I have fallen out of time. At least, that’s how it feels. This morning was just too slippery to get a grip on. I went to put some clothes away, leaned down to pat my cats who were sleeping on the bed and woke up an hour later. I think I pottered in the garden for a bit, tidied up inside, but now it’s almost lunch time and I’m still drinking my breakfast coffee. A hangover is partly to blame. But only partly. I’ve also crashed. My brain took one look at the book review that needs writing, the article pitches that need formulating and the frankenmonster of a manuscript that needs editing and was like, ‘not today, lady’. Part of me wants to tell my brain to suck it up and get on with it, but another part—the more reasonable part—wants to lie in the backyard and sleep and read away the afternoon. That probably sounds like an incredibly indulgent and lazy way to spend a Thursday. But over the last few weeks I’ve fallen into the ‘busy trap’.
Our culture has an obsession with being busy. Stress has become something to be proud of. It’s a competition. How many times have you asked someone how they’re doing only to have them reply (in a tone that implies they deserve a medal), ‘Busy. Crazy busy.’? To be fair, life is speeding up. Thanks to the internet, we no longer have the wider world delivered to us in static form—the morning paper, the evening news hour—instead, it’s streaming live, twenty-four seven in our newsfeeds. Often, before we’ve even processed an event, it’s been superseded by thirty fresh stories. And between the news, the cat memes and the ‘which celebrity ice bucket challenge are you?’ quizzes, we get updates on what our friends are doing. One one level, I love this. That the internet has decentralised news and created a forum for open and public debate is more or less a good thing. It’s certainly better than sitting alone in your living room and being read the news by one news anchor. And as someone who moved cities a few years ago, I love being able to see what my friends are up to. For me, social media hasn’t replaced fact-to-face time; it allows me to check in with my friends when I can’t see them and actually strengthens those friendships. I’ve always been phone shy. My parents, my husband and my best friend are the only people I have ever willingly called. It’s practically a phobia. Even before Facebook, I’d never call a friend just to recommend a book or a film, but now I can tag them in a post about it. We can have these little ‘I’m thinking of you’ moments that weren’t possible before, and they add to rather than replace IRL interactions.
That said, we’re living in a time when we unlock our phone or open our laptop and the whole world comes at us. We can check in on our friends, but what we see has been carefully selected and filtered. We upload our best selves to create narratives of glamour and success. Even the dull moments and the hard days can become beautiful when viewed through certain filters. So this great technology that we have is a double edged sword. There’s pressure not only to contribute, but to contribute in a way that’s interesting and clever and glamorous. The narrative of our newsfeeds tells us that if we’re going to keep up, we need to be out there doing things. Contributing. Succeeding. I feel like a git if I’m still kicking around in my dressing gown at 10am on a Saturday morning when I see that another friend has already written 5,000 words since sunrise, another has smashed out an 80km bike ride and another has found some new tucked away cafe that does the most incredible vegan brekky and all the waiters only speak in improvised beat poems. And that’s just my friends. There’s also the real news. Obviously we can’t do everything and we can’t fix all the problems, but to not be in action feels wrong. I have to take the things that are important to me and do them to the best of my ability. Always.
Everyone experiences this to a degree, but I think for freelancers it’s worse because we’re never done. There is always work to be doing and if you don’t have work to do, you’re trying to drum up more. There’s no set work hours and no boss saying, you’ve done enough, go home. As a writer, I’m aware that no piece is ever really finished. I can always redraft it. It can always be better. If it weren’t for deadlines, I’d never send anything out.
So this past fortnight, I really embraced the #cantstopwontstop attitude of my generation. I was all like: ‘I can totally finish a draft of my novel ten days early, mark three classes’ assignments, take an interstate day trip to tutor, live it up at the Melbourne Writers Festival and keep up with my day job. No sweat.’ Maybe for some of you that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but I like sleep and for me it was too much. At some point you have to throttle back, at least for a little while.
I saw Meg Wolitzer(!) at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Saturday. She spoke about her book, The Interestings, which (among other things) looks at how we measure success, and one of the things that she said which stuck with me was ‘don’t keep taking your pulse all the time’. Her protagonist in The Interestings might be very happy with her lot if she didn’t constantly compare her successes with those of her friends. There will always be someone doing better than you, so how can you ever be content when you go looking for validation somewhere other than inside yourself? It’s not a new idea, by any means, but I think Wolitzer teases it out better than most in her book. She’s also pretty blunt about the fact that the playing field is anything but even, so trying to measure your success or productivity is really just a distraction from doing the work. At another MWF session last night a group of us discussed this specifically in relation to output. There’s a lot of pressure for writers to produce sparkling content in a very short space of time, and some do this very well. Others (like myself) are better suited to longer projects and it’s a trap—a distraction—to get caught up reading this stuff and thinking ‘I can’t produce pieces that fast or that big’. It’s apples and oranges.
With all of that in mind, I’m taking some time and not feeling guilty about it. I know I’ll write a much better second draft of my book if I let it sit for a few weeks and take my head completely out of that space. I know there’s no point in pitching articles for the sake of more work and that it’s better to pitch occasional stories that you’re excited about rather than a whole lot of half-baked ideas that you’re really only putting out there for the sake of your portfolio. And I know that sleep and moodling—pottering in the garden, taking walks, jotting down fragments that you’ll never show anyone, reading—are a really important part of the creative process, at least for me. I don’t write well when I’m exhausted and spreading myself too thin and ideas don’t appear in my head fully formed; I have to take the time to seek them out.
So here’s to taking the time to be deliberately unintersting and unbusy, to sitting out a round every now and then and to not feeling guilty about it.