On Not Writing

The classic, and in some ways definitive, advice on writing is this line by Mary Heaton Vorse, as chronicled by Sinclair Lewis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” In this era of standing and treadmill desks we might need to amend the insistence on sitting, and given the abundance of digital distractions we face, it’s probably worth specifying that what happens while one is seated actually involves the stringing together of words—not surfing, not streaming, not gaming, not clicking “like” or “follow.”

Persistence is the trick, which is presumably why, even though there is really only one way to write, there are innumerable variations on the theme of not writing.

One might, for example, simply evade. Or procrastinate. A writer might quit, or declare himself hopelessly blocked. She might indulge in a planned and duly scheduled break. They might decide it’s more rewarding to sit down and read something someone else has written (although you might see this tactic defended as “research” and rationalized as necessary preparation for writing).

This photo, like the others in this post, has nothing to do with not writing other than that I took the picture in the interval between November 2019 and February 2020, while I was not writing on this blog. These are the last of the 2019 crop, harvested on December 15 off vines I pulled up in early October and hung upside-down in the greenhouse, where the fruits gradually ripened. I sprinkled these with salt, oven-dried them, and stored what we didn’t eat that night in the fridge in a jar covered with olive oil.

Writers also fail to write by first writing and then declaring the results crap that should not be inflicted on the world. Hitting the delete key or powering up the shredder is, then, positioned as a public service.

Taking pictures is a popular means of not writing, particularly if one is traveling.

Writers and aspiring writers, like everyone else, have to meet the plumber or shovel snow or care for a sick horse (or kid or spouse or parent). Jobs happen. Life intervenes. Time runs short.

Not writing can also be the result of being unable, despite wanting and planning and good-faith intending. Applying the seat to the seat may come to naught, not as a result of stereotypical blockages borne out of a lack of ideas or an overabundance of anxiety, but from straight-up cognitive failure due to fatigue. I’ve been rather vexed to find myself plagued by this form of not-writing periodically of late. I imagine that writers with young children regularly suffer from this variation, although my experience stems from later-life-stage circumstances, aka night sweats. I’ve had extended episodes of interrupted sleep over the past few years, wakening about every ninety minutes to throw blankets off in an overheated panic, only to drag them back over myself twenty minutes later in a post-sweaty chill, leaving about an hour in which to doze off before the next round. This aggravating nocturnal rhythm brings on a daytime brain fog so thick that mundane tasks require close concentration and a monumental effort of will. I might sit with conviction, but that doesn’t mean my capacity for attention has accompanied me to the chair. In this state of mental dismemberment, much of my writing consists of lists, which I then either lose or forget to reference.

I don’t want to legitimize list-making as writing, but this matter of scribing one item in lieu of another points toward a distinct form of not-writing. Ironically, this particular version can yield published work; I suspect quite a few of what are called “craft essays” owe their existence to writing about writing as a way of not writing. Avoiding writing by writing about not writing no doubt accounts for a related genre.

Last puff of snow atop a blanketflower seedhead, February.

I’ve been doing a lot of not writing by writing one thing rather than another lately, although in my defense the writing I’ve been working on during my absence from this blog relates to my book-in-progress.

That project revolves around scientific literacy, a topic I’ve been interested in for a couple of decades now. Back around the turn of the millennium, I was finishing up a PhD dissertation on public perceptions of science, and I’ve always thought I would be able to spin that research into a book. The challenge has been, and remains, how to write about the subject without descending into dull exposition.

Herd of pronghorn in the pasture, January. We’ve seen them here occasionally, but never in such numbers.

It’s easy, too, to lose the thread. We tend to think of scientific literacy as the facts-you-need-to-know about science, so staying focused on the dynamics of the nonspecialist’s encounter with scientific information and ideas is surprisingly hard. I’m interested in the interior aspects of scientific literacy: in science as refracted through self. Explaining what I mean by that isn’t easy, which is why what I’m working on is a book and not an essay.

Last summer I set myself a goal, and a deadline. I needed a push to get the fragments of rough draft I’ve accumulated so far coordinated into functional chapters. And so, starting in November, that’s where my writing energy has gone. For the past few months, when I sat down in my office chair to write, that’s what I was working on. The book took some measurable steps forward, although it is very, very far from done. The project remains vulnerable to all the hazards faced by an immature thing in this big busy world, including parental neglect and the predations of criticism. I still might lose my nerve. I can see so many ways I might not write this book.

For now though, I’ll keep putting myself in the chair. Some days I’ll work on that, but I’ll also try to get back to working on this other thing.

*You can find an account of the saying’s origins here.

Full moon rising over the barn on a frosty evening, November.

