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.”