I have this whiteboard calendar at home that rules my life. Yesterday I made my September calendar, and calculated that I have about two more weeks of freedom before the real scholastic panic sets in. This summer, I was lucky, and financially was able to stick to part-time work. It’s a bonus that I work at a radio station with half hour stretches to read and lollygag and pretend like I’m friends with Garrison Keillor. This summer has been glorious in more ways than one.
I decided early on that I would devote my bountiful free time to my thesis. It was an experiment: if I’m not exhausted by a full-time job, if I’m not teaching, if I’m not in a workshop, how much writing can I get done? Without formal motivations, can I still feel (and more importantly, act) like the writer I am studying and hoping and crossing my fingers so dang hard to be?
I’m pleased to report that the answer has mostly been yes. Judging by my constant emails to my thesis adviser detailing to him my unprompted opinions on modern fiction, it seems that I’ve read a lot. I’m close to finishing up another revision of a story from workshop last year to add to my handful of “finished” pieces, and I’ve journaled and given a lot of thought to the shape and style of my thesis overall. It feels goods.
But now, as I make a real inventory of my accomplishments from this summer, I wonder: could I have done more?
I wonder a lot about the idea of writing as a profession, something we schedule and work at and practice. It seems that to classify anything as a “job,” it should a) pay you and b) take a good chunk of your time, something around the standard 40 hours a week. I don’t know if I reached that. The days I didn’t work at radio (probably less than half the summer) I woke up at nine and after various errands and slush pile reading made it to the library/coffeeshop with stories, notebook, and a book or two in hand around noon. I usually came back at 5pm to see my partner home from Real Work. The evenings were a crapshoot, depending on computer availability and/or desire to do a crossword puzzle. Then more reading, then bed. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It wasn’t all that I could have gotten done, hypothetically. I could have woken up earlier, worked all morning and into the night. I could have eschewed my favorite time-sucks (Word Warp, Reddit, videogames, reading the news and yelling about it, etc.). I could have pushed harder.
If we are writers as our profession, as our identity, how do we quantify our productivity if our job doesn’t require us to clock in or out everyday? I’ve had days where I’ve journaled for hours, getting nowhere, rehashing the same masturbatory shit and feeling like the worst worm of a writer. Other days I sit and type like a madwoman for an hour and it feels like the most awe-inspiring productive sixty minutes of my life. And then I’m done for the day. I let the high settle because hey, I figured out how to break a story open, or decided a major plot point/character trait/line of tension. Sometimes staring at the wall until my brain un-farts can feel like work to me, and I feel like such a privileged ninny for that.
I want to do more. Constantly. That’s why I’m so certain that this fiction business is what I want to do with my life, because no matter how busy I am I always feel the pull, the tug to go back to the desk, back to the notebook, back to the bookshelf. Sometimes I do and I feel great, and sometimes I don’t and I feel plagued with inadequacy. When your passion isn’t your scheduled day job, or even if it is, it can be hard to ever feel good about what you’ve gotten done. Maybe true satisfaction isn’t a goal I can reach, not now in my artistic infancy, maybe not ever. But that motivating dissatisfaction is what keeps writing from being the kind of soul-sucking job-job we try to avoid. We want to excel at our passions, not so we get a raise or a pat-on-the-back from a boss we don’t respect, but for ourselves and the maybe-impossible standards we set.