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14 Responses to On Not Writing

  1. This is definitely one of the most cogent explanations of not writing and its attendant confusion I’ve seen. And I’ll advance a theory to throw into your hopper: your photographs are a form of meditation perhaps, but when they are published as part of your writing, they become part of the writing itself, I believe. Thus you have made a statement about the last puff of snow on the blanketflower seed head. Your array of tomatoes were not just flung down willy nilly, but arranged artfully and then photographed, which makes another statement. Your job, then, is to sort out what those photographs mean in words.
    Excuse me. I think I’ll go work on a poem about tomatoes.

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Linda, the entanglement of image and word is an interesting aspect of certain genres, isn’t it, blogging included. My allegiances are to text, but the online universe is ever-more visual. I so appreciate that you see the images as part of the writing rather than the other way around. But there’s a tension, isn’t there: that snow on the seedhead is concise in a way I can never hope to be.

      Keeping this blog, however intermittently, has influenced how I direct my attention, which fascinates me. I am alert to things to write about, and often take pictures to remind myself of a topic. But a lot of times I take a picture and think about what might be said about it later…or are those the same process? Is it all just a variation on paying attention?

      And yes, I remember finessing the layout of those tomatoes to make it more photogenic, thinking the resulting picture might appear in the blog. And so it has. And it might appear again, when I figure out what I might say about its content. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking forward to reading your poem.

  2. Kayann says:

    Thanks for this! For me as a writer, life sometimes feels like it’s divided into “writing” and “not writing,” particularly in the winter months when I’m trying to get as much writing done as possible. Perhaps this is why when I’m not writing by surfing youtube for vintage rock videos, trailers pop up for Joyce Carol Oates’ Masterclass to remind me that “the enemy of writing is interruption.”

    • Andrea Jones says:

      I hear you on those seasonal opportunities/demands, Kayann. We’ve talked about summer being a tough time for taking the time. I love the idea of the winter writing season, but thinking about it in those terms definitely amps up the pressure, doesn’t it? To Alison’s point, there is a rhythm to this active writing time as well: feeding the well and drawing it back down.

  3. It sounds as though you are justifying yourself to yourself, Andrea. I think we are our own worst critics. Sometimes what we need is a pat on the back, and since you aren’t giving yourself one, please allow myself to do the honors. 🙂

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Thanks for the pat on the back, Tanja, it is appreciated. Taking the time to focus on the book project felt good, although it was exhausting at times. I’d like to think I will be able to manage juggling that and this and everything else for a while, but we shall see!

  4. Katharine Preston says:

    “I suspect quite a few of what are called “craft essays” owe their existence to writing about writing as a way of not writing. Avoiding writing by writing about not writing no doubt accounts for a related genre.”

    THAT made me laugh out loud!

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Glad it was good for a laugh, Katharine. The thought gives me a different angle for reading those craft essays…although I guess reading about writing and reading about not writing count as further ways of not writing….

  5. alison41 says:

    I enjoyed your reflections on Not Writing, despite the worhty old seat-of-the-pants adage.
    For myself, I occasionally need periods when I don’t write and I’m quite comfortable with that./ As a metaphor I can offer ‘leaving fields to lie fallow’ , and ‘ sometimes the well runs dry’. I enjoy these in-between periods of reading (mostly fiction) going out and about and generally ‘just living’; these actiities will provide drops of fresh water for the well, and water for the slowly growing seeds in my fallow field.
    Your book project sounds formidable – good luck with it.

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Alison, I totally agree about the necessity of down-time, and your dry well metaphor strikes me as particularly apt. My own go-to analogy is composting, which is pretty close to those fallow fields: giving things time to sit, break down, re-emerge as something richer. Reading is like turning the compost pile, refreshing, mixing. Different metaphor, but on a related theme: so often when I am cranky without a traceable reason, I realize I haven’t been reading much, and my brain is hungry.

      And thanks for the good luck wishes. It’s going to be a long haul.

  6. Pat Dubrava says:

    I’ve been wondering where you were. Good to see you back. When young, I thought I might write an endless series of poems called “Not Writing Blues #12 and 54.” But your project sounds intriguing and unique. I’ve been rereading Prose’s Reading Like a Writer—it’s one of the texts for the writer’s workshop I’m teaching—and came across this, from a Chekhov letter:

    You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.
    —translated by Constance Garnett

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Glad to be back, Pat. Funny that the concept of not writing can itself be a muse.

      That Chekhov quote is giving me lots to chew on, so thanks.

  7. Teri Jurgens says:

    Andrea, I can’t imagine anything you write being dull exposition! I will be looking forward to this book.

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Teri, you are too kind. I do kind of revert to my college writing style with this topic, even after all these years.

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