The other day I said I’d go and meet H at 1230. We arranged this a couple of hours earlier. There was no fixed reason why 1230, other than I thought it would be a good time, and I’d be hungry for lunch.
When the time came around, I was not quite finished what I was working on, or had done the chores I’d wanted to do–reactivate my library card, borrow Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense–but the 1230 deadline loomed over me to the point where I began to get uptight about it. H was going nowhere. She was in her studio making stuff. There was nothing we had to be at or go to afterwards. 1230 was not precious. And yet I’d made it so–a strict appointment that it would be awful to miss.
For some reason, that day, I began to question why this was. Perhaps because we’d talked earlier in the week about what irked us more, someone being late or someone running an event, giving a talk, etc, overunning at the end into your time. (Note: for me, the latter.) Or perhaps it was because we’d set the time to meet only two hours ahead, and so its complete arbitrariness was more apparent. But essentially it dawned on me, as it has not before, that this was an ingrained pattern, nothing to do with my conscious or rational understanding of what in fact was in front of us. It was something highly emotional, charged, and hidden. That is: something from my childhood.
Following my parents’ divorce in 1977, the alimony settlement had an agreement that we–my sister and I–would go visit our father between 10am and 6pm on a Saturday. For reasons unknown to us then (the not unfriendly but obviously strained relations between mum and dad) these times were strictly adhered to. We had to be ready to go at 10am. We had to be back at 6pm–even when this, as I’ve lamented elsewhere–interrupted our favourite TV shows of the 1980s (Knight Rider, The A-Team). Our dad was a fast driver–often too fast, particularly after an afternoon of drinking–but he could never make it from his to ours (mum’s was always ‘home’) in just the advert break.
Time at our father’s house, with him and our stepmum Pauline, felt always strictly managed. We were not allowed, or never felt comfortable, simply getting up and helping ourselves to drinks, food, or doing what we wanted. On the one week in four that we stayed over, we never felt able to get out of the bunk beds and help ourselves to breakfast or TV until dad and Pauline were up and awake. The house was not ours. We were guests, but not even that welcome. And so my relationship to time, to strict specific times at which things must happen, became loaded with this fear, this rigidity of being at the control of others.
It struck me–as I fast-walked to the library to reactive the card–that this fear of shifting rigid agreed times permeated all my relationships with time. And who isn’t interested in time, as the author David Mitchell asks in David Naimon’s excellent Between the Covers podcast, talking about his novel The Bone Clocks, which takes as its subject time itself. We are in it, he says, like fish in water. We live in it. We all have a relationship to time. Recently a writer friend of mine explained how her then-fiancee, thinking perhaps of her arrival at the wedding, instructed his soon-to-be wife that her regular lateness to meet people was incredibly rude, and that she needed to work on her own timeliness.
I wonder how it has gone for her, in terms of her writing. Because I soon came to think about this in terms of my writing, both practice and content.
How does this rigidity towards time affect my writing practice? I am working on a new novel at the moment. And I am fighting–it often feels like a fight–with life to maintain the discipline of my practice. This mainly consists of getting up at 5am (not as early as Murakami, but hey) and writing for an hour or a thousand words before the rest of the day kicks in. On some days, free days, I go on and write more, but on paid-working days then it’s about all I get. But it’s important, it’s the most important part of the day. And it means I am always in the novel, keeping close to its world (and far away from this one) for those fuzzy dawns, when the mind is still numinous, and the writing often flows without interruption.
It’s a discipline. Or perhaps it is more like, as Dani Shapiro says in Still Writing, her book on the craft, a ‘rhythm’ we find with our work. Hers is ‘three pages a day, five days a week’. For her, rhythm is ‘a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work’ (101). Rather than being disciplined, rhythm allows for ‘play in this thing that I am doing […] There is joy–rather than industry–in putting pen to paper’ (104).
In this context, my ability to be disciplined in relation to time is positive, that makes the habit work, that allows me to find some rhythm. And yet to be too scrutinizing of the time means it is more difficult for me to lose myself in that time. To swim and dive down and come back up gasping for air, as she puts it in another metaphor of the craft. And I think this expresses itself more clearly in the form of thinking I cannot write at other times, in the evening for example, although it is palpably false–I can and often do. What this tells me, however, is that I have continued to introject all those strict adherences to set times that dominated my childhood especially those connected to the person whom I loved most and was most fearful of: my father. And I think this reveals itself even more strongly in the content of what I write.
Another section of Shapiro’s book: that when talking to a novice novelist friend of hers, she notices that the thing holding back her friend–a successful journalist, someone who negotiates the office and world of work very well–is her outline of the novel. Of where it’s going. In life outside of creative pratice, outlines, plans, and structures work well. But in the creative life, argues Shapiro (and of course this is not an original argument) the outline of the novel can be your worst enemy.
‘Outlines offer us an illusion that we are in control, that we know where we’re going. And while this may be comforting, it is also antithetical to the process of making work that lives and breathes,’ she says (114). We don’t need GPS. We need ‘Doctorow’s fog’ where we know where we are heading, but make the way there driving along a road at night where all we can see is the few yards in front of us. And we get there.
David Mitchell had to change plans on The Bone Clocks. He originally planned to structure the book around a chapter for each year of his protagonist’s life. It didn’t work. It was dull. So he compromised and wrote six connected novellas. Even this was not what he planned–he aimed for seven.
That is: structure changes. It can be necessary for scaffolding, but until you begin writing, and until you are many months into the writing, the structure your work cannot be known. It’s only when we throw away our illusion of control, slough it off, that the architecture of the book, says Shapiro, begins to whisper to us.
And this is where this learnt rigidity to time, and time as it is manifest in plans and structure of lives, affects my writing. I am a planner. This is ingrained in me. I will not be late. I do not overrun. I do not, as Shapiro says we must, quoting Jorie Graham, let my ‘mind make mistakes’. These mistakes, though, are the writing. And they are the life, too. As Shapiro puts it, ‘This is not just advice about writing, but about life itself’ (116). The actions and events–the plot summary, the outline–aren’t really the story. The story is the people. You need to write the characters, know them, be invested in them, and out of this comes your plot, the actions you use to show their characters change.
I know all this. I’ve taught this. And yet to let go of control, of rigid plans, is difficult for me. For many of us. To lose track of time. To not worry about future responsibiities. To not fear some sort of retribution, anger, disloyalty or defeat for being late, for not having a plan (for writing, for the weekend, for my relationships, for life) and to simply see what turns up. Let the mind flow. Let it make mistakes.
Finding my own rhythm
Difficult, but not impossible. I have begun to do this, and am finding my own rhythm. I am using discipline well to give space for the mind not to be too worried about the rest of the (real) world. I am loosening the grip of the plan on this novel. Seeing it emerge, slowly, from out of the plan, turning into something that I had a shape for, but did not know exactly what would emerge. It is the advice of Marion Milner, again: that we need to be able to sit long enough to allow something to emerge between the thing we imagined and how it might actually be in the world, and be free of the need to control it for long enough to let it take shape. As Shapiro summarizes: ‘It may not be what you expected. It may not even be what you hoped for. But it will be yours’ (117).
Image of watches in jar (cc) Mbg Rigby