Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Looking Like Work

To the surprise of absolutely nobody who knows me, I'm a fan of The Big Bang Theory. In a recent episode, Raj and Sheldon tried to solve a complicated equation on a whiteboard in Sheldon's office. Although the entire action consisted of the two of them standing and staring thoughtfully, the producers tried to suggest 'action' by quick-cutting with loud music. I laughed out loud. Although they were obviously engaged in difficult mental labor, it didn't look like work.

Now that computers are much more fun than they used to be, writing doesn't look like work anymore. It is, of course, but it doesn't look like it. When I'm at the computer typing, I might be doing something for my day job, or blogging, or reading, or shopping, or emailing, or tweeting. In any given hour, it's usually a mix. Chewing on an idea isn't a linear process. It's shaggier than that, which is necessary to get enough perspective on what's already written to make revising worthwhile. But if you swoop in from the outside and peek over my shoulder at a random moment, you might see a series of tweets or an article on heaven-knows-what, while I maintain with a straight face that I'm writing. And I am. It just doesn't look like it.

In my faculty days, class preparation time often had the same flaw. TW would assume that I was 'on call' at any moment that I wasn't actually in a classroom or grading. Thinking can look suspiciously like goofing off, and any honest account would have to concede that some amount of goofing off is an integral part of the process. But the process is real. The problem is that, from the outside, it's often indistinguishable from loafing.

I remember my Dad pounding away on the astonishingly loud electric typewriter when I was a kid. That looked (and sounded) like work. A typewriter didn't lend itself to anything else. Even in the early 90's, about the only substantial diversion on many computers was solitaire. (One of my favorite running jokes on The Office is that Creed and Meredith usually have solitaire on their monitors.) If you were actually hitting keys, you were probably working. Now, anything goes.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the visible part of the work is only a smallish part of the picture. A well-meaning friend in grad school used to tell me that all I had to do to plow through the dissertation was to write two pages a day. Typing two pages a day is easy; I'm a reasonably competent typist, and if I know where it's going, I can crank out the prose. But having two pages' worth of content is hard. Generating the ideas and thinking them through is the hard part, and it's fiendishly difficult to quantify or schedule.

I used to think that the expression "put on your thinking cap" was merely colorful. Now it's starting to make sense. It wouldn't have any inherent powers, but it could work as a signal to others: "I'm trying to think!"

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a way to make writing look like work?

While working on my dissertation over the summer, I kept track of my hours. Granted, some of those hours were spent looking at the ceiling, but I'd write down start and end times... like a time clock
That's a tough one; sometimes I'm writing when I am folding laundry, or mowing the lawn! (I like to give my body something to do while I'm overclocking my brain.)

I think the only way to do it is to cultivate an intense and slightly abstracted facial expression. On me, I'm told it looks like I'm either very deep in thought or mildly annoyed...and either way, people figure it's not worth bothering me. :)
It's so true - and the tendency to get distracted by all those other options is the reason they now have programs that you can run that only allow you to type things out. No web surfing or anything else for a set amount of time. Basically it turns your computer into a typewriter.
As a sidenote, did you know that the computers on The Office are actually hooked up? So if people look like they are playing solitaire, it's because they are. Jenna Fisher blogs during episodes sometimes.
How to make writing look like work?

That's a good question. My credibility factor as a writer went way up when I got a bookstand to set beside my computer.

Now, when people come by, there's always a book there. It suggests that I'm consulting the book (even if I'm writing about something else entirely contained on the computer screen).

If I can get a bigger bookstand (suitable to hold intimidating manuscript printouts or really thick volumes), I expect that my status as a hard-working writer will skyrocket.

I'm also plotting to get a second monitor. That will help in displaying some of the more arcane texts with which I work (real reason for the purchase) but I'll make sure that big new monitor is the first that anyone can see if they come to my desk so that they will be impressed at my ability to read sixteenth century manuscripts. The smaller monitor, then, can be reserved for those games of Solitaire or Mah Jongg, along with my current word-processing screen -- you know, the "real work" in progress!
This is further to your actual question, DD, about how to signal "I'm working":

I put in the headphones. Because I work in different environments--and sometimes AWAY from my bricks & mortar office, so as to cut down on the incidence of pleasant-but-timewasting drop-ins by students who just "felt like visiting"--the headphones are an essential part of blocking out all the other ambient noise.

Particularly when there is a clatter of sorority bimbos discussing their Spring Break plans (already!) at the next table, the headphones are concentration's essential first line of defense.

Y'all have a great Thanksgiving break!
Regarding your first paragraph: My wife almost fell out of her chair laughing at that part of that episode. You see, they looked EXACTLY like me, a fellow grad student, and our adviser when we were working on a problem.

(Aside: all of the physics is correct, and some - the reference to a new paper about observing magnetic monopoles in a spin ice - is as topical as last month.)

Regarding your "thinking cap" reference, X-tremeGeek has a Jedi trainer where you use brain waves to levitate a ball. Maybe you can position it just right and the ball will show that you are thinking even when you aren't actually writing.
I wear my headphones, open one of my textbooks, pile up a few papers which I have copied, lay a pencil and pen beside all this stuff and I look like I'm working even if I'm playing Zuma, which I do to get my mind off my writing for a few minutes.
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Muttering helps, especially if it is occasionally interrupted with shrieks and bursts of profanity. The latter should not be in the milk tongue of the writer unless one is an exchange student/scholar.
When I do housework, I put on an apron so that my husband knows I'm not just shuffling around the house aimlessly, rather that I'm in the middle of something.

Maybe a thinking cap isn't such a bad idea.
I just sit in an uncomfy chair that makes my face look so scorned from all the writing. Add that with the dozens of post-its with my dissertation research notes, not to mention my stacks of books piled on the edge of my desk. Since then I never got around to cleaning my work area and now my family thinks that I put a lot of effort into writing.
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