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Time confetti

So I’m on annual leave this week.

Part of me wondered, “What’s the point of taking leave during a pandemic? We can’t go anywhere. We can’t even do most of the things that would normally constitute rest or leisure.” But I haven’t had leave since late January. I could feel myself burning out. Our pandemic weekly timetable had taken a toll. My body was tired. So after we finished working on a major event for work, I asked for a week, and my boss (who is wonderful) granted it.

Leave, for me, is a funny thing: I’m on leave for one job, yes, but not from my others. Thankfully the girls are back at school, so I’m no longer supervising home learning. But I’m still doing the morning routine, packing lunches, doing drop-off and pick up, supervising homework, nagging them to do their guitar practice and managing their Zoom music lessons. I’m still in charge of the household admin, buying groceries, meal planning, cooking, cleaning, the endless wiping.

And strangely enough, even though I’m not writing (I promised myself I would take a break from the novel), I’m still dealing with things related to my writing life. This week, seemingly out of nowhere, I was asked to quote for running an online workshop during school holidays, and a friend who runs a bookshop got in touch to order more copies of Kinds of Blue. So while my general attitude towards leave is that it’s supposed to be for rest, I’m also doing a heap of things that aren’t actually restful. (I know some of you will be reading this will be thinking, “Duh: what did you expect? You’re a parent!”, but I think it’s still worth acknowledging the reality.)

I also have the feeling I’m doing the rest of these things semi-poorly because I’m low in energy at the moment. But I also think it’s because of post-adrenaline crash—that slump you feel after periods of high stress. I was more or less expecting that to happen: an author friend of mine who had a pretty sweet work setup—in which he was paid for four days of work per week, but worked five and then took something like two months of annual leave all at once (during which he’d write)—anyway, he told me once that it would take him a week or so to change gears, and during that week, he’d be cranky and irritable, and that it was all because of post-adrenaline crash or something similar. So I vaguely knew that I’d be like this and find it hard, even though I’d been looking forward to leave for a while. (I also don’t really have the luxury of being cranky for an entire week.)

But another factor has to do with the limitations on my rest time: the “leave” part of annual leave is only really taking place between school hours and then in the evenings after the girls are in bed, because during all other times, I’m “on duty”. (Side note: As many parents will tell you, the school day goes absurdly fast. It’s not really six hours; it’s more like five and a half, once you take into account travel and preparation time. And in the middle there, you have lunch, which also takes time to prepare and eat. So it’s really more like four to five hours. And trust me: it goes really fast. What’s interesting is that it feels different if the same amount of time was shifted to another part of the day: I remember back when my eldest was a toddler: she and I would do some sort of activity together in the morning, and then I would drop her off at Occasional Care where she would eat lunch and spend the afternoon, and I would go home, eat my lunch, and then either crash (because I was so tired from parenting a toddler) or write. (I was working on the script of Eternal Life during that period.) I think it has something to do with the interruption of a meal: without it, the same period feels longer.

And because the time is limited, I have this massive fear that I won’t use it well—that I’ll get to the end of it and feel like it wasn’t time well spent, and then feel that sense of despair because it’s not like I’ll ever get that time back.

(Side note: I think unlimited time is one of the great blessings that the gift of eternal life brings. Vampire novels [like Anne Rice’s] and even The Good Place often portray eternal life as being this thing that we will eventually tire of, but that’s because they assume the presence of earthly decay and human iniquity—things that have no place in the new creation of Revelation 21.)

I cope with this ever-present anxiety by making lists—to keep myself focused but also to remind myself of the things I really do want to do (versus the things that I feel like I have to do; I may have free time at the moment, but I’m highly unlikely to spend it on decluttering). It might look like this:

Or sometimes it’s less specific. (I do have a daily checklist that includes

  • Bible reading
  • Fiction reading
  • Work on novel
  • Duo Lingo
  • Twitter
  • Exercise

I rarely do all of those in one day. But the list remains in my WorkFlowy daily schedule to remind me.)

All the same, even if I get through my totally made up To Do lists during the 4-5 hours I have child-free, aside from ticking boxes, I wonder if it’s actually having the desired effect—that is, engineering rest. Restoring me. Helping me to be ready for the next sprint of work.

Pocket watch sinks into the sand

Today I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts at the moment: The Happiness Lab with Dr Laurie Santos. Santos is a professor at Yale who, after becoming concerned about the pervasiveness of low mood that she observed among her students, started running a course called “Psychology and the Good Life”. It became the most popular course in the history of Yale—so much so that they now offer it online for free as “The science of well-being” on Coursera. Now she’s taken that same content and put it in a podcast.

