The Truth About Idleness

by Janis Patterson

Perhaps one of the hardest things about writing is to convince non-writers that you are actually working when you’re just sitting and staring into space. Of course, part of the problem is the popular perception that writing a book consists of sitting down with pen and paper (for the romantics) or laptop (for the pragmatists and those with bad handwriting) and in a few days dashing off several thousand words, which are (1) sent to an agent grateful to receive them who sends them to a (2) publisher, who immediately responds with a large check and (3) a few weeks later the book – nicely printed and with a gorgeous cover – appears in all the bookstores while the author (4) is on a magical country-wide book-signing tour.

If you believe that, let me tell you the one about Little Red Riding Hood.

Yes, the above scenario has happened – but so rarely it isn’t even statistically viable. In the acting world it is called the ‘Cinderella syndrome’ – or by the more cynical, ‘deus ex machina.’ There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in wishing for a fairy tale publishing experience, but it’s foolish to believe in them and idiotic to expect one.

Writing is work. Writing is not only work, it is full-time work, because some part of your brain is working on your story while your hands and head are busy cleaning house or working at your day job or even while you sleep. Creation is a full-time business.

Which is why it is so irritating that when the writer does get a few minutes where nothing physical has to be done and can sit and deliberately think about his story (without actually being at the keyboard) the non-writers around either tease or castigate him for being lazy. One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Louis Stevenson in “An Apology for Idlers” (Cornhill Magazine, July 1877) – “Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.” So, for writers especially, sitting and (visually) doing nothing is actually work.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit the home of Francis Parkinson Keyes (pronounced, I learned, as K-eyes, not like the things that open locks) in New Orleans, even though I had vowed never to set foot in that benighted city again. It was an old house (late 1700s) in the French Quarter, which meant it sat right on the street with only a narrow strip of flower bed in front and some beautiful curving stairs up to the front door. A wildly popular mid-20th-century novelist, Mrs. Keyes usually wrote in what she called her office, a converted parlor at the front of the house. She was interrupted so many times by fans who wished to meet her (and had the gall to come and knock on her front door!) that she eventually converted the former servants’ quarters in the back of the house to her office, turned the parlor back into a parlor and had her maid say she wasn’t at home.

One incident which the guide recites is of how Mrs. Keyes was sitting in her parlor office, thinking (i.e., working) when a fan walked up and knocked on the door. Mrs. Keyes answered the door and when the fan (a culture vulture clubwoman) said that she had just come to tell Mrs. Keyes how much she liked her work, Mrs. Keyes – understandably miffed at such an intrusion – politely told the woman that no, she cannot invite her in for tea and a chat about her books because she is working. The woman then became huffy, saying that she was doing no such thing, she herself saw Mrs. Keyes just sitting and staring and that surely a short interruption of an hour or so to talk to a fan was more important than doing nothing. Later in one of her memoirs Mrs. Keyes said that she doesn’t understand why people – women especially – can’t understand that an interruption in the mental process of writing is just as devastating as interrupting the cooking of an angel food cake for an hour or so and expecting it to come out perfect when the cooking process is finally completed.

My own dear mother, who was not a writer herself, never grasped that, and with every interruption would say, “I’m just going to take a minute…” As she was a skilled seamstress, I once in frustration grabbed a spool of thread and said the thread was representative of an idea. Then I pulled out a foot or so and cut it, moving the ends apart. “That’s what happens when there is an interruption,” I said. “The thread is changed and can never be the same again.” “But I just took a minute,” Mother would reply. She never got – or never acknowledged – the concept.

There have been pundits who declare that the preparation for writing – researching, plotting, experimenting with ideas, etc., including simply staring into space thinking – accounts for 90-98% of the total time necessary to write a novel. The 2-10% left is for sitting at the keyboard, which is merely transcribing. My own personal percentages vary, but nothing changes the fact that most writing is done in the head.

When other people allow it.

While I love people and am very social and outgoing, I do understand and sometimes envy those writers who have the good fortune to be able to lock themselves away – either in an office with a lock on the door or a private island – and do their work, even if it does seem to be nothing but staring into space.

7 thoughts on “The Truth About Idleness

  1. Great post! I’ve heard that complaint “But you’re just sitting there doing nothing so why can’t you do this for me?” too many times to count. At least I had a boss once who understood. He watched me for a few minutes one day and said, “Yes, that clock is very interesting.” Then he apologized for interrupting me. But at least I got an idea for a scene to write later that evening at home.


  2. Excellent post! My mother-in-law who stays with us quite often believes if your hands aren’t moving, doing something, then you are lazy. Even if you are watching TV. If I say I’m going to write, my hands better be clicking the keyboard or she will keep interrupting me thinking I’m just using writing as an excuse to not clean the house. (Which some days it is 😉 ) And my husband will blow into the house and start talking to me, whether I’m typing or not. They don’t understand that a wonderful string of words just got lost due to the interruption. Loved this post!


  3. I feel like writing mysteries is a bit like solving a riddle. It has to click together in a logical manner, and sometimes that means just puzzling it out for a while.


  4. YES! When I’m not writing, I’m a musician (among other things), and non-musicians never understood why I’d get frustrated when I was working on a particular piece of music and got interrupted in the middle of working out a difficult section. When your flow is interrupted, it’s not easy to get back into it. Great post.


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