One of the hardships of writing that comes through with writing students is that of wasted time. Whether this comes out in the form of guilt (‘I should have written X amount by now, but I haven’t even started’) or a self assurance which pre-emptively masks that same guilt (‘I just did X amount and it was enjoyable and, to be honest, quite simple. I don’t know why I find it so hard some days’), writing productivity is logically tied to models for personal and professional aspiration. No one ever says, ‘I will waste my day today and it doesn’t matter’, because the notion of waste here already underlines an inherent negativity which comes with producing nothing. And that doesn’t sound too appealing, right?
But what’s the problem? Isn’t it good to make the most out of everything, whatever this may be composed of (travel, day jobs, relationships, breaks, time set aside for writing)? The possible issue with this type of thinking isn’t the ‘everything’ as it is the nebulous standard by which activities are deemed to be ‘productive’ or not. It’s also problematic to think of unhappiness, or just that flat emotional states as some kind of fault in our wiring. Taking a walk outside could be seen as a waste of time if the standard by which I measure such waste is resolving a plot point that I then can’t resolve. I think the main issue here is very much linked to a – sometimes stealthy – politicised kind of logic which links tangible, immediate productivity to success, and productivity to purpose. Our internal equations of time suggest a need to connect the amount of time spent doing something with the magnitude of its success. This logic tells us that if we have nothing to show for our time, then it is wasted. It tells us that the more things we achieve in as little time as possible, the more chances we have of feeling successful. It also gives us a false sense of security in telling us that if we spend years doing something, then it should be better than something rushed. This logic has crept into occupations which at one point in our lives were labelled under the now dirtiest of words – they were ‘hobbies’. For many, playing music becomes a search for rockstardom, making friends turns to networking, and cooking to a comparison to dishes by celebrity chefs or televised amateurs. The labels ‘driven’ and ‘perfectionist’ (a word that is a consequence from a troubling willingness to characterise others as mediocre, as if an imaginary other were okay with imperfections which we – the ‘better ones’ – couldn’t stand) take place to account for these mechanisms in a positive manner. How can we then think of writing as a compassionate act if our practice is based on such self-aggrandising objectives? Sometimes, the most revolutionary action is to break this cycle and just be. Be and do nothing.
This isn’t a call to look for absolute pleasure either, where something is done for the mere sake of doing it. And this isn’t to say that being driven or a so-called perfectionist is inherently negative. But seeing all life through a utilitarian prism will affect how you think about writing because it also affects your relationships to others. In the search for ‘something more’ and ‘something else’, it’s easy to forget to digest the context which has allowed for these things to happen. It may be privilege or pain or the more likely combination of both, but to reflect on why our time should produce success in the first place (and what kind of success, too) is necessary to reorganise our priorities. Not everything is useful. Not everything is inspiring. You don’t have to turn loss to gain. And you really can’t turn all failures into successes. If writing should deal with any kind of truth, it would be that of our limited ability to get what we want. So when you next find yourself panicking over how much you haven’t done and on top of which podium you’d be had you done it, stop and think not so much about your own successes and failures, but of how connected we are in our uncertainties and imperfections, how privileged we are to have them matter to us, and how there’s no such thing wasted time because there is no gained time either. So when you do nothing, commit to it and think.
Gonzalo C. Garcia is a writer and Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in the Warwick Writing Programme. His recent novel, We Are The End is heavily influenced by his marked interest in Santiago de Chile, video games, digital culture and everyday constructions of narrative. It was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Novel Award 2017 and launched in October with Galley Beggar Press.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/