There’s Never Enough Time

A J HartleyA J Hartley
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I had a birthday last week. I stood in the garden of the house owned by Shakespeare’s daughter while a hoard of academics sung Happy Birthday to me. It was, it has to be said, pretty cool.

But, as those who know me best are all too aware, I’ve been having a midlife crisis since I was twelve (when my parents suggested that there were certain toys I should have grown out of). I’m into my life’s second half now: nowhere near overtime and the dreaded penalty shoot-out, but playing with one eye on the referee’s watch. (Don’t ask me the score: I have no idea). In short, I am more aware than ever of Time’s winged chariot rushing up behind me, and if standing in Shakespeare’s garden while people sing happy birthday to you doesn’t exacerbate that awareness, nothing will.

Shakespeare, as most of you will be aware, was acutely aware of time. Whether it’s the ticking off of the day which marks the escalating plot of the Comedy of Errors at the beginning of his career or the leaping over sixteen years to the climax of The Winter’s Tale at the end of it, few authors know better how to use time to heighten theme as well as tighten plot. Because time, obviously, is the index of mortality as Jaques’ Seven Ages of Man speech (All the world’s a stage…) from As You Like It bleakly illustrates. I could heap up references from the sonnets, from Twelfth Night, from Macbeth, but I’ll spare you the lecture because my point is simple.

We are all getting old.

No surprises there. But the thought is worth remembering when we say those all too familiar words as we try to find an hour or two to write: “I don’t have time.”

And it’s true. We don’t. The older I get, the busier life seems: there’s aren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week or weeks in the year to get done what I want to. The calendar seems to crowd me out till I feel (to paraphrase Larkin) that something is pushing me to the side of my own life.

But not having enough time isn’t just about freeing up a few minutes after a day at the office. It’s about that larger, more Shakespearean notion of time which is a euphemism for mortality. I’m hurtling through my life at what feels like light speed, and each day is a reduction of the time I have left.

Okay, so this is potentially all very existential and bleak, but that’s not really my point. A few weeks ago I heard someone—John Hartness, I think—casually remark that he felt that he wouldn’t have enough life left to write all the books he wanted to. (This was, I’m glad to report, a general statement on mortality and time, not a tragic announcement of John’s imminent demise). The comment stuck in my head, as such comments tend to, because its essential rightness lit up the ideas in my head not in morbid way, but as an impulse to get out there and MAKE time.

No, there aren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week, or weeks in the year to get done all we want to, but that isn’t going to change any time soon, and chances are we’ll accumulate more time-sapping stuff along the way. You can’t wait for the time to be right to start or finish that next writing project, because you may never get it. You have to crowbar that book out of the schedule you already have. Make your writing a priority and you’ll find that you may just have the time you need after all.

So. More BIC, I guess. Carpe diem. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Youth’s a stuff will not endure, and all that. Hardly an original thought, but that’s the real sickener about mortality: it’s so damned ordinary. But maybe if I can internalize the sentiment behind all those clichés I’ll get more done and won’t feel Time’s winged chariot at my back quite so insistently, its skeletal driver whispering in the voice of every high school exam proctor, “Time’s up. Pencils down.”

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22 comments to There’s Never Enough Time

  • Ken

    Thanks for the post AJ. It comes right on the cusp of me altering my schedule enough so that I CAN carve out an hour or an hour and a half a day to devote to my writing…in the morning no less, which I never thought I’d be able to pull off.

    Happy Belated Birthday…in a house owned by Shakespeare’s daughter…that IS pretty cool.

  • Thanks, Ken! And good luck on the new schedule.

  • “I don’t find time to write… I make time to write. Big difference.”
    —Elizabeth Moon

  • AJ, Happy Birthday. The singing at the cottage sounds lovely, and I know it must have been poignant in so many different ways, especially for you.

    My BD was this week, and I have been fighting off the mortality demon myself, though without the glory of England and the aforementioned cottage, so this post struck me hard. It was poetic and literary and quite glorious. But the one line that hit hardest for me was, “You have to crowbar that book out of the schedule you already have.” Yes! Making time to write isn’t always pretty for me. It’s hard work. And the crowbar image will stick with me. Thanks.

  • I find that having children speeds up time exponentially. There is something about watching them grow and tying oneself irrevocably to their schedules (not just day-to-day schedules, but the developmental ones, too) that makes it all go that much faster. So, yeah, I get this. And I’m older than you are, A.J., and am coming up on one of those milestone birthdays that brings the whole passage-of-time thing crashing down on one’s consciousness.

