Hey, Richard Scarry, Where Are the Novelists?

In the past week, much has been made of the article, “The Busy Trap,” on the New York Times’ website. Much being made, these days, means that a whole slew of people posted the article to their Facebook Timeline and then went back to playing Bubble Witch Saga.

But, seriously, the writer, Tim Kreider, is on to something. Why so busy, Batman?

He posits that a lot of our busy is self-imposed, and he’d probably be right. In the last few months — and especially when my manuscript was in its final round of edits — I’ve had dozens of heart-popping moments in which my brain rotates around a list of to-dos that, if I really mulled them, could be reduced by half if I also created a “why bother?” list. (For example, no one has to read a mounting pile of US Weekly back issues, and yet, when in the final throes of The End of the World as We Know It, nothing seemed more important than making sure the stack was not neglected.)

I’m not yet a full-time writer, so some of my busy is, to me, totally necessary. I have to, as much as possible, try to squeeze in some writing every day, even if it’s only for a half-hour before my son wakes up, or for 45 minutes before bed, after I’ve gone to work, prevented a toddling lunatic from swan-diving off the furniture, eaten some semblance of a meal. I’m helped by a supportive husband who takes on more than his fair share of the workload. (Right now, he’s playing blocks with our son, whose idea of sleeping in this Saturday was waiting until 5:41 a.m. to make it clear he had better things to do than peacefully slumber. His cries translated roughly to, “Getupgetupgetup, doImakemyselfclearyoulazySOBS???”)

Usually, after a long day, what I really want to do is give in to the siren song of vegetation, watching TV or reading a book and saying I’m doing so in the name of research. On weekends, I long to be the kind of SoCal denizen who does leisurely weekend things, like take long, head-clearing hikes; glide along the beach like one of those effortless L.A. beauties that I’m too pale and high-strung to ever be; linger over brunch; cook wonderfully healthy meals with fresh goodies I picked up on a stroll through the farmers market. (Though I don’t stroll. These L.A. people walk way too slowly for this Chicago girl.) Sometimes, I fit that stuff in, but I have to be careful not to pack the weekend with too many activities, making myself too busy to get a nice chunk of writing time in. See, there is that  inconvenient truth to being a writer: You have to actually, you know, write.

The deep conversations of writers: “So, like, being a writer is way easier when you don’t, you know, write.” “But then you’re not a writer, are you?” “Whoa.”

Despite the image of writers as cool characters who lounge in cafes all day and then jot down an outpouring of brilliant words by night, the reality for me is, that a lot of weekends in the middle of one of my projects, I spend a whole bunch of time whining that the rest of the world is having more fun than me. When I’m writing, I believe everyone I know is doing something super-fantastic that I’ll never have the chance to do. Even if you tell me you’re not, and call me from Wal-mart jail or something, I won’t believe you. But the paradox is this: when I do go do something fun, that’s not writing, I feel guilt for not writing and whine about that. I could be diving into a pool filled with cake batter in the South of France on my birthday while drunk enough to believe Marie Antoinette was playing lifeguard but still my annoying inner-taskmaster would be worried about the fact that I’m not writing. (My hallucinatory drunkenness would not be a problem.)

Here’s what Heidman says about his schedule:

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day.

I ambish (new word, meaning “to have ambition for”) to be the laziest ambitious person I know, just like Heidman. For the time being, I have to deal with being a busy lazy person.

I know I could maybe give up writing. It’s true that, in the week or so after I finish a project, when I’m at most tinkering around with an idea but not really, truly in full writing mode, I do feel a little more relaxed. I have time to do more stuff I like. I read more, and see more movies. I cook more and I bake. I get outdoors more. My garden is only half-dead instead of full-dead. It’s not like I’d harm anyone by retiring this instant. As Heidman puts it:

More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Richard Scarry, though he was a children’s book author and illustrator, didn’t — as far as I can remember — include his career in his Busytown books. What we do wouldn’t stop the world from spinning on its axis, though I hope it makes it more pleasant. Maybe Scarry’s dump truck driver is a blues guitarist by night, and that meter maid is writing a screenplay.  And maybe Lowly Worm totally sells his paintings on Etsy.  You know Dingo dog is up to something in his spare time. Or at least I hope so. Because for as much as I could pack my life with new to-do’s if I weren’t writing, I think the not-writing would — in time, at least — hurt more.

I hope, if you’re reading this and you’re looking for more time to make your art or do your thing, my confession (that not every writer wants to spend all of his or her free time writing) has helped. And, if you’re just wondering why you never have time to just chill, here’s an exercise to try: Next time someone asks what you’re up to at your lunch hour, or after work, or over the weekend, take pause before you tell them you’re “crazy busy.” Are you really, or is the to-do that’s calling you your equivalent of tending to some dusty US Weekly mags?

While you do that, I’ll be over here, not learning how to stroll.

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