The Writing Life (4): Time Around Time

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

Well, just how did I manage this? I’m on the West Coast of Mexico, at the moment, staring out over the Pacific lapping at sands just a hundred yards away, here on assignment for a Toronto magazine. I’m writing a profile of a fella hard at work, just finishing a novel, and know enough about the writing life to take him at his word when he says he’s not to be disturbed until three. You would expect as much, really, given that I grew up in a novelist’s house and have had a head start on what it actually takes in the unfolding of a day, week, month and year for a writer to be able to write.

I’m talking about time—or what I prefer to think of as ‘time around time’. That’s the cushion a writer really needs in order to be able to produce.

Any of you who writes or perhaps wants to and has spoken to a writer will likely have had a conversation in which words along the line of “I would be writing my novel, if only I had the time.” This is a notion Margaret Atwood famously mocked when, a doctor having said as much, she replied, “And I’d have been a brain surgeon if only I’d had the time.”

At its most basic, time is, of course, of the essence. Nothing at all gets written if a writer does not actually put pen to paper and do the work. It is in the nature of the job that life itself has manifold means of getting in the way. Hence the English critic and novelist Cyril Connolly’s remark: “There is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hallway.” This is a very amusing statement and it has been much quoted but should be taken with a grain of salt as Connolly, a member of London’s upper-classes, also declared, after his marriage, that “the problem is, I am still homosexual, emotionally” and probably had in him a degree of English aristocratic contempt for children, best dispatched out of the house and to boarding school at, say, the age of six months. Still, there is truth in Connolly’s little aphorism: as I say, life gets in the way—as, closer to home, Alice Munro knows all too well, having been, for this reason, especially sympathetic to women wanting to write and having to cope with being mothers at the same time—though I don’t actually see Connolly having pushed that pram around a lot.

Even in my own family’s case—my father Mordecai having been of that generation we all envy, where one job was enough to keep most households afloat—there was a division of labour that saved the author upstairs from the prams in the hallway (five, over time) and did not exactly fill the children with pride. It used to drive my elder brother Daniel, in particular, quite batty when my father would brag that he’d never changed a nappy in his life. Good on him, I suppose, and right up his alley of humour. But it left his kids, the boys especially, with a virtually un-winnable task of proving to their wonderful partners that they did not need a social revolution to split the chores, do the shopping, cook and then wash the dishes and change the diapers, etc. (In fact, my father was not oblivious to this, just unable to do anything about it. In Joshua Then and Now, the scene about wife Pauline’s meltdown over bags of groceries and whatever has happened to her life was played out in my own house a few times.)

But, in truth, all that life getting in the way is actually the point of it. I’m sure that miserably sequestering oneself away as a writer is a very viable option for many, but then you have to ask yourself if you really want to be that person. Don’t you want to go down to the market on a Saturday morning, hang out with the kids and then the teenagers when you’re not exhausted, and have family time in the evenings or on a Sunday when your partner is not working and the young ones are not at school? Isn’t that the point of making a living as a writer? (Frankly, I even see writers’ retreats as dyspeptic kinds of places heaping the blame on the people you leave behind.)

Yes, I’d say, which means that understanding and then managing the conditions that allow you the cushion of time around time and then the creative possibility of that precious kernel of clear time itself is all the more important. How do you do this? Well, I’m approaching fifty and I’m still learning or, more honestly said, still having trouble aligning what I know about how I work with the way I work when I do, but mostly it all comes down to the howlingly banal.

Drink less, if you want to get up in the morning and the morning is when you write. Don’t waste precious time answering e-mails or surfing the web for headlines or a bit of permissible peeping first thing in the morning—after the kids have gone to school and the wife has left for work and the animals have been fed and the cat let out and the dogs walked and the humidifiers filled and the kitchen cleaned and the Mom dealt with—if first thing in the morning is when you do your best work.

Don’t schedule your appointments for then and don’t, if you do have one away from home (and home is where you work), decide that you’re actually making an economy of time by shopping at No Frills or wherever because it’s right there, because then that clock in the corner will have chimed twelve and you’ll know that it’s only reasonable, now to feed yourself—maybe down at the Chinese on Broadview because you can do it for six bucks, though you haven’t actually earned any money yet this week, besides you can take the dogs who are looking up at you plaintively and with disappointment because they can’t quite come to terms with just how boring a master you are and next thing you know you’ll be on the couch having a nap—doing some research, whatever you choose to call it—and the day will be mounting towards its four o’clock fury and then the kids and the wife will be back home and you’ll be hollering at the kid for not walking the dogs as if that short task and not all the other stuff you did is why you’ve managed to reach the end of another day with not much to show for it.

Get to your desk at four or at nine, sitting or standing but do it, and know that not just the Wednesday but the Tuesday and the Thursday play into it. (Write longer days than you’re used to, and I’ll wager that often you’ll blow the day afterwards because you really are spent and the mind, like the body, needs replenishing.)

Consistency is what the writer needs, consistency is what he must build, and he needs the time around time to do it if he has any chance of becoming that fella who really is quite boring—the one your disappointed dogs are looking at. After a while the intelligent writer knows that, barring the occasional Hunter Thompson and other cowboys, writers are boring. They have to be, if there is to be any actual excitement on the page. And what that really means is understanding that anything, even Mexico, that takes you away from your desk is going to rip into that time around time and make the time itself laggard and tarnished and bad. Sure, I get to be here (though with the wife and the kids would have been better) but the likelihood is that the days traveling here and back, the jet-lag and the poor performance afterwards and then the few days it will take to get back into the seemingly dull but absolutely essential and precious routine of the same thing happening, day in and day out for (wouldn’t it be glorious) a few weeks is the real cost of these glorious surroundings.

So I’d better make the best of it, work as I do uninterrupted—keep that time around time, and one day perhaps I’ll even have the courage to say, “No. Sorry. Can’t go to Mexico, there’s a book I’m writing and I don’t have the time.”

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on


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