Everyone I know has two job titles: the one they get paid to do, and the one they wish they got paid to do. I’m a waitress/writer. My girlfriend is a graphic designer/musician, and my brother is a lighting tech/filmmaker. They do the former to afford the equipment and studio time to do the latter, but as a writer I don’t need to pay for electronics or locations.
Writers don’t really need tools to create their art. A paper and pencil, a laptop, chalk and a pavement, a stick and an expanse of loose dirt; anything can be utilised to put words together. I’m sure it would be nice to write on thick sheets of handmade paper with a Mont Blanc pen engraved with your initials, but a ballpoint and a school jotter work just as well. There is one tool that all writers need. These necessary parts of the writing process – the initial drafts, the typing, the submitting – all cost time. I have to work my day job to pay for this time.
Time is a hard-won tool, but once a writer earns some time they can spend it when they please. Some writers are larks, arriving at their desks before dawn; some are owls and can only work when everyone else is in bed. Some prefer to write just after the lunch rush at their favourite coffee shop. Writers can work at midday or at midnight; at dawn or dusk or only between 3pm and 6pm. Time, once earned, is flexible. Not all creative individuals have this freedom to utilise time however they please. In the main, musicians and filmmakers must collaborate. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – to make a film or record an album entirely solo. Again, time is a tool that creative people cannot work without. We must wait for others to be ready; we must organize our own creative output around our collaborators’ families, day jobs, or other responsibilities. As a writer I rarely collaborate, and so I do not have to pay this time. All I need is a pen, a piece of paper, and a few spare minutes. I do not have to wait for other people to be ready, or for their equipment to be arranged, or for them to get just the right angle or light or tone. I can write as and when I please – excepting my own domestic and financial obligations. As I don’t have children, and share household chores and bills with my girlfriend, these obligations are minimal. All of the time I earn can be used as I choose.
None of this is trying to suggest that writers do not squander time. They frequently do, and I am certainly not exempt from this. If I wanted to hang a picture I would buy a hammer as a tool to help me; similarly when I want to write a novel I earn time. But I don’t wield time as effectively as I might wield a hammer. Every week I work as a waitress to earn enough to buy a little free
time for writing, and then I spend my hard-won Wednesday morning playing silly Facebook games and making unnecessarily complicated plans for lunch. I do not spend all of my precious minutes churning out beautiful, effortless prose and opening acceptance letters from London publishers. Although I work hard to earn time, I do not always take the best care of it. If I did have a Mont Blanc pen engraved with my initials then I’m sure I wouldn’t use it to dig loose hairs out of the drain; if I had thick sheets of handmade paper then I wouldn’t use it to mop up spills. But this is exactly what I’m doing with the only tool I have: time. Spending an hour on social networking websites is like letting decaying grass build up in the blade of my lawnmower.
What is the point in earning time only to waste it?
In writing this essay, I used several tricks to fool myself into feeling productive. I haven’t had my breakfast yet, which is a conscious attempt to feel super-productive and say to myself: ‘Look, you produce work before your day has even begun! Who needs meager foodstuffs when you have the sustenance of words? How wonderfully conscientious you are’. I also have a numb rear end, as I write at the wooden kitchen table and forgot to put a cushion on the chair. Getting up to fetch a cushion would be an admittance that my concentration has waned, so I must suffer the numbness until I have written my final paragraph. And so on.
It’s 9.30am on a Wednesday. My girlfriend is off designing corporate websites to pay for new guitar strings, and my brother is winding wires around his elbows to pay for camera hire. I spent the weekend making cappuccinos for strangers to pay for this time. Writing this essay isn’t as wasteful as playing FarmVille on Facebook, but it’s not improving that car-chase scene in my novel either. I’m going to get some cornflakes and a cushion, and then I am going to spend this time properly.
This essay previously appeared on the PANK blog.