Some Things I've Learned So Far

About a month ago, because I am crazy optimistic, I left a good job and decided to strike out on my own. And apparently one of the things I've been doing, in addition to reading every interview with Geoff Dyer ever published online and sometimes forgetting to get dressed, is figuring some stuff out. Here are some key learnings from the school of "oh fuck what am I doing with my life?": Writing takes longer than I think it does.

I used to think I wrote quickly because I type quickly. I also type a lot. I've written hundreds of thousands of words (probably). But I use very few of them, because ultimately very few of them mean what I want them to mean.

If I had to give a run-down of the process of writing even a simple blog post, it would go something like this:

  1. Read/see/hear/do something
  2. Think something
  3. Write something down
  4. Think something else
  5. Write something else down
  6. Read/see/hear/do something else
  7. Read/see/hear/do something else
  8. Write something else down
  9. Think something else
  10. Write something else down
  11. Read/see/hear/do something else
  12. Think something else
  13. HATE EVERYTHING. DECIDE THIS WAS THE WORST IDEA EVER. Eat some cheese. Drink some cider. Have a fight about the fact that there's no maple syrup in the house and why is maple syrup so hard to get in this backwards country? Throw a fork across the room. Break the washing-up bowl. Watch 12 episodes in a row of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent", even though "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" has to be the worst Law and Order ever, apart from maybe "Law and Order: Los Angeles". That one's pretty bad.
  14. Allow some time to pass (an hour, a week, a year?)
  15. Keep reading/seeing/hearing/doing, even if it doesn't seem relevant
  16. Keep thinking
  17. Edit stuff
  18. Find a few key points, sentences, or quotes
  19. Add some new ideas
  20. Construct a completely new and much stronger piece around those things

So you can see how, even if I can theoretically average about 2,000 words a day, it takes me a long time to write anything. And sometimes I don't even know that something I'm working on is being influenced by what I do, but it nearly always is. So a 1,000-word blog post, say (on the lengthy side, maybe, but not unusual for me) that only appears to take me about two or three hours to write and edit actually took a week, sometimes two. Sometimes it took a year. You never know.

In fact, everything takes longer than I think it does. Going to the doctor. Going to the bank. Writing a piece of copy. Looking things up in the library. Flossing.

Journeys really are "the midwives of thought."*

Sometimes I'm stuck on something and I don't even know it. Almost always, a train journey or a long walk will help. It doesn't fix everything, and it's hard to convince myself sometimes that instead of staring at a screen in the hope that something might happen, I need to get up and do something that appears to be a waste of time, but often that is exactly what I need to do. Sometimes wasting time is the best way to spend time.

I love to cook.

I spent a long time thinking I hated to cook. I avoided the kitchen (Xander has often had to politely ask if I will at least come and sit and chat with him while he makes dinner). I avoided making anything more complicated than avocado on toast. I used to say, and convinced myself that I believed, that the input of energy required to produce a meal was greater than the output was worth.

But actually, I enjoy the process and I enjoy the result and I've been cooking a lot. It makes me feel more human and more constructive, especially when I've spent the day sitting in my study watching pigeons having sex in a tree and reading five essays about David Foster Wallace (is now a bad time to admit that I've never read anything by David Foster Wallace?) and not talking to anyone except to say no to the guy from the WWF who comes by asking for money.

I don't work well in the mornings.

I don't mean to say I can't wake up and function - I can and (mostly, sometimes) do. But I don't think very clearly. Until about 1 or 2 in the afternoon I don't create very well. Prime time for me is between about 3 pm and 9 pm, give or take a few hours.

For about two weeks after I left my job, I fought this, confusingly trying to establish a routine as similar as possible to the one I made a deliberate choice to abandon, trying to fit "work" into the window between 9 am and 6 pm.

And I know I'm far from the first person to have this realisation, but I no longer have to work that way! So sometimes, when all I can concentrate at 10:30 am is the fact that I've been at my desk for an hour and haven't done anything useful yet, I get up and walk away.

*Alain de Botton's phrase, not mine.