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?