Why Are Writers Such Idiots When They’re Writing?

by Dawn Potter

Last night Tom was asking me questions about my western Pennsylvania history-in-verse project–my illogical research; my imaginative process; worst of all, my definition of precision–and all I could do was stammer out inanities. Although he was friendly and interested and ready to have an artist-to-artist conversation, I could not give him any coherent explanation for what sounded, in the air, like a really stupid approach to history, diction, narrative structure, character development, etc., etc.

The moment was disheartening, especially given the fact that we have so little opportunity to talk to one another as colleagues. One or the other of us always seems to be doing the grunt work of living while the other is thieving time and money to muddle with art. We pass the ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. At the moment it’s on my side of the court, while he is spending his days dealing with a horrible dog-kennel owner who keeps making him tear down the stuff she asks him to build after she suddenly changes her mind about it. Meanwhile, he’s cold and dogs bark at him all day long.

Nonetheless, he smiles at me when he gets home, and this is one of the enormous gifts of our partnership–that he can, more often than not, still manage to smile at me, even though he knows I’ve been sitting in front of the wood stove reading a page, messing around with five words, staring at the ceiling, drinking tea, staring at the ceiling, drinking more tea, staring at the ceiling, reading a page, and earning no money whatsoever. I fear that, when I’m in the grunt position and he’s in the muddling-with-art position, I am not always so forbearing.

Last night I wanted to assure him that I really was accomplishing something, was moving along effectively, was making something beautiful. What I sounded like was a stammering, slack-jawed time waster.

Dear writer friend, if you were telling me this story, I would staunchly declare: “Of course you feel that way. You’re in the zone. Your brain doesn’t have the capacity to do anything other than create the work right now. It can’t talk about the work. Why expect it to?”

You would sigh and look glum and say an unconvinced voice: “I guess you’re right.”

Yesterday I spoke briefly with my friend Teresa, who is also in the zone. We made a few half-hearted jokes about the things that Real Writers do when they’re in the zone, like forget to take showers and drink too much and absent-mindedly seduce their friends’ spouses. Our chatter was supposed to cheer us up, and it sort of did, in a stammering, slack-jawed, time-waster sort of way.

Although it did remind me that I’d forgotten to take a shower.


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