If writers made widgets, there would be a mound of physical products sitting on the counter at the end of the work day. Judging from the previous day’s tally, we could accurately determine if this happened to be a good day or bad one by the increase or decrease in sheer number.
But how do writers make this determination?
Some people might say it is from the number of words on the page. But perhaps we have spent most of the day editing a passage, or researching the history of toilet paper rationing during World War II. Important details like that need to be authentic.
Or, more importantly, we have stared for hours into the abyss of the rain-pummeled alley behind the house, watching its sideways downpour blur the unsightly graffiti on the building next door which now seems oddly beautiful as it becomes dizzying dark slashes through colorful rainbows. Only then, in the impressionist world in which we can see so clearly through the deluge of water, have we gained the visual backdrop for Paris in the twenties.
There might have been dialogue issues in the last scene actually committed to the work in progress requiring us to close our eyes and tune our ears like broadband radios trying to dial in a signal where cooperative stations still send waves into the air around us. Yes, that means we may simply be in a state of near-slumber–not quite transcendent but far enough away from whatever is going on in the immediate background to block the static and pick up the sounds of our characters as they explain why their arms are firmly crossed and lips smashed tightly together in protest.
What’s that, they ask. Another trite retort? We refuse. You can’t make us say it. There may be foot stomping and other temper tantrums as they elicit respect from their creator–the tortured writer.
Possibly we have realized there is no atmospheric condition in the text and the rain scene will now give texture to the page. But we had our main character shoving her sunglasses atop her head crowned with silky blown-straight hair as she shields her eyes with the cut of one hand across her brow. The reader would know this lacked authenticity, not because the sunshine betrays the rain shower. (Haven’t we all seen it raining while the sun was shining–at least a dozen times anyway?) But because every woman knows humidity ruins sleek hairstyles.
Similarly, there may be some characters who want their own production. You know how it is. You give them one clever line and soon they need an agent and their own adventure in the South of France with a gorgeous opera singer named Joseppi who is actually from Belize but could pass as a gentleman of Marseille. Ooh, la, la.
And then someone has to die and the light romantic comedy we were expecting to write when we started the manuscript becomes a murder mystery with dark undercurrents and a shadowy hero who prefers to remain anonymous keeps running across the page stealing the best lines from the main character who now is giving us the stink eye and calling a lawyer for script advice.
We can’t please everybody.
Nor can we stay focused all the time.
Ideas peck at our brains like the blackbird whose attempts to snatch the single remaining corn kernel from the tightly packed seed block in the wire cage hanging from the chestnut tree is an opera in itself, the whole thing swinging with the raven’s weight while he hangs on to the edge with tightly gripped talons. The seed won’t budge, the bird won’t give up, the back-and-forth is an endless unproductive theater performance.
Which brings up another question–is it theater or theatre? Does the ‘e’ precede the ‘r’ or vice versa? Does it matter if the theme is European or American? Yikes! More research on this single word while the length of the piece isn’t lengthened or increased in any measurable way.
You are starting to get the picture, aren’t you?
We make ourselves nuts. Writers can devote hours to details the reader may never notice, and that makes us even more insane.
“It was raining when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre? Really? I thought it was a sunny day in Paris and the heroine was wearing sunglasses atop her head.” Oops! Apparently forgot to change that scene.
Our manuscripts take so many detours through the editing phase we sometimes feel they need their own Metro passes and escorting chauffeur to taxi them back and forth. We tighten and tidy until we feel like cleaning staff in a hotel chain and cut unnecessary words and phrases until every sentence is as lean as an Italian soccer player and equally as strong. Sometimes we end the writing day with less words than when we started, yet all was in the name of progress.
Often we are solving what seems like unsolvable dilemmas–the main character just rolled his fuel-leaking car over an embankment. The seat belt harness was damaged in the first metal-screeching contact of car and guardrail, grinding its teeth securely onto the thick strap refusing to be unfastened. And the Mona Lisa is in the back seat and it’s starting to rain. Not just a little soft Parisian rain that makes the chestnut blooms ignite with floral fragrance, but the sideways impressionistic deluge. Help!
The sun is sinking and the bell tower is reverberating with the urgency of passing hours as we remain glued to our seats while the pen–caught between thumb and palm–is being jostled back and forth in a whipping motion. Blinking at us, the computer’s cursor is still waiting to take forward motion.
With an energetic exhale, the answer arrives. The solution to every circumstance has presented itself, stripped away its invisible overcoat and now with unerring certainty, we know how to get Joseppi and the Mona Lisa out of harm’s way and back into the art museum before it can be damaged by the crash and the weather.
But we can’t write it all down tonight because our butts are numb from sitting all day and we have to change small details in the previous chapter before we can move forward. Better save all that for tomorrow.
So, to answer the question which I almost forgot posing until I looked up and saw it hovering in the title block, writers measure productivity in their heads, by their thoughts more than actions. For writers, sitting in a café drinking lattes provides more inspiration and mineable dialogue from other patrons than widget makers get from well-oiled widget-making-machines.
We can’t measure by quantity or strike-outs, or two words: The End.
How did I do today? I wrote this piece and figured out a rough patch in a sequel. I think I’ve done alright. It’s been a productive day. The End. *Sigh*
How do you measure productivity?
**Renee Johnson is currently in residence at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. All comments will be read, appreciated, and replied to as quickly as possible. The internet here is experiencing difficulty. Thank you for your patience.
**Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.