    But I am more productive now than I have ever been. I am producing better work in less time, and so as much as I am prone to existential despair (I have more in common with Woody Allen than just poor eyesight, Judaism, and hypochondria) I am actually learning to drift along in time’s current. I used to paddle against it desperately, but all that did was leave me weary and sore at heart. And I’ve no time for that.

  • I had a similar thought (about time running out) yesterday in a full faculty meeting in which I remarked to the other English prof (and poet) sitting next to me, “this is three hours of your life you’ll never get back.” For the record, he did not return to the meeting after the midmorning break. :)

    Those kinds of time sucks aside, I try very hard to minimize my time doing stuff I don’t want to do. As I said earlier in the week, I have a hard time giving up things, qutting things. The doggedness can be good (I’m still writing, still submitting, etc.) but it also keeps me from giving up things I should give up as fast as I should. So that’s the first thing I’m looking at right now, since, starting Monday (or already having started) with the begining of school, I will be insanely busy. Carve out time to write everyday? Probably not. Carve out at least one day a week to write? Absolutely.

    I certainly feel, like AJ, that I’m hurtling through my life, but at least I also feel like I’m making the sun run to keep up withe me. ;)

  • I once wrote a paper on Shakespeare’s use of time. Since it was a long time ago, I can’t remember much about what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure “Gather ye rosebuds while you may” served as the central theme!

    Quite often I find I work better when I have a tight schedule with deadlines imposed on me from outside and I don’t have to rely on myself for discipline. When I have “free” time, it’s too easy to wander off and gather rosebuds while neglecting my work.

  • sagablessed

    Happy birthday, whippersnapper! :D
    As to the mortality thing: if one could live forever, why would you? It is our limitations that give us impetus to our works and pride in our accomplishments.
    Apotheosis is also over-rated.

  • I feel this a lot. When I realize I’m 41 and I’m just beginning to try getting published, and I read that it could take years more, and people in their twenties (and in some cases, teens…) are being signed. It sometimes makes me feel like I wasted those early years, that I should have tried earlier. But as I’ve also said before, I wasn’t ready back then. Those things that irritate me about some novels from new authors would have been in mine, things I worked to stamp out as I took the extra time to learn. And my life has given me emotional, physical, and mental experiences, both ups and downs, that I didn’t have back then, so I’m good with it. I just hope I’m published sooner rather than later. ;) Got too many novel ideas, too little time.

  • Wolf,
    agreed :)

    Faith,
    many happy mutual returns! Yes, I think the crowbar thing seems right because we’ve been at this lark long enough to know that writing isn’t always fun, isn’t always what we want to do, but we do it because we’re professionals and sometimes perspiration trumps inspiration. I used to think how great it would be to be a professional soccer player, but that’s because soccer for me has always just been fun. The constant training, the pressure, the having to play whether you feel like it or not, playing sick, hurt and exhausted, now seem to me much easier to imagine. Crowbarring the book out makes sense to me because it suggests labor, effort, even hardship. It’s worth it in the end, but it ain’t always a slide down the everlasting rainbow to happy land.

    David,
    spot on. Having kids is like watching a recording of your own past on fast forward. It’s often quite alarming to see how quickly they change and what–by extension–that means for you. Sometimes I imagine that there’s a clock somewhere ticking down the time I have left. It’s terrifying, not because I’m afraid of age or death, but because I know I’ll never feel like I’ve achieved enough.

    Pea,
    bonus points for the Marvell allusion. I will not probe how you plan to make him run since this is, as they say, a family show :) And I’m with you on the meetings. My phrase used to be “three hours closer to the grave.”

    Sisi
    that’s understandable, though I think sometimes gathering rosebuds IS work. We have to force ourselves to make the effort to do even fun things, to use the time we have. I put writing in that category: even the good stuff takes effort. It’s too easy to sit on the couch and stare at the idiots’ lantern or whatever, so I have to force myself to use my time constructively.

    Saga,
    I don’t want to live forever. I just want to generate enough work that I’m proud of to feel like I have something more than a headstone when I go.

  • Daniel,
    I know the feeling, but your past made you what you are. Even if there was a point to regret, which there usually isn’t, it always seems to be the final failure, wishing you were someone else. Don’t go there.

  • I suppose it would surprise no one to find out that the kanji tattoo on my left forearm very loosely translates into “carpe diem,” would it? There are soooo many ideas, and we have to sleep sometime, and that just gets annoying at times. I’ve been feeling pretty good about life this week because I’m seeing light at the end of my Summer of Revisions tunnel and have actually generated new words this week. Before that, I was getting all itchy because those ideas were all whirling around and around with no outlet, because I’ve been revising three novels this summer and not getting much new writing done.

