We all have things in our daily lives that drive us nuts. One of mine is meetings. During my workweek, I can sometimes spend up to twenty hours sitting in a conference room, rehashing the same old issues again and again and again.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind a productive meeting. If there’s a problem to solve at work, I’m happy to sit in a room with the right group of people and solve it. If there’s an idea about how to do something better, then let’s get together and talk about it. But put me in those endless policy or committee meetings where “broken record” would be the best description of the conversation if half the people in the room weren’t too young to remember what a record was, and I start to climb the walls.
I’ve never been known for keeping quiet when something irks me. My poor former boss was subjected to a daily dose of sarcasm from me about the amount of time we had to spend staring at the same people across conference room tables. He was a good boss and a patient man, and would try to tell me that these endless sessions were necessary.
But when we were in them, he spent most of his time fiddling with his laptop or phone, answering the barrage of emails that wouldn’t quit coming just because we were indisposed. I used to entertain myself by waiting until someone had made a point or asked a question, and then I’d look at him and say “what do you think?”
His startled look and “huh?” was always priceless. That’s probably because I’m a jerk. But I think it proved my point that when he said “necessary,” what he really meant was “necessary evil.”
For all my complaining, the meetings just keep coming. They are as much a part of the culture where I work as dress codes and staying late to prove you are dedicated.
When you can’t change something, you either have to learn to deal with it or let it drive you crazy. For me, that means making something irksome fit into my life as a writer. One of my big problems with meetings that end with no resolution other than “we’ll schedule another meeting” is that I sit there and stew over how I’m never going to get these hours of my life back, and they would have been better spent doing something “writerly.”
Recently, it dawned on me that in a world where “multitasking” is considered a good thing, I might as well go with the flow. In most of these meetings, everyone else is secretly checking their messages, making to-do or grocery lists, or daydreaming. I turn them into a writing exercise.
For any other writers who also keep a roof over their heads by posing as office drones, here’s how I use a meeting to flex my creative muscles:
– Pick one person in the room. Study their appearance, body language and facial expressions. Write what you see as if you were describing a character.
– “Type” the people in the room. Maybe there’s that one guy who gets flustered and red-faced over everything, who raises his voice and cuts off other speakers. Then there’s the smiling, agreeable mouse who affirms what everyone says with a nod. There’s the guy trying to hide his laughter over the absurdity of it all behind his hand, and the girl who is determined to be heard. In the far corner, there’s the guy who was out too late last night and can’t stop nodding off. Meetings can be a great place to snooze off a hangover.
Once you’ve got them “typed,” put them in another situation in your mind. What would these people do if they were all trapped in the same shelter during a hurricane or blizzard? How would they act if they were all in a bank and it got robbed? Would they get along if they were neighbors in an apartment complex? What if they were all drunk in a bar together, or given a winning lotto ticket and told they had to split it?
At best, you’ll be inspired with a new story. At worst, you’ll entertain the hell out of yourself.
– Take snippets of conversation and jot them down word-for-word. Take them with you to ponder later. Do the same thing with these as you did your character types – apply them to a different situation.
She said “We need more buy-in to move forward with that.”
He said “But we won’t be able to get that until we demo the product.” Yawwwwn, at least if you’re talking about office drivel. But take the words away and use them to open up an entirely new situation, and who knows what you’ll get?
I won’t lie and say these exercises have me looking forward to meeting drudgery. But they do help. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When work gives you meetings, make words. I don’t try to do any “serious” writing this way, since I do need to pay attention to what’s going on and true story-weaving requires full focus. I just use the time to gather ideas and play with scenarios. Call it a writer’s stretching exercise. The best part of it all is that if you’re scribbling furiously in your notebook and looking serious, others will think you’re just taking notes.
I’m sure that other writers do similar types of multi-tasking. Do you eavesdrop in store lines, hoping to hear something absurd that will spark an idea? Do you work through plots in your head while scrubbing the toilet? Do share.