When Baxter takes a walk, he’s focused on the task at hand a good seventy-five percent of the time. He’s all beagle, so that task is sniffing out where other dogs have been and marking his territory so that all the other dogs will know where he’s been. He takes this duty very seriously and whines like crazy if he’s pulled away from it – yet, about a quarter of the time, he manages to give in to some distraction or other.
First, there’s the wrestle with the leash. He gets so excited to have the dang thing hooked to his collar that he has to play a miniature game of tug-of-war, with me on the other end coaxing him along and trying not to think how stupid I must look pulling my own dog down the block. Then there are the cats. My neighborhood is virtually cat-ridden; there’s one hiding under each parked car and coming out of every alley we pass. Then there’s the debris, which accumulates as we reach the park – fast food wrappers, half-eaten Pop Tarts swarming with ants, empty cans of Mountain Dew. On Sunday, Baxter lunged for a wadded up tissue, which I then had to pry in shredded pieces from his clenched teeth. But most of the time, he’s determined to sniff out the next tree.
The thing is… when I sit down to write, I’m like Baxter on a walk. I have every intention of focusing completely, ignoring all distractions and soaring majestically through the day’s work – a rewritten scene, eight new pages of genius, and so on. And then life happens.
Last Wednesday, free from my day job, I scheduled myself a four-hour block of uninterrupted writing time. I was all set up: Baxter was walked, the cats were fed, the day’s first glass of iced tea was at hand and I was wearing comfortable clothes. I booted up my laptop – and the phone rang. Sure, I have an answering machine, but writing is quite a solitary endeavor. When the phone rings (as it did seven times between nine and one), I tend to see it as a way of interacting with my “colleagues”. Also, some of these were returned calls that I simply had to take – surely my world would have collapsed were I not there at that precise moment to say, “Hello?”
Well. And then, a neighborhood dog started whining. I’m fairly adept at ignoring barking, but this seemed like an injured whine – a stuck-in-the-fence or giving-birth whine, maybe. Not a huge problem – I was only half an hour off schedule at this point, and besides I couldn’t write with that high-pitched whine reverberating in my ears. So I took a little walk down the alley, peeking through fence knot holes. I saw nothing. Wherever the dog was stuck or giving birth or dying, it must have been indoors.
Unfortunately, the sight of me clomping around in my boots in the back alley put Baxter on high alert. He generally sleeps his way through my writing hours, sometimes directly on my feet, but suddenly he (and every other dog within a mile radius) became a barking fool. Well, beagles howl – a howling fool.
Okay, so I’d lost some precious writing time, but it wasn’t a big deal. I could sit right back down and get at it. Hmm. Let me just check my email first…
Finally, the phone calls fielded, the dogs quieted, the emails answered, I started to write. Stiff at first, stilted, the way it always starts, like these characters are people I haven’t seen for a long time and I don’t know how to behave around them. And then we settle into familiarity. We joke, we swear, we undo the top button of our jeans to laugh. I’m completely in the groove with these people…
And the doorbell rings. It’s more like a buzzer, a horrible sound that sends the cats flying under the bed and Baxter into an instant tizzy. I peek out the window – it’s someone from the pest control service.
“I’m running a little early,” he says proudly.
He’s close to two hours early, to be exact. When in life does this ever happen?
“Um, no problem. Just let me unlock the gate and secure the beast,” I say.
A few minutes later, I’m back at my desk, the cursor blinking. Baxter is stalking the exterminator from window to window, baying. Somehow, three hours have passed with no significant accomplishment. And now I’m hungry.
I mentioned this to a friend, a non-writer, one of the world’s good people. My day’s productivity, I estimated, had been twenty-five percent.
Twenty-five percent is pretty bad, she acknowledged. Fifty percent is more realistic, more in line with an office job. There’s all the email to return, the coffee breaks, the gossip, the business lunches…
Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to take a page from Baxter. Follow my instincts, but allow myself the small diversions. Today, I’ll be happy with seventy-five percent.