. Sometimes I’ll have to unjam the scanner or rescan a page it missed, but for the most part, for the two minutes it takes to scan a file, I write whatever has rolled around in my head long enough. The writing is disjointed and messy, and sometimes I get annoyed at having to start and stop so much, having to load the next file or re-feed a page. But I try to remember that this is time I have: time I haven’t committed to classwork or housework, time that I spend sitting in front of a computer with not much else to do. So as long as I keep scanning while I do it, I’m free to write.

I know plenty of people who shudder at the thought of writing at work. And it’s not ideal for sure. But until I win the lottery or sell the movie rights to my book, I have to work to pay my bills, and I can’t afford a private writing room with soundproof walls and maid service to ensure my house gets cleaned. In forcing myself to write “outside the desk,” if you will, I’ve found that it doesn’t matter where I write, just how. How I force myself to do it under less than ideal conditions. How I find a way to think about what I want to write when I can’t get to my computer but I don’t want to lose a thought. How I can scribble on receipts and napkins and post-its and whatever writing surface I find, because when inspiration strikes I don’t want to say, “Come back when I’ve sharpened all my pencils, put on my writing hat, and made the perfect cup of tea.”

This habit of writing wherever/whenever came in handy last fall. Barrie (Borich, esteemed CNF professor at Hamline) assigned us roughly ten pages per week. Wednesdays are my day off from work, so I got in the habit of cramming most of my writing and homework into those days. One time I got locked out because of the cat downstairs (long story) and ended up having to run all three miles to campus to connect with my roommate, who taught a class there. Since I just missed catching her before her session started, and I still had roughly five pages to go, I opened up my email at a computer kiosk and banged out five ugly, sweaty, rough pages right there. I don’t recommend making this a habit, but I will say writing under pressure can free one’s subconscious and let you get at what you really want to say.

1 comment:

  1. This is what I needed to read today, Sarah.

    To add to the list of ideas for writing "outside the desk," I remember Ira Sukrungrung saying that he is remarkably productive when he writes in the minutes between conferences with his students. This habit seems like an efficient, "low stakes" way to get ideas on the page. The way I see it, there is no internal pressure to be brilliant when scribbling between conferences or while the scanner scans -- it's actually bonus time.