Joanna Cohen is a writer in New York. For nine years she worked as a reporter and editor at Sports Illustrated. She’s since made her living in daytime television, most notably earning three Emmy nominations as a scriptwriter for “All My Children.”
When she isn’t coming up with dialogue about evil twins and babies switched at birth, she’s working on TV pilots, revising her debut novel, writing first-person essays for The New York Times and, most important, being a mom.
“Pepperoni.” That’s the shorthand my husband, Evan, and I use to tell one another I’m in the writing zone. Please come back later.
Why do we need such a silly word? Can’t we pause, look up from our computers and simply say we need a few more minutes of solitude to write?
The zone is sacred and elusive. Once you get there, you don’t mess with it. You don’t take time out to be polite. It’s as if you’re possessed, almost high. Some force has overtaken your being, and whatever it is you produce — sentences, songs, jump shots — flows from you exactly as you’d wished, seemingly without effort.
To be jerked out of this state by a ringing phone or car alarm or a question from a well-meaning spouse can be devastating.
It reminds me of a moment from the 2004 Olympics. Four miles from the finish line, a Brazilian marathoner was cruising to a gold medal when a protester darted out of the crowd and pushed him to the curb. Unable to regain his lead, he ended up coming in third.
Okay, maybe it’s not that heart-breaking. But it is maddening, and has led to interactions in my house that go something like this:
Evan enters our bedroom, where I’m typing away.
So what do you want for --
Could you just --
Lemme know when you’re done.
I slam the laptop closed.
To be fair, Evan’s work also involves a lot of writing. He understands the zone and respects it. So if he interrupts me, it’s because he thought I was sending email or surfing the web. Same goes for me.
Neither of us is a mind-reader and we didn’t want to keep having the same fight. We needed a signal, a way to communicate immediately that it wasn’t a good time to approach. We agreed it should be a single word. Simple but memorable. Pepperoni fit the bill.
We came up with this idea shortly after I’d made the career transition from being a journalist who worked in an office to a television writer who worked from home.
I loved doing my job where I lived, mostly because I could set my own hours. I’m an early bird. My best time is between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. I could go straight from my bed to my keyboard, stopping only to pour a cup of coffee, then crank straight through.
Early mornings were when I was most likely to find the zone. The sun would rise, the caffeine would kick in and the pages would fly from my fingers. Evan, a night owl, would either be asleep or I’d see him coming, hit him with a “pepperoni” and he’d let me do my thing. Problem solved.
Until we had a child.
When I was pregnant five years ago, I had visions of peaceful mornings, my baby sleeping by my side as I typed. I imagined she’d slip seamlessly into the routine, cooperative and joyful.
My daughter, Bee, would invariably awaken just as I was hitting my writing stride. I’d call for Evan to come take her. He always did. But it was too late. The moment was gone.
For months, I tried everything I could think of to preserve my precious mornings. I’d put Bee in her bouncy seat on the floor next to my desk, tapping it with my foot as I typed. I’d sit cross-legged on my chair, creating a spot in my lap where she could sleep as I hunched over her to reach the keyboard. Nothing worked.
As I prepared Bee’s bottles, I’d take my frustration out on Evan, who was only doing his best to help me. He sympathized when I ranted about what losing those hours was doing to me. Every time I was about to ride the wave of creativity, it would come crashing down. I’d pop up on the board, pumped and ready, and the lifeguard would blow the whistle and order everyone out of the water.
Evan’s proposal: Go surfing at another time of day.
I found the suggestion outrageous. (Writers can be a little sensitive.) I was supposed to change when I felt most inspired? Perhaps I could also grow another hand so I could type faster.
But then I realized Evan was right. If I lived alone in a log cabin, controlling my schedule would be easy. But I was a new mother, living in modern-day Manhattan.
Renting office space would be too expensive. I wasn’t about to give up writing to become an accountant. And I couldn’t Jedi mind trick my kid into sleeping whenever I needed to work. If I wanted to avoid resenting my family and get back to feeling good about writing, I’d have to change my habits.
The first step was learning to write outside of our apartment. In the beginning, it was tough. Every time I walked into a café, I’d stress over whether it had wifi or if I could get a table near an outlet where I could plug in my computer as it ran low on power.
There were plenty of outlets at my gym, so I tried working in the lounge there. It was like writing in a club — techno music thumping and sweaty, scantily clad people all around me. I found a nice terrace behind a local museum that had free wifi, but no outlets or bathrooms.
I’d walk a mile to my sister’s apartment, which was comfortable, private and had all the necessary equipment. But she works at a school and would come home earlier than I could afford to knock off. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I’d often finish the day on park bench or the steps of a brownstone.
At home in the evenings, I’d complain to Evan about the anxiety-producing work conditions, all the schlepping around and the seven-dollar pots of tea I didn’t want, but kept ordering just to buy me a few more hours at the café. I feared I’d swapped one set of frustrations for another.
But I hung in there — and, in time, discovered I was more adaptable as a writer than I’d thought. I learned to tune out the techno, became friends with the café manager who did his best to reserve an outlet table for me, and found that I actually could produce good work after 10 a.m. Soon I even felt confident enough to tackle another challenge: finding a way to write at home once in a while.
As Bee got older, we began to use the phrase “Mama’s working” and she’d occasionally let me stay behind closed doors while she played with Evan or my sister or a babysitter. Of course, there are plenty of days when she won’t go for it and I’ve ditched the Act Two scene that was finally coming together to make Play-Doh cookies.
But we’re miles from the bouncy seat and 5 a.m. wake-ups. These days I mostly have the pre-dawn hours to myself. Before long, I think Bee might even respond to “pepperoni.”