This morning I was happily listening to a podcast when the writer being interviewed said something that pushed right on my Inadequacy Button. He was being asked about his writing process.
He was a night writer, he explained, because, although he got up at 5 am and had a little time to read contemplative material and mediate over breakfast, the youngest of his five children got up at 6am, so there was no extra time to write then. He worked a full-time job from 8 to 4.30 which he described as ‘full on and with no possibility of half-assing it’. He was then a hands-on father with the cascading bedtime routines starting at 6 pm and only finishing at 9 pm. He would do bedtime reading for the younger ones and the older ones had a mandated 30-minute independent reading time he and his wife expected them to do before they went to sleep.
Then he would go to his study each night and get to writing, aiming to close down by 11.30 so he could go to bed by midnight. Oh, and he would read in bed for thirty minutes too because he felt that if he made his kids do that, he should too.
I confess. My initial reaction was that I was such a slacker and I really could be achieving much more.
But then, he kept talking. He was also a marriage counsellor and he had a side business in which he coached writers on a particular aspect of their craft. He had also started to spend more time marketing the books he had written (including for example being on this one-hour long podcast). I started to get suspicious. When? When was he doing these things? Because the maths didn’t stack up. The routine he described simply did not have time in it for all this extra stuff.
I’m not calling him a liar. I am sure that some of the time he does all these things. His side-hustle business and his books exist. But I do not think that he does all these things all the time. It’s not possible. And even on his own account he was getting five hours sleep maximum a night which, except for a very tiny and unusual subset of the population is unhealthy and unsustainable. I believe that he was rotating the activities but expressing it as if he did them all simultaneously.
It’s perfectly legitimate of course to do one session with a couple needing counselling once a month and call yourself a counsellor. You are. Just as you are an artist if you make one painting a year or a writer if you do one short story a month. There is no quota on quantity of output before you can lay claim to an identity.
The problem is that we don’t respond to the CVs of others that way. We look at the totality of what they have achieved or the number of identities they put in their LinkedIn Profile and we over-subscribe quantity to it all in our own mind. And then we get stressed that we should be achieving more because we compare ourselves with this exaggerated view of what others are doing. (And often beginners in a field compound that by comparing themselves with people who have been in the game for decades.)
I strongly suspect this author has the same tendencies because he then went on to say that it had taken him some time to accept that he could not write a book a month, but he really wished he could be one of the people who did that.
A book a month? Are you kidding me?!
As someone who has written several books let me tell you with the best will in the world it is not possible to research material, write 70,000 words or so, revise it, get it line and proof edited, formatted, approve the galleys and published in a normal working month and do a good, considered job of it to boot. You could write an extended essay every month, stick it in PDF and publish it in e-book format for sure, and that might be what he meant. But that’s not the type of book I immediately had in my head when he was saying all this. He said ‘book’ and I thought properly published full length quality written paperback novel or good solid textbook. Every month.
Not. Possible. I know this. I am qualified to know this. And yet there’s now a little tiny, deluded bit of me that’s whispering in my brain: Maybe people do write a book a month. Maybe if I tried harder, worked longer, faster I could do that. If you were an interesting capable person you would do that…
No. But see what happened in my head there, how quickly we go from thinking about what we do to what we are, from output to self-worth. Those are not the same thing, and yet we so easily link them.
At the moment, mid-pandemic, it’s even more important that we see the reality in what other people are achieving. And to be careful how we express ourselves when we talk about our work. Social media marketing gurus would have us cheerily chirrup about how we are continuing and producing well from home, how we have adapted the entire business to thrive in this VUCA world and are working on an 18 part, multi-media product teaching slackers like me how to do it to boot.
The reality is that, as one colleague told me last week, many people are wading through treacle with ten league boots on. It’s hard to concentrate when you have children at home or when you are desperate for a change of scenery. Motivation is lowered when you can’t predict how your endeavours now might look in the uncertain future. Frustration is high when dreams are on hold with no set date when they can be resurrected. We are all feeling at the very least a bit meh and many feel a lot worse. And that’s okay because our worth as a person is not linked to the quantity of our output.
It’s time to allow ourselves the grace of only expecting ourselves to do what we can do, to choose to do the stuff that we like doing best, that gives us life. It’s wise to ensure that a good chunk of what we do is for filling us up and not always about giving out to others. If that means you have nothing to show for your time relaxing in the bath or wandering the path through the park, then so be it. It’s time for being realistic and kind, to ourselves and to others. It’s time to embrace the word ‘enough’.