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When Working on Your Writing Doesn't Look Like Writing

Photo of Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton


I’ve been having long conversations with my next-door neighbor, the poet Elaine Kahn, about what working means to us.

Our consensus is that working often looks suspiciously like not working. Rather, it might look like baking a cherry upside down cake at 10pm. Or sleeping later than one would like to admit. Or going to the hardware store. Or scratching the cat’s belly. Or reading a novel. Or cleaning the grout between the shower tiles. Or writing a piece like this one—which, admittedly, someone has asked me to do and is certainly a kind of work, but which is not The Book I had planned to spend my entire day chipping away at.

Just this morning Elaine and I had yet another installment of that same conversation over black tea and a few slices of the cherry upside down cake I baked last night when I would have liked to have been producing a new chapter. Elaine complimented my cake and admired my latest home improvement project—a shelf and railing I installed above my kitchen window for hanging plants where the light is best. My response was to thank her and then bemoan the entire day I spent roaming the aisles of Home Depot, followed by the local garden store, sorting through my toolbox, painting the shelf, wielding the drill, potting the plants, cleaning up after myself, and then launching myself headfirst into a new recipe I’d been wanting to try. I should have been working, I whined.

“You were,” she said.

This was what I needed to hear. In fact, I need to hear it over and over again. Perhaps you do also. We have to support each other in undoing this myth that we are only working when we are literally writing words down. There are plenty of odes to the Butt-In-Chair mindset of writing—I have both received that kind of advice and given it numerous times. For a long time my go-to words for anyone struggling with a rough draft of a book were simple (and somewhat annoying): FINISH IT. But lately I’ve begun to see the benefits of all the things I do when my butt is anywhere but in my swivel chair. It’s hard to make space for this, hard to “waste” a day at Home Depot and recognize that The Book was deepening and growing even while I was chasing S-hooks in aisle 12—but that’s exactly what was happening.

Yesterday, I made things with my hands. Today, I’m engaged with my mind. Tonight, I might find that I need to turn my brain off entirely and watch a movie. Working, not working, call it what you like—my imagination needs a little of everything.

About the Author

Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton is the author of the memoir, Motorcycles I’ve Loved (Riverhead, 2015), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel, Good Morning, Midnight (Random House, 2016), which was Colson Whitehead’s favorite book of 2016. Her shorter work has been published in The New York Times, Motorcyclist Magazine, The Toast, and others. A recipient of fellowships from The Studios of Key West and The Kerouac Project, she lives in LA and is working on her third book.