On Waiting: A Brief Meditation


Civilization has produced an inordinate amount of waiting.  Has anyone ever figured out how many hours a human being waits in a year?  “A watch pot never boils,” my grandmother used to say with a wicked smile.  Few people are immune. 

Conductors have their share of waiting.  They wait to board planes, to be served meals in restaurants, in line to check in, in traffic to get to an airport, for an orchestra search committee to decide which conductor they’ll hire, and so on.  Evan Quinn is not the most patient person in the future but he has learned to use time spent waiting for thinking.  Most often, his thoughts concern a music score he’s working on or a program he needs to create or if he’ll agree to perform in a string quartet.  Or he reads a music score or book.  If he waits with someone else, a friend, it’s different.  They converse or not (two people waiting in silence can reveal something about character in how they do it) or they react to the environment or the situation. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about waiting because I’ve done a lot of it recently.  Writers must learn how to wait with calm patience.  Or to forget that they’re actually waiting for something by immersing themselves in something else.  For example, the best way to wait for a response to a submission is to have several writing projects to work on.  Work distracts the mind.  It’s more fun to work than wait anyway.  I try to carry something to do with me at all times: a small notebook and pens, PW or The Atlantic or some other magazine or a literary journal I’m reading.  I want my waiting time to be productive. 

But sometimes (and recently, quite often), I’ve preferred to do nothing.  It occurred to me that time waiting may be the only time we now get to think.  And I’ve noticed in the past few weeks that more and more people are wearing earbuds or headsets or watching video on their cell phones to distract themselves while waiting instead of being lost in thought, although I’ve been quite pleased to also see many people reading books (real books, not e-readers).  In the late 1960’s, a slogan encouraged people to drop out and turn on.  The slogan now could be “turn off the tech and open your mind….”

I think about Evan Quinn a lot while I’m waiting for whatever it is I’m waiting for.  In the last two weeks, ideas to resolve issues in the series have found me while I’ve been waiting.  I’ve also written the first paragraph of a short story in my mind while waiting for an hour in a doctor’s office.  An idea for another short story bubbled into my mind from my imagination on another occasion of waiting.  And I’ve thought a lot about Dennis Potter.

Dennis Potter wrote The Singing Detective.  The first time I saw the original mini-series (available on DVD) I found it amazing that someone could respond to a hospitalization the way the main character does in this story, i.e. he focuses totally on imagining a complex detective story, immersing himself completely in it to the point of not being aware of his environment.  He does this in order to block out the pain from a severe form of psoriasis that he endures, the same disease that Potter himself had, and that imprisons him in his bed, unable to move.  But his mind also searches out the recesses of his memory and scenes from his past feed the creation of his detective story.  It is a brilliant illustration of the creative process.  Potter’s main character is waiting…for his disease flare to subside and his skin to heal so he can go home and write down his story.  He has hours upon hours to think. 

Now, I understand how that character could focus his mind in that way.  I practice it myself everyday…while I’m waiting for the bus, an appointment, an agent to call….   Waiting time is thinking time.

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5 responses to “On Waiting: A Brief Meditation

  1. A lot of people are writing off the ‘book’ as a thing of the past. I believe the exact opposite is going to happen. People need a refuge from the digital world. Staring at an ebook after spending an entire day staring at a computer screen is about as unappealing as I can imagine. But a book has a physical, tangible quality to it. It’s a way to enjoy reading – whether it be fiction or nonfiction – and get ‘unplugged’ at the same time. I keep seeing brand new BN’s and Borders being built all around. I guess they must still be selling books.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks, Chad. I agree with you. Books continue to sell in their original form. I remember years ago when computers first arrived in offices, there was much talk about how computers would create a paperless office. Well, they created even more paper in the end…..

    There’s an interesting interview at “Poets & Writers” of the literary agent Molly Friedrich (http://www.pw.org). She talks about what editors want in books, and she says that fiction just isn’t selling well right now. My stomach dropped. But I’ve been hearing that for the last 18 months and still see a robust fiction review section in “Publishers Weekly” every week…..

  3. I like and need a lot of nothing time, what I call “percolation time”; however, I don’t find “waiting” conducive to that, mostly because of the annoying people with whom one has to wait, who are doing everything possible to annoy and disrespect those around them.

    One of the reasons I bought an MP3 player and started wearing it on the train is because the other passengers are so annoying — especially coming back when they’re drunk and disorderly and no one does anything about it.

    It’s very rare that I can use commuting time as thinking time or writing time or even writing-in-my-head time.

    Other people who are too terrified of nothing get in my way.

    I can actually “write in my head” much better when I’m walking than waiting. I can walk through the busy NYC streets and write in my head — but I can’t sit on the train and do it.

    Weird.

  4. Devonellington, re: walking & “in-head” writing.

    Some folks are better learners in certain ways. Orally, visually, aurally, kinetically , etc (I don’t recall them all). Perhaps you learn better or create better when moving, which certainly doesn’t really happen on a bus. I read somewhere that an author felt more comfortable writing longhand, rather than on a keyboard. Her(his?) rationale was the motion of writing with a pen was simply different than typing.

    Although, I must admit that people tend to dislike or feel uncomfortable with “nothing”. Just sitting around, doing nothing. No music, no book, just sitting. I guess perhaps it’s sort of a meditation? I used to be like that, and finally got over it at a time where I tried so hard to avoid the garbage my life had become that I got sick of the avoidance.

    I have a supremely enjoyable memory of sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan watching the sun set, holding hands with a friend, and just being quiet together.

    I doubt the memory would be so pleasant or memorable if the radio had been blasting or we had been discussing life.

  5. I used to be able to write with music in the background, but for the last 10 years or so, I must have silence. The absence of distracting sound forces me to concentrate on the words I’m writing. Each writer has his/her own way of working. However, when it comes to thinking, humans tend to think better and more deeply with fewer distractions. Which is not to say it’s not possible to train the mind to think to music, for example. I have done some of my best thinking about the Perceval novels when I’m working out and listening to music. The music really opens up my imagination.

    I should think New York City would provide a feast for people-watching, eavesdropping on conversations to learn different speech patterns for characters and observing body language. I do that a lot on the city bus or in restaurants here.

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