About time…why does it stretch and shrink the way it does? For most of this year, I’ve been writing the new Verity Sparks. I’ve started off my writing sessions in various moods – I’ve felt dutiful, exasperated, desperate, competent, hopeless, hopeful, contented and even happy, to name a few. Sometimes it’s taken a little while to settle. But I have a note to myself up on the pinboard – TEMPERAMENT IS FOR AMATEURS – and Edward Bawden’s stern unbending words did the trick most days. Once I settled down to write, it was like closing a door behind me. I entered into a different zone. When I stopped and looked up, it was always a surprise to see the clock and realise that two or three hours had gone in what seemed like no time at all. Often I was suddenly aware that my shoulders were aching, or that I was busting for the toilet and a cup of tea. Not to mention ravenously hungry. I always get ravishing, as Sharon would say, when I’m writing. I’ve been told that using your brain takes lots of energy. A good excuse, because I find I very often need cake.
All this is nothing new. After all, everyone know that time flies when you’re having fun. But what I’ve been doing – for the last week, especially – isn’t exactly what I’d call fun. It’s work, especially at the draggingly pedantic stage of writing which happens at the very end. It’s a mixture of copy editing and smoothing out of rough edges and making sure no small (please, no large!) mistakes have got through all the gatekeepers. But still, once I’m through that door, I enter into the time machine. Somewhere I read that it’s called “flow”.
Now, where did I read that? A quick flick onto Wiki, and I realise it’s probably from one of the books on positive psychology by Martin Seligman. However, the person who’s done the most work on flow is a Hungarian psychology professor with the wonderful name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He calls it “optimal experience” and a “holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement”.
Since I pressed the send button on Friday, and Verity went winging off to editor Mary Verney at Walker Books in Sydney, my days have been oddly different. At first, there was a sense of relief. I told myself, “You’re nearly finished! This book – which has caused you so much trouble – is almost done at last.” But then, after a cup of tea and a walk around the park with the dog, I had to decide what to do with myself for the rest of the day. I’ve been officially on holidays all January, but even when there’s been no Verity work to do, there’s been the awareness of Verity work needing to be done. Sort of like having a load of homework constantly lurking in the background. I’m used to that load, and having it gone feels strange. Relax, I told myself. Now, you can relax.
I decided I’m not very good at relaxing. I pottered, which is an activity I usually find very soothing, but every time I looked at the clock, it seemed scarcely to have moved. I even double-checked with my phone, wondering if the battery was running down. Reading, I decided, was the go. It’s absorbing and relaxing. So over the past three days, I’ve read. I’ve read a lot. No fiction; I decided it was time to concentrate on the real world, so I finished a book on depression by Gary Greenberg, Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease and a book of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt, and I continued with the very beautiful but dense and rich The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane. But reading seemed too close to writing, making my mind work away feverishly – think, think, think! – and besides, there’s been much too much sitting down, so I decided to make a dress.
I don’t think I’ve made a dress for over eight years. I know why. I am crap at it. Hours passed, but did not flow. They unravelled crabbily, with lots of kinks and knots and breakages. I was in what, in The Big Liebowski, they call “a world of pain”. The details of my dressmaking mistakes would be tedious, so I won’t go into them here; it’s enough to say that I made a few basic errors with my measurements, and it all went downhill from there. Making a dress was a way of filling in time, but not in a good way. I left it on a hanger with its botched lapels and too-small front bodice waiting some bolt of inspiration. Can this dress be saved? Not at this particular point in time. I am an definitely an amateur.
Better was gardening – it flowed beautifully. My mind was both soothed and stimulated by the dappled light flickering through the leaves onto the paving stones, the raucous white cockies flying around overhead, the feel of leaf litter and twigs in my hands, the pleasant bending and stretching and the weight of the wheelbarrow. Only the heat and the sensation of UV rays layering through layers of skin brought me in from outside.
Later that evening, after a session pulling and pinning and unpicking and staring without inspiration at that rotten dress, I had another experience of flow, but I don’t think it’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had in mind. I Googled “What should I do about my dress?” (as if over the internet the ghost of my high-school needlework teacher would come and tell me what to do) and got Pinterest. It was a sort of “what dress should I wear today?” page, and I found a lovely 1950s-styled dress, red-and-white gingham with big red buttons, just the thing I wished I’d made instead of a misshapen Butterick shirt-dress. So then I typed in “1950s dress patterns” and nearly bought one from a site in America. It was only (only!) $18 but I was saved from buying it by the $58 postage. So I tried the same sort of search in Australia, and yes, there are sites. Page after page flashed up, and how I wished I’d kept all the patterns I’d bought in Op Shops over the years. I’d have a handy little earner. Dresses with square necks and sweetheart necklines and shawl collars and cap sleeves and slim skirts and full skirts and six gores and…
And it was nearly midnight. Time, which has been dragging for the last few days, had got away from me. Was it “flow”? No. I think it’s what’s called “time-wasting.”