Monday, May 10, 2010

Writer, Wean Thyself

I’m old enough to remember when the arrival of the postal mail, and the ring of the telephone, brought a writer all the good or bad news of the day. The postal mail delivered all of the rejections, and most of the acceptances. Occasionally the phone rang with an acceptance, often in the form of an actual editor at the other end, wanting to firm up details of an assignment, asking about rights, suggesting edits, offering a new (unsolicited) assignment, or even – yes, this really used to happen – just wanting to connect “in person”.

In those days, many factors, including substitute mail carriers, a too-small mailbox, and awful weather, messed with a writer’s confidence in that postal lifeline, and so one rented a post office box. Likewise, a dependable answering machine was required.

I’m not waxing nostalgic. I do have a point.

I had a post office box for 17 years, and somewhere during the first year or so I realized it was detrimental to my state of mind if I made the “post office run” early in the day. If the number of “Sorry, no,” “We’ll pass,” and “Not for us” missives outnumbered the quantity of “Yes, please send,” “We’d like to run this,” and “Are first rights still available?” notes, I’d notice a definite decline in my desire to dive back into the work once I got back home from the post office – a trip of oh, about, three minutes.

The phone, on the other hand, I always answered – on the second ring, at most. It was almost always good news -- except for the time a magazine editor in California called to say that in an office move, my article and photos had gone missing and could I please get him copies the next day? This involved two trips to the photo lab, a visit to the library to use the copy machine, and crossing my fingers as I handed the package across the desk at a newfangled company called Federal Express (see, I told you I’m old).

Fast forward. Email brings it all, all at once, right onto my desk, all day long – rejections, edit suggestions, acceptances, requests for photos or a bio, editorial decisions that require more copy, less copy, delays, and “our magazine has folded” announcements. Oh sure, the phone rings sometimes, but chances are it’s an assistant wanting to know the whereabouts of the signed contract.

Avoiding the email inbox for the bulk of the writing day gets harder all the time; don’t respond to email quickly and you’re a slacker, out of touch and who knows, maybe out of the solar system. Respond too quickly and you’re over-anxious and probably not busy enough.

Lately I’m thinking that having all the news, all the time, scrolling past my eyes all day – the one-line rejections, even the “good” rejections in which editors say nice things before saying no, the notes from writer friends who have accomplished something great for which I’m happy but also a little jealous – is not particularly productive and sometimes leaves me with that feeling I used to have on that three-minute walk back to my house after the post-office runs of yore.

Now that we have an additional computer in the house (four people, four computers, but who’s counting), I’ve been trying for the past two weeks to keep the (slow, old) computer on my desk in my upstairs office off-line most of the day, and the (new, fast) one downstairs near the kitchen, online. On a good day, this cuts my email-checking behavior down to equal the number of coffee and healthy snack runs. On a bad day, when it seems perfectly logical to me that marinating the chicken, unloading the dishwasher, searching for the hidden dark chocolate, or finishing the Times crossword puzzle will be hugely beneficial to whatever it is that’s going wrong – well, on those days, everyone probably hears back from me faster.

By the way, the FedEx package arrived in California on time. The editor called on the phone to tell me so.

P.S. I do LOVE email, sending copy electronically, this blog, connecting with other writers via social networking, teaching online and all of that. Truly. But I do miss the telephone, however, and have been known, once in a while, to actually call people on it. I love to hear the shock in their voices.

2 comments: said...

Love your last line here.

David R. Slayton said...

You touch on a big problem facing a lot of us. Writing is inherently for me an activity at which I cannot multitask. It is delicate work and I have to focus. Email, blogging, texting, and Facebook are all great tools and toys, but they aren’t writing. One reason I force myself to bus to and from my day job is that it makes me sit, offline for two hours daily, to write without interruption. Tuning out distractions, and there are oh so many at home, is something we all have to do if we’re going to make our writing time really count.