Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The thief of time

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it is not the work one is supposed to be doing.

Three times this morning I have been out to clear snow from the drive and the car. If I didn’t work from home I wouldn’t be distracted from my deadlines in this way. Except of course I would not at the moment be at any office further than walking distance because the snow has us trapped in. So, you ask, why bother with all this snow-clearing if you can’t use the car anyway? Because I look out my window at the poetic blanket, and my response is an unpoetic Agh, get out of here and the snow is saying, oh yeah, you gonna make me? Also my neighbours are already out, digging in unison as if they were on a rescue mission or a chain gang, and I can’t be seen to let the side down. How can I get into a state of exploratory solitude to the sound of scraping shovels?

Later I know Paula is going to ask me to walk down the hill to the shops with her so I can act as a pack mule for the essentials. (Milk, potatoes – how come we’re only out of the heavy stuff?)  “Ah, but no, I see you’re busy – I’ll do it myself.” She sort of means it too, but she knows I’ll be going with her, just as soon as I’ve finished this.

And why am I doing this right now? This is isn’t work. (When Paula says, “I see you’re busy” she doesn’t mean this. This doesn’t come under her definition of busy. She imagines I’m writing a story for the new collection.) Yes, I know this is writing too, but not work writing; it’s... I don’t know what it is, reaching out, I guess.

Perhaps that’s my problem – too much reaching out, not enough reaching in. For example, I ‘wasted’ the best part of last Friday by going to the northern heat of the Kids’ Lit Quiz, not because I was being paid (I wasn’t) but because the organizers invited me to join an authors’ team that they hoped would add to the buzz of the event. I don’t know whether it did or not, but we authors certainly got a buzz out of licking the opposition (not the kids, the librarians’ team), and out of the infectious enthusiasm of the young people who came from all over the region to join in despite the difficult road conditions.

I enjoyed chatting with the founder and quiz master Wayne Mills, a New Zealander who takes unpaid leave of absence from his senior lecturing job at the University of Auckland  to compere his competition in the UK, Canada, China, South Africa and New Zealand at all the regional and national heats as well as at the World Final. He’s been doing it for twenty years, inspired by clear evidence that his simple, engaging idea has refreshed the motivation to read among the thousands of children who take part. I didn’t ask him if he ever regrets not devoting more attention to his ‘proper job’.

I don’t exactly regret my own distractions, but I sometimes feel guilty about pursuing the more pleasurable diversions, and more often frustrated about letting the mundane or trivial suck at the time I had intended for sustained creative writing. I do recognize that all experience is part of a creative writer’s constant research, that something will be retained osmotically which could well emerge again, suppose it be years later, as a dramatic incident or character, part of a story, an article, even a novel; but I do get bothered by a sense of hours ebbing away without visible production: worthwhile words on a page.

I feel I should try to adopt the approach of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who said, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

Meanwhile I can hear subtle sounds of errand-preparation and contained impatience from downstairs. Outside, the snow has started to fall again, burying the shovel I left lying out in the garden.


  1. Great post David! I completely agree - I waste sooo much more time when I'm 'working' at home. I probably spend more time feeling guilty about not doing what I'm meant to be doing that actually getting on with it!
    Good luck with the errands!
    Tereasa x

  2. Thanks Tereasa. Someone asked me at a talk once, 'What does a writer's job entail?' I had to answer honestly, 'Staring out of the window. Lying on the carpet.' The amount of time actually writing the words down is miniscule. The only thing I can say in my defence is, when I'm staring out of the window I'm rarely seeing what's out of the window. I like to think that's creativity at work. But maybe it means I'm just not very observant.