I love it because in it, Santos delves into a lot of the science into what makes human beings happy and comes up with a lot of things that seem contrary to what our minds may often tell us about what will make us happy. For example, the idea of striking up conversations with strangers often seems horrifying to most of us, but according to the research, it actually helps boost mood, and its positive effects persist for longer than you think.

The episode I listened to today was about time and how we use it (“For whom the alarm clock tolls”) and I felt it like a gut punch. Like Santos, sometimes I struggle with packing my schedule too full with different things—to the detriment of certain other aspects of my life (like sleep). Like Santos, I often feel time poor, instead of time affluent. Like Santos, I was somewhat horrified to discover how feelings of time famine can affect how I treat others. (The study of seminary students who were asked to preach a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan and who ran into a Good Samaritan situation on their way to preach that very sermon was particularly damning—as well as an excellent illustration of total depravity at work.) And like Santos, I found some of the solutions that Tom Hodgkinson (author of “How to be Idle”) profferred (late and lazy starts, focused work time, afternoon siestas, carving out time to walk in nature and discuss philosophy with friends) weren’t very practical, though she (and I) did take his larger point about the importance of making time for activities that would actually reduce stress, because time spent not working or cramming other things in is beneficial to our mental health.

In comparison, Ashley Whillans’ research felt very helpful: she points out that even though our feelings of time stress are going up (and are actually affecting us even more negatively than, say, being unemployed), we actually have more time available to us now than at any other point throughout history, and what we need to do is reclaim it and use it well. The problem is, the surplus time that we have is broken up into little bits—what she calls “time confetti” (I love that term!) That’s partly due to technology (which lets us multitask and communicate with one another instantly at all hours of the day) and partly because we value the wrong things (e.g. money over time, which may lead us to do things like take jobs that take up more time in exchange for more money, which doesn’t actually make us happier). Whillans advocates making choices that will actually claw back time, thus promoting happiness for you—for example, outsourcing jobs that you don’t like (like cleaning to a cleaning service or cooking to a restaurant that does takeaway). Granted, not everyone has the discretionary income to do that, but all of us usually have a little we can play with to grant ourselves some time windfall.

Even so, the key thing here is to use the time we have well. Santos closes out the episode by remarking,

The idea of being more deliberate with how we think about our time is critical. Remember, time affluence isn’t the objective amount of free time you have—the actual number of open boxes in your calendar; it’s your subjective sense that you have some free time. And that means you can do a lot to boost your sense of time affluence—even if, in reality, you can’t really open up that much actual free time. It’s just the sense of giving yourself a bit of a break that makes all the difference, even if the amount of time you actual gain is small.

My take-away from all of this is that the things I’m doing during this rather odd bit of annual leave are probably being helpful to me in some way, even though I don’t think I’m feeling the effects of them all at yet. (I do, however, think I am starting to; the fact that I feel like blogging again and I’ve carved out some time today to do it is a good indicator.) Furthermore, I need to keep working at prioritising little bits of non-work time even when I’m not on leave. I dare say that will go a long way towards combatting some of the time stress I feel.

Reading is probably a good way to do it: I’ve been trying hard to do as Guan suggests and aim for a bit of guilt-free reading on most days—at least a chapter a day, if not more. It’s hard for me because of my almost total lack of self-control around fiction (which is probably a subject for a whole other post I should probably write about reading) and my reluctance to leave a world once the book is over (which makes starting new books rather painful, even when I know they’re good). But I do know it’s worth it—and after writing this post, it’s worth it in more ways than one.

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Trying to write during a pandemic

Attempting to create art at any time is an audacious and difficult act. Attempting to do it during a pandemic can be near impossible.

When I realised that COVID-19 was serious enough to warrant keeping our children home from school, part of me was also deeply in denial. I knew that home learning in combination with my part-time job would completely decimate my writing time. It had taken a while, but I had finally reached the stage where I had managed to confine my paid working hours to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, thereby leaving Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings free to focus on the writing. (I would average about 8-14 hours per week.) I had grown accustomed to spending many a happy hour sitting in one of my local cafés, the library or even the food court near my gym, plugging away at my current work in progress—a young adult fantasy novel set in a world that roughly resembled Edo-era Japan. I viewed writing as being my part-time unpaid job, and even though no one in particular was awaiting this manuscript and even though it may not end up being very publishable (because the one book has since turned into two and publishers are less likely to pick up series these days), I liked what I was doing and wanted to see it to completion.

I spent that last day before home learning began out on our balcony, ignoring my paid job and defiantly scribbling because I knew I would not get the opportunity to do that for a long while.

