Our Fractured Days
Years ago I rented a little house in Northern California and went there to write. I left New York, resolved to finish a book or kill myself trying. (I wrote about this period in The War of Art.)
The great part about that time—it lasted about eighteen months—was that I had nothing to do all day but write. True, the chore was Sisyphean. I was busting my butt trying to learn not just how to put words on paper but, far harder and more critical, how to finish something. How to wrap up. How to ship.
Still, life during that period was idyllic. I recognized it even then. I remember thinking to myself, “Man, if the process is this hard when you’ve got every hour in the day, how are you ever gonna manage it back in the real world of demands and distractions and the general craziness of life?”
That’s a helluva question.
I’m still not sure I have an answer.
Things can get loony here on Planet Earth. Our days can fracture. Our precious schedule gets torn up and blown out the window.
How do we handle it?
In my little house in California I used to get up and eat breakfast, then sit down and do nothing but write till evening, when I sank into a chair beneath a reading lamp and plunged into War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Red and the Black, and all the books that I knew I should have read but until then had never had the time.
Now, back in the real world, I’ve gotta make the same process happen, only now it’s amid hail and gunfire, not to mention Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If it wasn’t hard enough keeping up with the Kardashians, now I’m got Caitlyn Jenner to worry about, not to mention Donald Trump, the Iran nuclear deal, my family and friends, the drought, global warming, and how to get maximum support to Bernie Sanders.
My day breaks up. It fractures. No longer do I have the luxury of one smooth unbroken expanse of time. Now the hours splinter. They come at me, chopped and diced into fragments.
How can I work this way?
A writer has to focus. She can’t just flip a switch and start grinding. She needs time to settle in, to let the current start to flow. She can’t do that in fifteen-minute increments with the kids screaming and her husband phoning from the office. Nobody can.
How do I do it?
I have two rules:
1. No matter what, I will get my time in.
I am on a mission. I am not screwing around. I fear the Muse. I fear falling out, even for one day. I know how hard Day Two will be, and Days Three and Four.
The habit of work is ingrained in my bones. I refuse to break it.
2. If my day fractures, I improvise.
I have taught myself over many years the knack of adjusting on the fly. In the army they say, “It wouldn’t be a plan if it didn’t keep changing.”
That’s my mantra.
I have learned to re-set without breaking stride.
I was gonna work from ten till one. Now for some reason I can’t. Okay. I’ll move that block from three to six. Do I have to cancel an appointment? No problem. I’ll do it. I’ll reschedule.
I make the mental switch and three-to-six becomes the same as ten-to-one.
Did you watch any of the British Open at St. Andrews back in July? They have crazy weather over there in the kingdom of Fife. Squalls and knee-buckling winds come whipping in off the North Sea. Play gets suspended for three hours, four, five. But the competitors have to somehow retain their focus because the sun can pop out on a dime and suddenly the horn is sounding, “Resume play.”
If your mindset is that of an amateur, this off-and-on stuff will take you right out of your game.
The professional, on the other hand, has worked hard to acquire the skill of managing his emotions. He takes a deep breath. He dials down his impatience. In his mind he prepares for the moment (even though he doesn’t know when that moment will come) when play resumes.
He knows that this skill is just as important as the ability to drive the ball in the fairway or to hole a right-breaking downhill slider from four-and-a-half feet.
You and I as artists face the identical problem: how to hang onto our writing resolve when the day fractures.
No one is born with this ability. We have to fall down again and again and keep getting up and trying harder next time.
It helps, I’ve found, to remind myself that the day is fracturing not just for me but for everybody.
It’s part of the game.
Will I let it defeat me?
Or will I learn how to adapt and adjust?