Headcase Balancing Wandering Minds With A Need To Work

Monday through Friday I follow the same commute to work. I’ve done it for over nine years. Yet, occasionally when I pull into my unassigned but clearly designated parking spot, I wonder briefly about my sanity. Shockingly this concern doesn’t stem from the fact that I’ve spent almost a decade in seventh grade-a school year most of us have worked very hard to block from our memories. Instead, my worry is sparked on those mornings when I can’t clearly recall one song I heard on the radio or one traffic light at which I stopped, or paused at least. When the engine turns off, I’m suddenly aware that I spent the last twenty minutes lost in my thoughts, which for me usually means imagining some scene from my latest story or daydreaming about magically bumping into Mr. Right at the meat counter. Yes, the meat counter. I did mention I’ve spent too long working with seventh graders.
Looking past the dangers of driving with one’s head in the clouds, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to take the time to tune out the world and listen to your own musings for a while. It’s a safe way to vent frustrations, play out fantasies, or prepare for unpleasant situations. And, of course, most of my ideas for writing come from letting my mind wander. In fact, when I’m stuck with a scene or can’t think of a topic to blog about for the week, I usually throw on my sneakers and headphones and pound the pavement for a few miles. The monotony of my short stride and overused playlists will eventually force my easily bored brain to come up with something interesting. I think as a writer and someone who has always been a little odd and a little spacey, I can get away with this. Creativity happens in our heads, so spending a little time lost there is crucial.
Unfortunately, productivity requires a different kind of focus. My alter ego – the responsible, driven educator, writer, and homeowner – can’t function well in la-la land. Those little buggers at school actually need attention, as do the litter box, the laundry pile, and the growing collection of dirty dishes in the sink. And those great scenes I’ve mended in my mind will stay in my mind until I put them on paper. It’s easy to forget that while I’m escaping reality, reality isn’t going anywhere. And, frankly, I wouldn’t want it to. Living the life I have, as opposed to living in the worlds I create, is how I learned to be good at the things I’m good at most days-teaching and writing.
Working with people and writing about people require you to actually know a little about people. Growing up, I was trained by the masters in the art of observance and loquaciousness. Yup, Dad and Gram never missed a trick and could, and often did, strike up conversations with strangers in the grocery store. Being young and impressionable, I followed their lead. I lurked in the dining room or upstairs hallway to listen in to every phone conversation my mother ever had. I pretended to fall asleep on Gram’s lap at holidays to catch snippets of “grown up” conversation. And I was never one for headphones-how can you eavesdrop with your ears covered? So, although I probably never grasped the concepts of MYOB or “Don’t talk to strangers,” I developed a curiosity about and comfort with people that have served me well, both in my career and in my passion.
Now that I’m older I sometimes want to escape those “grown up” conversations and wish I truly could nap on Gram’s lap a few hours each afternoon. But living in my head not only makes me a danger on the road and keeps me up at night, it also keeps me from being present for some of the best opportunities to people watch, to observe, and to notice the nuances that will help me understand a student who baffles me or create a character to which my readers can relate. So I’m swearing off headphones at the grocery store and nixing writing or revising during study halls. Beware unsuspecting shoppers and unrestrained talkers: you have just returned to being fodder for my newest novel.

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