With 87 kph winds currently howling through our valley, telephone and internet connections are intermittent. All of us who depend on the web for work are thrown back and forth between a flurry of activity while the connection lasts, and a kind of restless lethargy when it goes off again. Something doesn’t feel right; it’s as though our world comes in and out of focus without our own volition.
And it’s true that something isn’t quite right when work determines the day so powerfully. A prolonged bout of poor health recently obliged me to lie on the sofa for a full day with a fever, devouring the entire Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Turning the last page I was almost completely recovered. I had become ill because of working too hard, rushing about without achieving very much, but it was more the speed with which I was working – not unlike a squirrel frantically storing hazelnuts for a winter that is always immanent – that brought on the illness.
So, taking off a glorious week to lie in bed, read novels again after what seems like eons, crochet water bottle carriers, and potter about in my garden with cuttings and seeds, I’ve been reflecting on how I can square my desire to achieve with my need for a sane pace.
One of the less stressful things I’ve been working on is a writing group for mums, complete with breastfeeding babies, scattered popcorn, felt pens and potties. We get a surprising amount done in the space of an hour and a half, despite all the interruptions; my theory is that mothers have such a compressed urge to write that when they get half the chance it explodes out, filling a very limited period of time as well as an ordinary writer would struggle to fill a whole morning.
The output is pithy, full of ideas that could later be explored and extended…once the last load of laundry is done and the kids are asleep and the dishes…oh, never mind.
This is the knot I’ve always got myself into with my writerly commitments: I add up all the ‘work’ I do – paid, house, garden, shopping, ferrying around kids, remedying ailments, conflict resolution, advising on deep philosophical dilemmas for small children such as how the sky stays up, etc. – and the time left over for anything I wish to do by myself is as small as a microchip in the neck of the hulking St. Bernard of my day.
So I think: “Well, I can always sleep another time! Like, when I’m dead!” And I stay up until 3am writing at a pace I’d usually reserve for fleeiing dangerous criminals chasing me with nunchucks. Then the predictable results the next day of rattiness, poor communication, conflict creation instead of resolution, bad answers to philosophical dilemmas (such as “You’re giving me a headache”), no laundry done for days, no clean dishes, cat food casserole after food was chosen badly in the supermarket due to eyes being half-open, etc. etc. etc.
There are a few ways to deal with this equation, as far as I can see.
1) Don’t write anything until the children have left home. By this time you may be rocking in a padded cell in Belmarsh, but this will only make your magnus opus more sellable after your death. Everyone loves an insane, dead writer.
2) Miraculously get a publisher to pay you to write, thus converting your funnest activity into your paid work and inserting it into the list of daily jobs, rather than adding to it. (This is the part I am stuck on. Most publishers want to see a finished piece, which is currently impossible to achieve – see above.)
3) Trickle along, catching half an hour here and there to write something which you have no time to edit, which is incidentally great training for writing well the first time around. This process is MUCH easier in company; it’s as if you are in a hall of mirrors and the luminosity generated by focusing your attention on a creative stream is reflected back, multiplied. Thus the benefits of a writing group (see my previous post Creativity Catalysts).
There is another possibility, which is tied to b), that of winning a short story competition, and thus bringing your talent to the attention of readers and publishers and judges, hopefully facilitating the book deal. But first prizes don’t always respond to genuinely great stories; often it has more to do with trends (ugh, the word alone makes me cringe) and the internal politics of publishing, i.e. what will sell.
But the point of writing isn’t to win anything, if we really come down to it. It’s about being right there in the writing, in the moment, lost to everything else for a while. The day I spent reading about the wizard of Earthsea I realised that my ego had been out on a long, fine rope all that time, while I was engrossed in the story. I wasn’t analysing the metanarrative or memorising facts, as I would be with non-fiction or news. I wasn’t planning, or remembering, or critiquing. There was nothing but the story playing out in my consciousness.
And the experience isn’t so different with writing. While the editorial, critical mind is out of the way, and the subconscious blooms out of its usual hiding places, none of the trivial worries of the world matter – for a time.
Two things have come out of these past weeks for me. One is that reading fiction is not some idle luxury for people who don’t have anything else to do. It can be a genuine healing for people who have a hard time making time to rest, and whose minds are usually chattering too hard and too loud to listen to the need to do so.
The other is that work itself is not a mode we switch into at will, switching it off at the end of the day, the way my internet is doing at the moment. We don’t put our minds into suspended animation when we clock off, nor do we put our souls on ice when we clock on. Work and living are enmeshed so deeply that it turns us into temporary automata to try and separate them. As Khalil Gibran once said, ‘Work is love made visible’.
We can work restfully, and live purposefully, and the seams between the two can fade to faint topographical lines on the maps we live on. And we can try, if at all possible, not devote any of our creative energy to the fantasy of that miracle occurring, the one with the book deal, and the cleaner, and the entire day to write…for if it did happen, would the writing be such a sweet release?