Go on, take your time, live
Over the years I have come to realise that I can live life on my own terms with no need to chase unrealistic goals and meaningless timelines
This week I learned that when the legendary American writer, Joan Didion found herself blocked, she'd physically tuck away her manuscript to let it gestate. I was viewing a documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, produced by her grandniece, Annabelle Dunne, in which her editor, Shelley Wanger happens to disclose this eccentric strategy.
"If she's feeling stuck on something, she'll put it in the freezer… The manuscript, in the freezer, in a bag." It's the kind of detail that really stands out. I imagine her, a smallish woman, cigarette in one hand, piling her stack of freshly typewritten pages, then, cigarette in mouth, shoving them into a large zip-lock bag. She walks to her refrigerator, and shelves the pages, perhaps with companion manuscripts. It intrigued me to think of the synchronous moment when she might have decided to return to the freezer to retrieve a particular manuscript because she was now ready to take it forward, because she had unclogged the block.
I'm not unfamiliar with this literary plot device, where you take something you've written that doesn't seem to go anywhere, and you leave it to ferment. I do it, too, except my fridge doesn't boast a lot of storage. Instead, I relegate text to the annals of my laptop's subconscious. It's possible that I prefer handwriting pages first because it relieves me of the pressure of the blank word document. It gives me the raw material I need to expand my sentences, so that typing feels like a form of transcription. Then, when the time is right, I forget about what I've written, because I've let my laptop swallow it momentarily. When a deadline looms, or when I'm finally ready, I return to it with renewed enthusiasm. This is why I've never quite related to writers who claim to have routines, those who wake up in the morning and do nothing else for several hours except write. I admire them, but I've found I cannot be like them.
Being prolific and productive can be a wonderful thing. I have plenty of female writer friends who manage to write one book every two years, some who seem to even do a book a year. Me, I took seven years to write and publish my first book. Three years have passed since it was released, and I'm nowhere close to having assembled my next book. I tend to work on things simultaneously. Right now I'm working on three books. And because I also need to earn a living, I've a page full of listed deadlines that extend over two months. A publisher friend advised me a few months ago not to let so much time elapse between books. But it isn't something I can necessarily control. In fact, after you come to terms with how little money you make from publishing a book, you realise that it's perfectly okay to take your time.
There have been many moments in the last few years when, inundated by freelance work, I've often had to wonder whether my time really belonged to me. That has been the struggle. How do I allow myself to be in possession of my time? How can I be ready to accept ideas that come in their own time? How do I measure my life's work thus far? Is it okay to settle for whatever level of productivity I am able to sustain?
The body is not a machine. It seems like an obvious fact, but one that we often forget. The body, like a house, is a living breathing being, a consolidation of flesh and bones and aches and tears and blood and dreams and sweat and memories and forgetting. Where does this pressure come from to make it dance to the tune of performance indicators and career goals? My generation has been chasing this elusive desire to have it all, without quite questioning what the 'all' is meant to entail. I, too, have had to un-condition myself from the unrealistic expectations I still nurture about what I want my life to amount to. In the end, you realise that it's the small moments that bring the greatest pleasure. Joy is in those eccentric details that most delight us.
I haven't yet seen Marie Kondo's Netflix show, but I was telling my flatmate how everything in our apartment brings me great joy. An additional source of elation has been a new ritual of regularly buying flowers for as little as Rs 200, then spending at least 30 minutes arranging one or two stalks in repurposed wine bottles and spreading them around the apartment. Recently, an artist friend brought over stalks of fragrant lilies, and over the last two days, I have watched them transform from bud to bloom. There's nothing like a blossoming flower to offer a visual experience of time. "Where's the rush?" I've begun to ask myself. Then I take a deep breath and smile.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to email@example.com
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Pig brain, rat meat and frog legs are delicacies in these Indian states!