I Am So Working!

People who are not writers don’t really believe that writing is something that falls under the category of “work.” No one quite says it to my face, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they believe, at least on some level.

For instance, my wife will call me during the day and ask me “Could you please come over to the school, Mrs. McCabe is having a problem with her printer.” Or one of my children will call me some morning, “Dad, I forgot my lunch. Could you bring it to me?”

Now, if I were to reverse this process and call my wife and ask her to leave her classroom to run some errand for me, not only would she refuse, she would be puzzled that I could even ask such a thing. “I’m at work, I’ve got students to attend to, I can’t just drop it all and go get you a new ink cartridge. Get your own darn ink cartridge!”

Likewise, I’ll occasionally get a call from someone I know: “So what are you doing this morning?”

“Well, writing…”

“Do you think you could help me move a refrigerator?”

How many of your friends would you call on a Tuesday morning at 10:30 to ask if they were busy? And would you really be surprised when they told you that they were at work? And would you get mad when they told you to move your own stupid refrigerator?

If I worked construction or fast food, I’m sure I wouldn’t get calls like that anymore. But somehow, because I’m writing, and because my commute is the distance from my bedroom, to the coffee pot, to my desk in my home office, no one thinks twice about interrupting my day and making demands on my time.

Thus, I’m usually the one to pick up the children from school. My wife explains that she “needs time to work in her classroom after school and catch up on some things.” Never mind that I have a book to write or that I have a deadline fast approaching. Or that the children are students at her school.

If I suggest to my family or friends that I really need to write when they ask me to run an errand, they get annoyed with me. “You make your own hours,” they protest. Well, yeah, except that everyone around me seems to be more in charge of my schedule than I am. And there are only so many hours in a day. I really can’t manufacture them. And my sort of work doesn’t happen very well if there are people around, so it’s not like I can make up the lost time by working in the evening or weekends, because in the evening and weekends, my family is home. Unlike during the day when they are using me as an errand boy.

When my family is actually in the house, I can’t get much writing done. Writing requires quiet and the ability to focus without interruption. There’s nothing like being in the middle of a deep thought, the sentences finally flowing, and having my thirteen year old pop into my office to show me the lyrics of a “really cool” song she just found. I do appreciate the fact that she likes to share her life with me, but Hannah Montana’s words in purple ink just don’t help me get mine onto the page.

Of course, the nature of writing probably contributes to how my friends and family perceive my job. My wife doubtless finds it hard to imagine that when she peeks into my office and finds me staring at the wall, tapping a pencil on my desk, that I’m actually doing something productive.

People make jokes about the “Men Working” signs along the roadside, where one guy in a hole is swinging a shovel, while four guys are standing around the hole watching him dig. When we think of work, we think of something happening: dirt being piled up, bricks being laid, items being repaired, stuff being put together, papers being sorted. There should be movement. A man staring at a wall with a cold cup of coffee clutched in one hand just doesn’t seem productive.

And yet, fingers moving on a keyboard and letters appearing on the screen of my computer is only a fraction of what’s involved in writing. Thinking is part of the process, too. Really! There has to be cogitation and the mulling over of things in my head before words can appear. Long stretches of quiet, sometimes interspersed with snoring, are necessary preludes to furious keyboard pounding.

Research is also a necessary part of writing, whether it is a novel or a non-fiction book on the characters from the Bible. “Yes, I’m sitting in my chair reading a book,” I tell my teenager. “Daddy’s working.”

“I thought you liked to read.”

“I do.”

“Then how can that be work?”

“You haven’t read too many academic texts with titles like, Polar Structures in the Book of Qohelet, have you?”

My teennager stares blankly at me, makes a silly face, and runs off.

Proving that I’m hard at work becomes even more difficult to if I have to find artwork for a book. As part of a couple of contracts stipulated, I was required to suggest artwork for my books. But using Google image search does not always get me the sort of art I was wanting to find, and that can be embarrassing if my wife happens to come into my office at the wrong moment. For instance, when I entered the name “Elisha”—whom I swear I only thought of as an ancient Hebrew prophet—little did I know that the bulk of the images that Google would return for me would be of some young woman named “Elisha Cuthbert.” Searches for a female deacon mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans named Phoebe also wound up being equally distracting.

“Really, dear, I’m just doing research.”

I just don’t understand why no one believes I’m working for a living.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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