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.