I want your life. Or, perhaps to be more specific, I want your time. With fervor, I scan through your Instagram stories and watch as you swan in and out of shops, buying bouquets of flowers, vintage linens, and props for your latest photo shoot. Designers send you cotton dresses, and you tie silk scarves in your hair. Often, you are bare-mouthed. Sometimes, you wear red lipstick. You are in France for a year because it’s always been a dream of yours, and, as a result, your photographs have become good, astonishingly good, because you’ve had the privilege of time. You spend hours studying photography and French surrealists — I know this because your feed is flooded with the minutiae of your day — and your work, once a string of hyperstylized photographed fashion and finery, has taken on a depth and poise that is wholly your own. Your subject is your body—more specifically, you. Over the course of a year, you have pared yourself down to bone, and it’s been beautiful, though mostly painful, for me to watch.
Today is a good day because I’ve managed to pay my rent and monthly bills (student loans, credit cards, bills that are accompanied with a self-addressed stamped envelope so as to make it easier, or the option to pay online so as to make it even easier). I’m just getting by; I’m crawling, albeit barely, through another day. And there you go again, talking about white peonies and the Provence air.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Stephen Hunter pens an article that is intent on stomping his feet all over your overworked face. Don’t bother writing a novel unless you can commit to writing every day, he says. Oh, that’s just hyperbole, he says, what I really mean is write every day. The author talks about writing as if it were bloodsport, a Battle Royale–like competition where the majority of participants won’t manage to drag their carcass over the finish line. After Hunter attempts to lure you in with his self-deprecating humor (he’s not as attractive, hygienic, or hair-abundant as you!), he reminds you that he’s the victor because he got in his word count for the day. Unlike you, he finished:
This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!
Set aside the fact that there is no one path to publication, or that some talented writers have to prioritize meals and gas over word count, or that some writers have to prioritize their dedication to deal with taking care of a family, an illness, or a disability, or that word count matters at all.
What Hunter fails to understand is that it’s not his discipline jettisoning him to his two favorite words—“the end”—it’s the privilege of time.
The work of writing a novel isn’t predicated on punching in every day, but clocking in when you can. When you can find the time. As Ciplex founder Ilya Pozin notes, measuring productivity by hours worked every day is borderline prehistoric.
I write dark, experimental literary fiction, the kind of books some people like but most don’t read. Sure, a few breakout titles emerge every season, but for the most part, the kind of books I write garner royalty checks that allow me to enjoy a Shake Shack lunch — if I’m lucky. Yet my constant refrain, uttered from the womb, has been: It’s fine, just fine, because I have this marketing work over here that pays the bills. My brand marketing projects afford me the privilege to write small books for a tiny audience, but I take joy in this smallness. I don’t take for granted my ability to write or the time I’ve had to finish two books.
Once, I didn’t write for four years because my job was so stressful that finding the time and energy to commit to a new book was unimaginable when I’d been sending emails at 2:30 in the morning. Sometimes our wants are smothered by the weight of our needs. I need to pay my bills every month. I need to eat.
While consulting has empowered me to do some of the best work of my career, it also comes with a large degree of uncertainty. There are months when I’m flush, and there times when I have to get inventive with rice. And although I’ve tried to cushion myself during those cricket-like times when it feels as if everyone is deliberately dodging my calls and emails, the reality is I have thousands of dollars in debt that I’m obligated to pay every month. What a luxury it would be to spend a few months focusing solely on the new book I desperately want to write! What a privilege it would be to sit in front of my computer for hours on end every day, toiling away at new work!
Most of my waking hours are consumed with the hope that I’ll be able to get by for another month, and I devote my days in service of that hope.
I have friends who covet limbs, parts of another woman’s body. I want those abs, those legs, that hair. I know people who desire a stranger’s life because the representation of it, that carefully constructed fiction, far exceeds their own best days. We want what we don’t have — that job, that marriage, that abundant family, that body not ravaged by illness or time, help — and social media is fodder for that want.
What I want is time independent of anything else, and the more I realize that my days are diminished of it, the more I feel that the inability to focus on my creative work robs me of the joy I feel when creating it. My days are robbed of balance and flavor. I’m not foolish enough to believe that the representation of a life is the whole of that life, and I’m sure the photographer or writer who is abundant with privilege has her own private suffering and pain, but that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t want her life; I want to pilfer her time.
Today, I watch you ride your bike through the French countryside. You’ve named your goldfish Matisse. You wave your camera in and out of the frame.
On Facebook, a fellow writer responds to Hunter’s article with “fuck that guy!”
But all I can think about is how my possibilities are fewer and farther between, and how the rest of my life is becoming increasingly shorter, and how to fit all my wants and needs in the space between the two.