No question about it—my day job provides the biggest hindrance to my writing. The job and I are deeply unsuited for one another. One reason: I can never find any time to myself. I’m an introvert in the extreme. People drain the energy right out of me. I need to withdraw in order to regain equilibrium. However, in a building meant to hold about 2000 people but containing upwards of 2300 at any given moment, there’s nowhere to hide. See the problem?
I’ll admit that it is a bit of a strain. I’ve tried to develop ways to circumvent this. I usually try to do story planning as a coping mechanism when I’m under stress. but every time I take out my notebook on my lunch break, someone absolutely must speak to me that moment. I have contemplated making a sign that says, Literary Therapy In Progress; Do Not Disturb. But since only a rare few actually read signs, I’m sure it wouldn’t do any good. I can withdraw to the farthest corner of the staff lunchroom, build a little barricade of my insulated lunch carrier and the canvas shopping bag in which I brought it, and hunch down so that my nose is mere inches away from where pen meets paper—and wouldn’t you know, somebody will still drag a chair beside me and strike up a conversation, as if I’m just biding my time until I have someone to talk to me. I even push the extra chairs to farther tables when I arrive, but to no avail. There isn’t a moment’s peace, and it wears at me. The stress then eats away at my creativity, so that even when I go home after work, more often than not, my nerves are too raw to do much of anything.
I gave up this week. I brought a book to read, a book that I have read a few times before and have enjoyed. That way, when I am interrupted, I can put it down whenever I must, without worrying about losing my place in the story by the time each visitor has moved along. My reasoning was that, if I can’t exercise my imagination one way, I might as well feed it a little in another way. How well is that working, you may ask? Yesterday I managed to read one short paragraph… in forty-five minutes. (For comparison, I usually manage approximately a hundred pages in an hour when left to myself.) So you might say it isn’t working out very well at all.
Today I even gave that up. I ate my lunch, just waiting for the first person to come swooping down. That first person was an older gentleman, whom I’ll call Henry. I do like Henry. When I call him a gentleman, I mean it in a very literal sense. Henry is one of the gentlest people I know. I have never known him to be cross with another person. He’s an upstanding, giving, hard-working man who has a colorful personal history and a wealth of anecdotes and trivia about nearly everything. He knows just about everybody, it seems, either first- or second-hand. I see him in the hallways often, or passing through my office, or in the lunch room. I asked him how he was. He answered a little atypically, mentioning some troubles with his legs. This reminded me that, some weeks ago, I had heard that Henry had been through a rough patch with his health. I had never learned what the doctors had told him, so today I asked.
A form of progressive dementia—that was Henry’s diagnosis. Of course he’s afraid. I saw it in his face when he talked about it in a low, quiet voice. He’s retiring this year, because he doesn’t know how long he has before it incapacitates his judgment. But Henry is a fighter. He isn’t the type to creep away, cowed, into the shadows. He’s already making plans for his newly-revised future: where he will live when he can no longer care for himself, how he will bequeath his property.
We talked for most of my lunch break. Not just about the diagnosis, no. Henry didn’t want to dwell on it, and I didn’t want to pry deep enough to hurt him. But thanks to him, I have changed my own diagnosis. I was always, still am, and always will be an introvert. That’s a certainty. What Henry changed for me today was simply this: he reminded me that stories come from people. I’ll always feel swamped by the overabundance of superficial connections I must make and break over the course of a day in the office, but I never want to lose sight of people like Henry. I don’t want to mistake slick customer service transactions for real human contact. If I do, I’ll always want to hide from it. If I hide from people, my imagination will slowly grow more and more anemic, and my stories will be empty shells, mere forms with no substance.