Put Away the Hourglass

In a recent Radiolab podcast, I learned about how Oliver Sacks overcame his writer’s block back in 1968. He was struggling to complete his first book, Migraine, and eventually reached a point of such desperation that he decided to set himself a deadline. Okay, so that in itself is nothing unusual – most writers try this at some point or another when they’re feeling stuck – but what adds a dash of drama to this scenario is that his was a literal deadline. He told himself that if he didn’t finish the book in 10 days, he’d have to commit suicide.

You might sneer, but Sacks was apparently very serious about it. So serious that he ended up completing the book in 9 days.

It’s doubtful that Sacks was the first writer to use self-bribery as a way of getting the thing done, but considering that this was 44 years ago, it’s possible that he was before his time when it came to the ludicrously short timeframe he set for himself.

The podcast is really great (as Radiolab podcasts always are), and if you want to listen to the rest of it you can do so here. For now though, I’m going to leave Sacks’s rashness behind and dance with this idea of ludicrously short timeframes instead.

Now I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I feel a degree of pressure to write not only prolifically, but quickly. I get the impression that the old saying, ‘To be a writer you must write’ has been reinterpreted as, ‘To prove that you are a writer you must write as much as you can, as fast as you can.’

The pressure doesn’t come from other writers alone, either. It seems to come from everywhere. Friends ask what kind of writing schedule I set for myself, people have questions like, ‘How many words do you usually write per day/per week/per month?’ or ‘How many words have you written on your novel so far?’, as if quantity is everything.

I even found an article recently which talks about the proliferation of ‘productivity’ applications for writers. If you’ll allow me the slight diversion (it’ll slow us up, but hopefully you’ll see the point of it), I’ll describe some of them for you now:

Write or Die is a new iPad application that “forces you to write by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination”. You can set the application to three different levels of strictness. The ‘Normal Mode’ sounds harsh enough – if you stop writing, the application plays an ear-shattering noise until you start again – but in ‘Kamikaze Mode’, if you stop writing for a certain period of time, the despotic thing starts killing off the words you’ve already written.

Then there’s Pomodoro, an application that claims to help you focus and obliterate procrastination. You set a timer for yourself, writing in intervals of say, 25 minutes, with 5 minute breaks in between, sort of like what you might do at the gym.

The next one in line – Written? Kitten! – is a little softer than the others: you set a word goal for yourself, and every time you reach it, you are sent a picture of a kitten. If you’re lucky, you might even get two kittens in a barrel.

Apart from the applications, there’s also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), where participants bust a gut to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. According to the website, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”

Now don’t get ahead of me. I’m not going to say that these things are evil, ridiculous (well, the kitten one is pretty silly) and don’t work for anybody. Of course different techniques work for different people, and you do need to write a lot so that you can sift out the good from the bad. It’s just that the development of these applications shows a sort of social expectation, or social understanding, that these days, writers are supposed to be fast.

I just think it’d be useful to pull back a bit and ask ourselves whether this drive to be prolific Road Runners will help us to produce our best work. As Jenny Diski, the writer of the article on productivity applications, put it, we should “consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head.”

Writing is about daydreaming. It’s about taking a walk. It’s about listening to music. It’s about buying muffins. It’s about eating. It’s about hula-hooping and cleaning out your fridge and watching five X-Files episodes in a row.

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of living,” said the famous diarist, Anaïs Nin.

This isn’t about encouraging laziness, or lack of discipline. It’s simply about reminding ourselves to slow down once in a while. As the great Sir John Cleese said in his talk about creativity, giving yourself plenty of time to meander around different possibilities means that you’re more likely to come up with an original idea than if you had forced yourself to make a quick decision.

It’s an idea that would most definitely be shared by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré. His book, In Praise of Slow, describes a growing resistance to this ‘Cult of Speed’ we seem to be living in, and tells us that we’d all do well to get in touch with our inner tortoise. Just as Carl began to get more enjoyment out of reading bedtime stories to his son by slowing down, perhaps we’d get more enjoyment out of writing if we weren’t always burdened by the sense of time running out.

In the end I think it’s one of those paradoxes, like how exercising actually gives you more energy rather than less. Maybe if we slow down we’d feel like we have more time rather than less. So instead of setting ourselves ludicrously short timeframes to work within like Sacks did, maybe we should be like the Grandpa in the slow lane of the swimming pool. He’s not in any hurry, he’s still doing a good job, and – most importantly – he gets there in the end.

By Sarah Wiecek

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6 thoughts on “Put Away the Hourglass

  1. Nice one! In the end, what reader gives a hoot whether the book their reading took one month or forty years? One great book is worth a googol of crappy ones.

  2. Nice post, and quite refreshing in the slew of advice to write faster, bigger, better… Especially in the preparation stage, you need time to dream in order to write that story. In her second ‘novel’ (memoir), Lola Lafon tells how as a little girl, she asked her father what he was doing, one afternoon where he lay in a hammock, eyes closed. ‘I’m working,’ he replied. ‘I’m dreaming.’ Makes you enjoy more those periods when you can write for hours and live and breathe for your story as well, when you can afford the time…

    • Thanks, Sabine. The slew of advice prompting us to write faster and bigger was what prompted this post to begin with! To me, daydreaming is absolutely integral to my writing, so I can completely relate to the guy in the hammock.

  3. Thanks for this – I really enjoyed it, especially as I’m on a journey to slow down, trust myself and make a go at living from my creativity. I’m so scared it’s ridiculous, scared that my bank account isn’t being filled, scared that I’m not being productive, scared someone is going to laugh at me at the end of it and say ‘I told you so’…now back to the grindstone, but at the same time I’m exotically excited at the prospect of living every moment and writing about it at the same time…

    • The only things you really regret are the risks you didn’t take. It’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. I think there’s wisdom in platitudes sometimes! If you’re feeling scared but excited at the same time, that’s probably a sign that you’re doing the right thing. And if anybody sees fit to laugh at you for following your heart, you can see fit to show them the door. Best of luck, Catie.

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