Then when shutdown measures were put in place and our girls were home with us all the time, life changed completely. It took a while to get used to the new normal, but eventually it started looking like this:

  • Waking up later than usual and having my breakfast (one nice thing about the pandemic is being able to sleep in a little; I am thankful I have kids who will do this);
  • Getting the girls up, dressed and breakfasted; supervising home learning for both Miss 9 and Miss 6 using the schedule the teachers send through at the beginning of the week (it consists of a weekly timetable filled with tasks—mainly English and Maths, but occasionally there are activities related to Science, History, Health, Art, Library and [guh] PE. [I never thought parenting would involve teaching my child the Macarena and the Nutbush]). On a good day, I will spend most of my time supervising Miss 6 while Miss 9 just gets on with it; on a bad day, I will be on both their cases to try and get them to do the work. On a great day, I will even be able to get a few work-related tasks done at the same time. We are fortunate to have enough devices for this: Ben and I never got rid of our old laptops, so the girls have one each for their school work and occasional Zoom meetings;
  • Breaking for lunch: I pack four days’ worth of lunches at the beginning of the week so all the girls need to do is take their lunchbox out of the fridge. But I still need to prepare lunch for me and Ben. Most days it’s a salad of some description. On Fridays, we get takeaway from our local café as a way of supporting them and keeping them in business;
  • Making the girls do a bit of tidying and chores. In the early days, we worked on decluttering and tidying their rooms as the build-up had gotten a bit out of hand. These days, it’s more surface cleaning. Or sometimes I will get them to make a card to post to someone (e.g. if there’s a family birthday coming up) or finish some colouring in they started that they refuse to part with. This is also when I am able to squeeze in some housework;
  • Letting the girls have screen time: at the moment, they are completely addicted to Minecraft Education, so I log Miss 9 back into the laptop she uses for home learning and I log Miss 6 onto the iPad. The nice thing is they can play together in their virtual worlds. Occasionally they even get together with other school friends and play. They also never seem to get tired of it!
  • Working on tasks related to my paid job. Now that I’m finally doing just one job instead of two and I have a very lovely employer who is happy for me to work flexibly and who has always allowed me to work from home, I tend to spread my hours across five or six days a week. I also have some time in lieu I can use if need be;
  • My husband taking the girls out for some exercise at around 4pm. This is when I drop everything and write;
  • Throwing dinner together;
  • Squeezing in another hour or so of work after dinner while my husband does the dishes, bath and bedtime (though sometimes this time is also devoted to housework);
  • Spending my evenings after the girls are in bed either watching Netflix, reading, doing more work for the paid job (if need be), catching up with someone over the phone, online Bible Study, etc.
Hallway PE lesson

Hallway PE lesson.

Given I no longer have large swathes of creative time, I’ve found that there’s certain types of writing that I’m just incapable of doing right now. I can’t write new stuff. I can’t even re-draft what I’ve already written because I don’t have the brain capacity. Instead, my writing has consisted of scribbling longhand in a journal about things to do with my novel. It’s not quite a zero draft (though aspects of it are); I think of it being more like a subzero draft. It’s not the prose that will go into the novel; it’s writing around the novel to do with things about the novel.

Initially I wrote about the section I was up to and the section after, trying to work out what happens in it and why. Lately, though, I’ve started sketching out the arcs for each of my point of view characters—trying to work out where the plot twists and turns, as well as some of the finer details around that. Sometimes the sketching takes me off on research tangents. (I spent a very long time looking into Japanese arrows and how they’re made one afternoon.) Sometimes the scribbling is about minor characters I’m trying to get to know. The rule is that I must write about the novel, but I can write about anything I want related to it.

An old me would not have seen the value of this sort of writing because it doesn’t seem like actual writing (even though I am averaging 5-6 hours a week on it). And then a couple of years ago when I was at ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival), I was talking to my friend Louie about it and he compared it to that stage of comics when you’re thumbnailing/sketching roughs. He said something about how when you’re doing that, it can seem like you’re not doing much, because usually you’re just messing around and trying things. But often you end up making very key decisions that carry over into later stages of the work—when you’re pencilling/inking/colouring, etc.

That little comment stayed with me because I realised he’s totally right and that it’s true of prose writing too: as I’ve been playing around and giving myself permission to write whatever (even if it’s a grammatical and spelling nightmare, and it sounds completely incoherent), I have been making key decisions about story and characters that I know will carry across into the finished work. What I’m doing isn’t a waste of time; it’s actually constructive and helfpul. Furthermore, it’s even fun.

And when it’s fun, it’s a very nice escape from the current situation. (Indeed, one of the good things about writing a fantasy novel is being able to slip away into a different pandemic-free world.) And that’s very good for sustaining my mental health—at least until the time when I will finally have my writing days back again.