Waiting Room

Waiting Room

Ruth E. Walker

As I write this, I’m at a local hospital playing the Waiting Game. My husband is undergoing surgery, a relatively routine repair of a long-standing issue. And I’m going to sit in this less-than-comfortable chair in a busy waiting room until he’s out of the OR, through recovery and on his way to a bed upstairs or, better yet, home.

So what’s a writer to do when the minute hand ticks by with the speed of a dripping faucet. A very slow dripping faucet.

I could write

There’s lots of ambient noise and I read recently that white noise was an important factor for many writers. My friend Rabindranath Maharaj worked on several of his novels in coffee shops. A Globe & Mail article cites a 2012 paper by researchers at the University of British Columbia describing the creative benefits of working in certain noisy settings. They found that in the buzz of low-level noises, our brains can easily shift into broader thinking, a useful tool for developing concepts or brainstorming.

So, I should be writing. Let all this hubbub and Paging Nurse White and Code Blue 3rd Floor murmur in the background as I map out the Next Great Novel. I should be writing. But I can’t because I worked in a hospital years ago and I know what those announcements mean. Too distracting despite being a useful tool and all that.

I could read

The second-best thing for a writer to do–if you can’t write, well then, you should read. I have a book with me, Louise Penny‘s StillĀ Life. Even though last night I reluctantly put it down to turn out the light, here, in this waiting room, I’ve read the same page three times. Even great writing can’t hold me.

There’s a few well-worn magazines over in the corner. I could put my gloves back on (germs, don’t you know) and pick up a gossip publication and distract myself with movie news about who’s getting divorced, married, a film deal, and so on. But as I said. I’ve worked in a hospital. I know what those announcements mean. I’d just get to the interesting part about how some little-known actor finally gets the part she’s been waiting for and…Code Blue.

I also know what the look on that surgical nurse’s face means, too. She’s delivering difficult news to the couple across from me. It’s not the worst news–they don’t do that in the waiting room, that’s done behind closed doors. But somebody’s surgery is not as routine as they thought. So it puts my dripping faucet timeline into perspective.

I could go for a coffee

The cafeteria is just down the hall and around the corner. But if I leave, I’d miss watching the screen of the Family Tracking monitor showing where patients are in the process. For privacy, each patient is given a number and a rolling scroll of those numbers is colour-coded depending on their progress. I’m watching for the number that is my husband to move from In OR green into the next colour, purple PostOp.

So clearly, I can’t go for a coffee because I’d miss the change. And change is good when the clock ticks like a…well, you know.

Open my eyes

So this writer is going to do the only thing she can: watch. At an Andrew Pyper workshop some years ago, I recall his referring to a useful kind of watching for writers are “reportage” observations. Without emotion, observe. Focus on details but don’t attach those details to motivation. Be specific but don’t speculate.

It’s surprising how tough that actually is for me. I’m naturally a “speculator”, wondering about the possible reasons for any given behaviour that catches my focus. Thinking about second thoughts, hesitations, determinations. It’s what drives a lot of my writing. The ever-nagging why.

But with Pyper’s reportage, it is this…an older woman in a red puffy jacket pushes a large navy blue stroller down the hall toward the cafeteria. The little girl in the stroller is asleep, her round face, closed eyes and wisp of black hair just visible above the side of the stroller. They pass an orderly in pale blue scrubs pushing a stainless steel cart, the wheels squealing as he saunters by in the opposite direction. The little girl wakes and begins to scream.

These descriptions are to be tucked away and pulled out later. Perhaps to add some verisimilitude to a scene, drop in a touch of “the real” to ground a narrative.

Old habits…

Of course, I can’t do that very well either. And it has nothing to do with the colour coding on the Family Tracking monitor. It has everything to do with that little girl’s scream. What horror did that squealing wheel awaken in her? Could she be possessed? Is she reliving a trauma? Did the orderly secretly kick the stroller to waken the baby and distract us all from some nefarious scheme unfolding a few doors away?

It appears perhaps I do need a certain amount of noise to trigger some broad thinking. Especially when my attention is so keenly focussed elsewhere. If nothing else, the clock’s slow progress is forgotten for a few seconds.

And look. There it is. The patient number that means the world to me has moved into a new colour: Recovery Room orange. And the doc says he can come home today, after all.

Be a writer, after all

So, the takeaway for me in all of this? Earlier, I said the only thing I could do is “watch” a la Andrew Pyper’s reportage approach. Well, clearly, I also can write in a distracting environment and the evidence of that is this blog post.

Though truthfully, I’d not want to be sitting here again anytime soon. Instead, I’ll head to a coffee shop or hotel lobby or shopping mall to get my distraction fix.

How about you? Can you write anywhere? Or, like some writers, do you need absolute silence in a pristine setting?

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8 thoughts on “Waiting Room

  1. I’ve always been a patient person, playing the waiting game in hospital waiting rooms. Like you and other Writescape followers, I also worked in a hospital setting. My first manuscript includes appreciation for caregivers post-op, and discharge home. Whatever the circumstances our writers’ eyes, ears and heart all absorb tidbits of what’s going on around us, wherever we may be. I too carry a notebook and pen and sometimes create a memo in my phone for future reference. All of the gems we store in our in our subconscious spill out when we need them. Write On! so glad for you and hubby.

    1. Ah, thanks for those kind words, Sherry. Indeed, the memory muscle of writers is powerful. Bits of our lives, conscious or subconscious, will always find ways to surface in our creative work. As to carry notebooks & pens — I’ve got more than my fair share of “napkin novel bits” and “empty envelope poetry” for those times a notebook is not handy. I’ve not quite achieved phone memo skills yet, but will let you inspire me to try it next time the notebook stays at home and something is observed that needs to be recorded.

  2. For me it’s airports, I love to write at the airport, in the plane, at a hotel on a travel day. But hospitals are not for me, even thought I never worked in one. The pain, worry, fear and smells distract me, usually my worry and fear. I like the idea of becoming an observer writer, but I hope I won’t have to put it to use any time soon.

    1. Thank Rose for sharing. Maybe because I worked for a dozen years in hospitals, the atmosphere interferes less with my brain and emotions. (at one point my office was next to the morgue, so I learned early to get past those uncomfortable feelings.) But being the observer, using reportage as a tool, doesn’t need to restrict itself to unpleasant locations. The more often you do it, the more natural it becomes. Try it next time you’re alone and stationary in a busy location.

  3. I loved your article and learned a new word (verisimilitude). I recently noodled a story in my head on the GO Train. When I arrived early at the Toronto Hospital. I bought a small notebook, pen, and coffee and wrote the musings from my head into black and white, to be completed when I arrived home.
    Now the small notebook and pen are permanently residing in the purse, waiting for my next distracted inspiration.

    1. Hi Lynda. I hesitated on verisimilitude (mostly because spelling it is a challenge so I had to double check it) but it seemed the best fit for what I was trying to convey. Glad you liked the post and I love that you have that notebook and pen permanently at hand. That’s an unmistakable mark of a writer.

  4. Hi Ruth. Loved this piece. I can certainly relate. I usually get immersed in a book and block out the noise. I will try the observation technique next time.
    Irene šŸ¤—

    1. Thanks Irene. Hope you find the reportage approach useful. But you don’t need to wait for a hospital waiting room or doctor’s office to try it. Like any writer’s tool, the more you use it the more natural it becomes.

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