    And then I went to see Batman, and now I want to write another superhero story. So there’s another idea I don’t have time to write. Add it to the list.

    But we all feel time moving past us, especially since this has been the unofficial MW Birthday Season (we need a group party on 8/10/13 for you, me and Faith. It’s a Saturday. There can be sushi. It should be a Thing.

    Time, and the pressures of it slipping by, is that one great thing I think every writer shares, regardless of genre and experience level. There’s always something to do, and sometimes we’d certainly rather do that. But we write. And we try to get as many stories out of our heads as possible, because if you’re anything like me, it gets crowded in there. And then you’re talking to pigeons, and people are looking at you strangely.

    Great post, AJ.

  • Forty-four here, and each birthday comes faster than the next. One child will be out of the house in 2 years, the other in 4. Not sure what happens then; that’s a huge life change after you’ve spent that many years taking care of your children. I know there are at least a couple of nice vacations in store for just my wife and I :)

    But, yeah, there is definitely a feeling of time running out. Something that has helped me with that is to just look back at how many years I’ve been working. I have the same number of years left before retirement as I’ve already worked. That’s only half way! Doesn’t seem quite as short when I think about it that way.

  • Oh, this is a topic that’s haunted me since I was about twelve, and found out that most authors didn’t get published until about 34 or later. The firstborn overachiever part of me was determined to get published earlier than that. Well, I just turned 30, so even if I were to get accepted by a publisher today, I’m not exactly that much ahead of the curve now. And I recently did my own looking-back-and-taking-stock, and I realized that I’m happy I haven’t been published yet. The amount I’ve learned about writing and publishing, about craft in general, has been worth it. And frankly, I’m okay if it takes another ten years. But I’m still acutely aware of time, and I think that pushes me to get back to work. :)

  • John,
    Charlotte birthday gathering sounds like a great idea. Do we have to wait till next year now? Totally with you on the feeling every time I see a good movie or read a good book that I want to do something similar. Sigh. Ad if my multiple sandboxes don’t drive my agent to distraction enough as it is…

    Dave,
    yeah, time is always running out no matter how old we are, whether we are aware of it or not. There’s probably a much more uplifting and cheery way of saying that, so let’s assume that is, in fact, the way I said it.

    Laura,
    a good attitude and one I had hoped to prompt. This wasn’t supposed to be morbid or depressing so much as a prod to get working! Glad you took it that way.

  • quillet

    Happy Birthday, and I wish you many (many many many many) happy returns of the day. :)

    Great post, and great advice. So as soon as I post this, I will stop spending my precious time here on the net and instead spend it writing. What a great thought to carry into my weekend, too!

  • Razziecat

    This. This. All of this. Story of my life, A.J., but without the cottage. The weeks are a blur sometimes, and it’s not the just the daily stuff eating up the hours. It’s being too tired to write after doing the unavoidable stuff. Never look backward, just keep on going. I’m thinking of having a shirt made up that says, “Onward, ye bastards, and the dragons be damned!” “)

  • Thanks, quillet. Good luck being productive this weekend!

    Razzie, I’d wear that shirt :)

  • sagablessed

    “I just want to generate enough work that I’m proud of to feel like I have something more than a headstone when I go.”
    My dear AJ: you haveinspired and mentored the people here. You have mad literary credits.
    In short, your wish has already been achieved. :)

  • Saga,
    that’s so kind of you. It’s nice to hear that our work here at MW is appreciated. I think we all know that people find the site useful, but it’s lovely to be reminded of that from time to time. Thank you.

  • For me, I only realized that I wanted to write a few years ago when I was 26. My unofficial clock is therefore counting down to 36 as my “God, I’m old, what am I doing with my life” crisis.

    Otherwise, i am glad you survived yet another circumnavigation around Sol! You’ve definately inspired me to make the time for my writing. Much like our characters, its not what we say but what we do that matters.

  • pamdrum

    Ever have the universe hit you over the head with something? Your same message has been repeating itself to me in dozens of ways in the last few weeks. The most severe version of said message is that a friend of mine, Vicki, who I went through writing school with years ago is always saying that she doesn’t have time to write. She was going to write full time when she retired next year. They just sent her home with medication to “make her comfortable during her final transition.” She has inoperable brain cancer.

    Just goes to show, don’t wait to write. Don’t put it off. Just write. Most of the rest of the stuff can just wait.

    You mentioned that Shakespeare’s major works were about 16 years apart from first to last. Who here doesn’t think they have 16 years left to live? Look at all the time you have. I’ll won’t be older than dirt in 16 years. I’ll be more like a slightly younger cousin of dirt. But by gosh, I’m going to keep plugging away.