What toast and shipwrecks have to do with getting work done

The other day, or maybe this morning, I sat down to work - not, as it happened, for a client, but for myself. A month in to my freelance life, I am finally able to give myself permission to call the act of sitting at my desk and looking out at my overgrown garden and typing (or not typing) things "work", even though it feels more like "fun", like "skiving," even. I was eating toast, and it occurred to me that as long as I was eating toast, I was under no obligation to work. It was like when I would bring a sandwich up to my desk at the office and eat lunch over my laptop. I could still check emails and re-load websites and report bugs, but because I was on my lunch hour, it was not necessary to do these things. If my mind began to wander and I found myself adding a dozen books to my Amazon wishlist, that was okay. So the other day, or this morning, eating my toast, I decided to browse the internet for awhile. That's not true, of course: no one decides to "browse the internet". What I decided to do was look at my Google Reader. Which inevitably led me to open five or six new tabs - things, I told myself, I was, or should be, interested in, essays about the decline of culture or the rise of intellectualism, sparse hipster prose bemoaning the state of politics, erudite descriptions of scenes from some cop drama or other. I kept chewing on my toast, but none of these things seemed like the sort of thing I wanted to read over breakfast; they were the sorts of things you had to concentrate on. I was eating toast; the whole point of eating toast was that for the period of eating it, I did not have to concentrate if I didn't want to concentrate, and I didn't want to concentrate. I hadn't even had a second cup of coffee or a first cup of tea.

I looked at Twitter. Incidentally, I also finished my toast, but as I was now determined to find something lighthearted enough to be an appropriate accompaniment to toast, I decided that I was still not obliged to do any actual work, and that, in fact, the only thing I was obliged to do was to continue to take advantage of my lack of obligation.

On Twitter people were mostly saying "good morning", as if announcing their presence validated their existence; or was it the other way round, was it that their existence validated the act of announcing their presence? But some people were also posting links to things. I have to click on links to things because I'm paranoid I might miss something. I hate being out of the loop, which is unfortunate because I'm nearly always out of the loop, mostly because I don't know what loop, exactly, I want to be "in". My attention is spread too thinly, in other words. Anyway, usually I'm not missing anything, but a few of the links were interesting enough, a few of them were, as it were, worth clicking. For instance, I found a photo essay on shipwrecks, with which I am visually fascinated. I have no compulsion whatsoever to find anything out about them, but I could look at photographs of them for hours, enjoying the sensation of vertigo I get when I see a dead ship still half-floating on the water, or "dash'd all to pieces" on the shore.

Having spent ten minutes or so considering how simultaneously beautiful and futile all human endeavors are (we build these, ships, these great big ships, and then we can't even stop them running aground, perishing, rusting, disintegrating!), I felt appropriately morose. I decided I was ready to tackle some of the other open tabs, the longer essays, the things that might make me mad, or might at least make me think. One of them, as it turns out, was this piece by Dani Shapiro. As soon as I started reading it, I knew I would finish it. I must say, I'm very good at predicting whether or not I'm going to finish a piece of writing. And of course, as soon as I realised I was going to not only finish it but also enjoy it, I wanted to know how I had come across it. Had someone I know tweeted about it, or linked to it in a blog post? Had it been referenced elsewhere? Had I even meant to click on it? Maybe my hand had slipped and I had accidentally tapped a link I hadn't even noticed. Discovering exactly how it had come to be open in my browser began to obsess me (though not enough to try to retrace my steps): what was the path between toast and this moment?

I came, eventually, to this:

And so I googled Beidermeier. The first thing I discovered is that I was spelling it incorrectly. The i comes before the e. Biedermeier. Next, I found myself on the website of an antiques dealer in Paris. Lovely stuff. Unaffordable. Which reminded me that I hadn’t paid the deposit for my son’s summer camp. I clicked away from the antiques dealer and onto the camp’s website. I filled out all the forms—this took about twenty minutes, and involved going through my iphoto folder to download a recent photograph of my son, which led me to relive this past year, our trips and dinner parties and weekend visitors, our bike rides and hikes and visits with his cousins—until I finally typed in the credit card number and enrolled him in camp for the month of July. Which led me to be worried about how we’re going to afford to send him to camp, to private school, hell, to college, even though he’s only in the sixth grade. I reflexively checked Twitter. I hardly even knew I was doing it. I had forgotten to respond to that person who DM’d me. And while I was on Twitter, I figured I might as well tweet.

That was exactly my path, too, I realized: that was exactly how I had come to be reading this essay. For a moment I despaired, though the essay is not despairing in tone: how could I ever write anything if I spend all my days as an amnesiac, wandering through the forest of curiosities, marveling at everything, discovering and rediscovering, but unable to remember what I had set out to do in the first place? If my sense of purpose morphed with every new sentence consumed or photograph viewed, how could I ever devote the proper amount of time to any one project?

I decided not to look at the rest of the open tabs, and not to make myself a cup of tea to justify another two-hour lacuna (tea, as opposed to coffee, signifies a break, a mental space in which, as with toast, you're not obliged to do anything you don't, on a whim, decide you want to do). I decided to write about my despair and my curiosity.

So I sat down and began to write about this. I wrote for some time - an hour, maybe, or two, or three. It hardly matters; what matters is that during that hour or three I did not click on anything else, I had no compulsion to tweet, or find out via Facebook which of my college acquaintances has recently got engaged, or look online for the right pair of black leather heeled ankle boots, or play with Google maps, planning out the perfect round-the-world route. And then, eventually, I had a small essay.

That is to say, I had, inadvertantly, without meaning to (in fact, meaning to do quite the opposite), done some work. The quality of work is irrelevant: that is the other thing I am teaching myself to do, along with calling it "work". I am teaching myself not to care if, at the end of the day, all I have produced is a small essay that may or may not leave any lasting impact on anybody, even myself. And the way I do this - which may be different from the way you do this, or the way he does it, or she does it - is by treating each morning as a journey without map or meaning. There is no purpose, there is no right or wrong: there is only the possibility, if you don't try nearly hard enough, of learning something, and then, eventually, of making something.