Saturday, June 13, 2009

Coming up for air

Two summers ago I went to a talk by welsh writer Niall Griffiths*. I admire his work - skilfully balancing the profane and beautiful - but it wasn't the reading that stuck in my mind, it was comment he made about the practice of writing. He said he needed to write every day, because whenever he failed to do that, he felt like 'a piece of dirt.' Strong stuff from someone who's had reason to feel pretty low - read his books to see what I mean.

My last post on this blog was more than a week ago - hardly something to feel guilty about, and yet I know I've been putting it off. Or rather, I've been faffing, diverting myself to mundane tasks in order to avoid sitting down to write. I recognise when this is happening, it's the same pattern every time: an overload of work, ideas and life. And there's only one cure: I make a list of jobs, start at the top and don't stop until every item is ticked. Only then I can write again.

So you'll be pleased to know (not) that the insurance is renewed, the bank accounts sorted, the final assignment for my writing degree posted, the new apple-mac sussed (and oh, such a delight), my ipod synchronised, the PCs are virus checked, the address book updated, the downstairs doors painted, the building supplies ordered, Daniel's mobile phone unlocked, and I've sent the Sony Reader for repair...

All in all, a productive week.

Or was it? Because none of this was really necessary. Even the assignments could have waited a week or so. In practice, it's meant returning from a punishing day at the office, only to sit in the study and diligently tick my way through a list of dull tasks I feel obliged to complete. It's no coincidence that I've had two rows with Jane, both of them centred on my frustration that people put things off - for 'people' read 'you and the boys', according to Jane. And the end result is that I've fallen out with my family, ticked a list of non-jobs and written next to nothing.

I used to do something similar when I painted more regularly; I'd spend hours putting my studio into military order, only to mess it up within minutes of getting the brushes out. Gradually, I came to realise that this extended preparation was an integral part of the process; a way to clear my thoughts before the mental struggle of painting. If you ever hear anyone say that painting is a nice relaxing hobby - feel free to punch them. Sometimes, I'd get so wrapped up in the preparation that I've have almost no time to paint; but importantly, I was charged with fresh ideas.

Sixty years ago this week George Orwell's Coming Up For Air was published. The central character is George Bowling, a middle-aged salesman, bogged down with a dreary life, who secretly returns to his childhood haunts for a few days escape. What he most desires is to go fishing; all his adult life he's wanted to go fishing. As he searches for the lake he'd known as a child, he reflects on how little time we spend doing the things we most want to do. George's story is tragic; he returns home to a suspicious wife and a life paying off the mortgage for a house he hates; he never got to go fishing. The story has as fresh and contemporary a message as ever.

So if a good life is a one richly lived - a one that maximises the opportunity to practice our virtues, rather than tick lists of dull jobs** - then how can we organise ourselves to achieve something like this? It seems to me that a respect for time is a good place to start.

In the office where I work this attitude is alien: meetings run late, the banter more important than finishing in a reasonable time - it drives me bonkers! At home I compensate to the point that I'm often asked how we manage to fit so much in? The answer is part organisation, part diligence, part a hugely supportive wife and family - and just occasionally, an overwhelming need to clear the decks.

Jane refers to my tendency for manic list ticking as 'Dad's got his job-head on'. I wish I could find another way, or at least in theory I do (if I'm honest, I think it has tremendous merits too - nobody else was rushing to paint the doors). But for now I find the urge irresistible; as if the the only alternative were not to write (or paint or walk or run) at all - ever! That would be the equivalent of George Bowling's fate; of Niall Griffiths' 'piece of dirt'.

I'll stick to my lists, thank you.

* Niall Griffiths is the one of the best contemporary writers in Wales (indeed the UK) - try Stump for a relatively gentle introduction; Kelly and Victor or Sheepshagger if you are not easily shocked.

** See Martin Seligman's books Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism for fuller discussion and excellent approach to leading a full life.


  1. Been there.....these days I just think "B*ll*cks.....the tax return/lawn can wait....unicycling instead!.....Good piece by the way ;-)

  2. I can so understand where your coming from on this!! I feel as if my head get's (and I can't think of a better phrase for this) cluttered when I have a whole load of mundane things that need to be done. I can't do what I actually want to till I've cleared the 'clutter'...I just can't focus. (My hubby sends his sympathies to your wife because he knows exactly how she feels!!)

    I say...job well go do something you actually want to do!!

    C x

    Ps. In my opinion...a meeting that over-runs is a badly run meeting!! I have had to physically stop myself from uttering 'Oh for god sake can we stop faffing about and just make a decision so I can go home!!'

  3. I am just like you, I make lists and feel I have to do those things before I can do what I really want to do.I
    I feel much better when I have written something.
    I like the book receommendations, thank you.

  4. I'm fairly new to this blogging lark. I try to avoid being overtly topical and have difficulty in finding subjects. Once every five days I even find difficult. But the discipline side does me good. I'm a lazy old devil at heart. How do you fit in work as well!

  5. With difficulty! And by writing in my lunch hour as I'm doing now.

    I agree that its best not be too topical, though there is a balance I suppose. Most things I write about have been brewing in my head before I start. If an idea is still there after a while then I will write about them. If not, I tend to let them go, but sometimes they will find their way into other posts.

    Keep blogging