Waiting to pick up my son after his play rehearsal, I sit in the car and grade student essays. I listen to podcasts as I drive over the George Washington Bridge to work. When the phone rings at home and it’s my sister, I get up from my desk to make beds, put in a load of laundry, start the dishwasher. I make sandwiches for school lunches while fixing dinner.
I have come to realize that I rarely do one thing at a time. And that’s the problem.
When you write, you can only write. You can’t do laundry or wash dishes. You can’t make sandwiches or talk on the phone. You can’t even listen to music (or I can’t – unless I’m in a coffee shop, where for some reason ambient noise doesn’t usually bother me). It’s just you and the lined paper – or blank screen – in front of you, and any distraction will not only affect your writing that day, it may change the course or the tenor of the work you’re trying to do.
But multitasking is a hard habit to break, even temporarily. I sit down to write and items for a “to do” list march through my head. I suddenly remember that I never called the dentist; I forgot to pick up a package at the post office; we’re out of milk.
In almost every other aspect of my life, my ability to multitask is a good thing. Doing several things at once is how I’ve learned to juggle my various responsibilities: mother, wife, editor, teacher, volunteer. It’s the only way to keep all the balls in the air.
But writing is not about keeping the balls in the air. It’s about letting them drop. To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit. You have to calm your heartbeat, slow your skipping brain, become comfortable with silence. You have to accept that you will get nothing done except this one thing – this one paragraph or page or, perhaps, on a good day, a chapter – and possibly not even that.
You have to stop worrying about the fact that you’re wasting time. Of course you are. That’s what writers do.
And when you emerge from your writing fog you will have accomplished nothing tangible. You will have checked nothing off your list. Your teeth still need cleaning. The package awaits at the post office. There’s no milk in the fridge. And your book isn’t finished – far from it.
But perhaps you had a moment of clarity, of insight, about your story. Maybe you understand it a little better. And if you really want to be a writer, these moments are more than enough to keep you going, to give you strength to push back against the many-headed hydra of tasks and responsibilities that threatens to devour the precious time you have to create something. Something light-years removed from your ordinary life.