Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Rhythms in the life of a writer

The lazy days of summer
Barbara here. The first week in September has a special meaning for me, as I think it does for much of the Western World. That is the week when the real work of the year begins again. August is lazy, often hot; businesses operate at half-staff and half-efficiency, tourists flood the streets, and friends and family are posting pictures from Ontario lakes or Scottish castles or Parisian cafes. But the first week of September, I suddenly notice the nip of fall in the air, the tinge of red in the trees, and the swifter descent of night.

For about sixty years of my life, I was governed by the rhythm of the school year, starting at age five when I headed off to my first day of kindergarten. Back in the mists of time, children walked to school, usually accompanied by an older sibling or neighbourhood child, and we didn't carry a backpack worthy of a trek up Mount Everest. We skipped along, trampling lawns and jumping over small privet hedges, our hands free to pluck dandelions.

For the next thirty years, I sat in one class or another, pored over books in the library, and hunched over a typewriter, as I slogged my way up the academic ladder to a PhD. I was a slave to the school year. July and August were months of lightness and relief, September arrived with a thud, and then every week had its own small echo of this. Friday night was a night to celebrate surviving the week, and Sunday night was a night of panic and dread as I faced the looming week of unmet deadlines and unfinished work.

No sooner did I stagger across the finish line with my PhD clutched in my hand than my children began their march through school, and I landed a job as a consulting psychologist for a school board. Once you become a parent, days off become a distant mirage, but even so, there remained a relaxed rhythm to summers and a hectic pattern to school days. Alarm clock, up, wake kids on way to shower, race downstairs pulling clothes over head, breakfast on table, lunches in bags, boots found, jackets, etc. etc. You've packed a full days' work into the morning and you aren't even out the door yet. On days when the driveway needed shovelling, well ...

Throughout the following quarter century, the week was for work (and soccer and ballet and music lessons and and and), while the weekend was for everything else– shopping, cramming in appointments, seeing friends and family, and having fun. Work hung over my head, usually in the form of presentations to be prepared or reports to be written, but generally my non-work life took priority. There was a pervasive sense of "not enough time!" for either work or fun.

During all those years, I was a writer in my "spare" time, driven by a compulsion to tell stories that began when I was a child, and I squeezed out moments of writing time from my already overloaded day. That's why my first novel took over fifteen years to complete. But once it was published in 2000 and I embarked on a new career as a writer in addition to psychologist, I discovered there really were only twenty-four hours in a day and no amount of screaming on my part would change that.

When I retired from psychology, and turned my full attention to writing, I thought I would have all the time in the world. No more September panic or Sunday night despair. Time would spread out before me, mine to fashion and fill as I wished. I discovered the joy of shopping at times when the whole world was not also trying to shop, the joy of navigating the streets at non-rush hour (although increasingly there is no non-rush hour), the joy of scheduling appointments at midday, midweek.

I also discovered that without the imposed rhythm of the work year, it was up to me to impose my own if I wanted to get anything done. Moreoever, to finish a novel at deadline and do all the other writing-related stuff the job requires (like writing this blog, which is late today), I had to put in hours of work every day. Aspiring and beginning writers ask, rather wistfully, how I manage to finish a book a year or so. I do so by writing at least a scene a day, every day. Skip a day, and the story slips away from you. How easily that one day stretches to two or three, and the momentum of the growing story is lost. Writing does not always mean pen to paper– it can mean research, rewriting, scouting out locations– but the story is always in mind, worming around in my brain.

At a book signing at Sunshine Coast Festival in BC
After the story-related writing, which can take three or four hours, mainly in the morning, I have to attend to the other writerly activities like blogging, social media, preparing presentations, planning and travelling to signings and tours and launches, etc. People ask me how I'm enjoying retirement, and I have to tell them I am not retired, I am on a second career. It's a career I love, and one I continue by choice, but it's serious work nonetheless. My life is no longer governed by the rhythms of a regular job. No longer 9 to 5, no longer Monday to Friday, no longer September to June. The leaves still turn in September and the days grow shorter, but now I am just as likely to be hunched over my computer on a Sunday morning or Friday night as any other time.

But I can shop when I like, and make sure I'm home before rush hour. What day is it today, anyway?


Patricia Filteau said...

You captured it!

Eileen Goudge said...

Well said, Barbara. Retirement is for other people. I can't imagine a day when I would quit doing what I love. My problem is that once I start I have a hard time stopping. Wish I had the discipline to stop after writing one scene. I tend to keep going, then there's no time left in the day to do all that other, bothersome stuff.

Donis Casey said...

the ability to time your errands so that you can avoid rush hour traffic is perhaps one of the perks of retirement that I appreciate most.