The Curse of Unstructured Time

Lately when I meet new people and the conversation comes to that inevitable lull where the new persons asks, “So what do you do?”, I have been trying to say, “I am a writer."

It doesn’t come out like that, yet, although that’s an ultimate goal of mine. It comes out, “I guess, I mean, I don’t know; my life is kind of a mishmash. I’m sort of a kind of a writer? I mean, I’m not Stephen King or anything — I don’t want you to think I’m arrogant; I don’t really want you to think that I think that I’m a writer. But if the question is, ‘Where does most of your income come from?’ the answer would be, ‘It comes from writing.’ Like, I have a book coming out? So I can say I’m a writer I guess? But no, seriously, let’s be serious, I also teach. I’m teaching at art schools. Writing. I’m teaching writing at art schools. I’m a teacher. I’m a writing teacher, of art-writing. Should we get sandwiches?"

Part of my hesitation in claiming the whole “writer” moniker (although I have many hesitations) is that writers are supposed to be good with unstructured time. It is inside this unstructured time that we writers supposedly do our writing. Every craft essay ever has something to do with how to cultivate unstructured time and then how to use it accordingly. “Find a non-negotiable hour every day in which to write,” the craft essays say. “When Murakami is writing a novel, he wakes up at 4 a.m. and writes for six hours, even on the weekends."

Occasionally, people come to me with queries about how to make a routine. They see that I sometimes get published and they want to know how I carve out the time to go about getting published. I try to act sort of all-knowing — because who doesn’t daydream about being Morgan Freeman in the story of someone else’s life — and I go, “Oh, you have to wake up at 4 a.m. every morning and just start writing. You spend your free time early in the morning writing, and that’s just how it has to be done.” I don’t add, however, the following caveat: “You should also have an out-of-the-house job that starts at 9 a.m."

I am good at writing in the in-between hours — before breakfast, during a lunch hour, after work but before Luke gets home. Given a whole day of unstructured time, though, I totally fall apart.

I wake up and think, “I don’t really need to get up early, do I?” And then I stare at the ceiling telling myself that I should "go on a social media cleanse today” because it’s supposedly so good for your creative spirit. And then I browse Facebook, telling myself that “today I won’t watch any TV, not even while I’m cleaning the house.” And then Luke leaves for work, and I see that there’s some kind of mess — like, maybe the utilities closet is in slight disarray — and I decide that the first thing I’ll do with my day is clean the utilities closet. Once everything is out of the utilities closet, I’ll decide to put on “Degrassi” on YouTube, “but just in the background, sort of to keep me company.” Then I’ll realize that someone on “Degrassi” just did cocaine, but I wasn’t paying attention to who it was because I was too busy with the utilities closet, and decide I’ve earned a break, and get in bed to devote more energy to “Degrassi.” Then I’ll think, “I should have popcorn.” Then I’ll make popcorn, and six episodes later I’ll decide to wash the popcorn bowl, and by that time it'll be time for lunch. No one wants to eat lunch alone in the quiet, so I’ll make myself some Top Ramen and switch to “Legally Blonde” for the thirteenth time this month and by then the day is basically over.

This, to my utter humiliation, pretty much describes my entire summer. I watch people pass by the window of my apartment off to do constructive things, and I continue watching TV on my computer while cleaning a seemingly endless number of rhetorical utility closets, ostensibly on the way to sit down and write for an hour — but the hour for writing never comes. And then I begin to get depressed and it is doubly hard to do anything while depressed.

I am only able to write this now because I have started a new job. I am in professional development all week at The Chicago High School for the Arts, where I will teach journalism in the fall. This is basically my fantasy job and I am totally enamored with the school, so getting to show up every morning at 9 a.m. to sit through an hours-long training on basic attendance-tracking software is, frankly, dreamy. I prefer being busy. I like decisions throughout the day to be mostly made for me so I can simply go through the motions, tire myself out, and go to bed. Having a lot of obligations during the day frees up all my willpower for writing for pleasure.

Willpower may be at the center of the struggle. Science teaches us that willpower is a limited resource — think of it as a muscle that can get tired, like your arms when you’re doing push-ups.* A whole day of unstructured time is like a whole day for push-ups. I know I am supposed to keep making good and healthy decisions all day long, but there’s a point at which that begins to feel impossible. As a female-bodied person perpetually thinking about and dealing with her weight, I put most of my willpower into working out and eating well on days with unstructured time. At some point, I don’t feel strong enough to be a writer.

I recognize that this is about the whiniest thing in the world to articulate. “Oh, wah wah wah, I’m a wittle baby and it’s sooooo hard for me to not have a JOB during the day.” When I read O Magazine (monthly, in the bath, like an addict), I learn that I am supposed to have literally no free time and feel constantly stressed out by my job, or by all the things I have to do. I do have a long and itemized list of things that must get done, and the list does stress me out, but O Magazine tends not to acknowledge the curse of unstructured time. It acts like all women dream of having in the world is a whole day to do whatever they want. A whole day to do whatever I want — in my house, where all the utility closets spring out at me like glaring prom night zits — is my personal hell. 

I write this because I know I am not alone. I am not the only one on earth who needs a structured job with deadlines and meetings in order to do the unstructured, wild, and creative work of Artist. Maybe Murakami can hold himself accountable to his novel-writing self, but not everyone works that way. Some of us need quiet, stolen hours, where our writing doesn’t feel so much like a job, but more like a rare gift to be taken when no one is looking. 


*I think. I’ve never done more than one push-up.