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If someone were to draw a vertical line down a sheet of paper and write your name on one side and ‘Time” on the other, how would you score? Are you constantly battling against time to get things done, and winning? Or are you sitting back looking for things in the clouds, moments ticking past until time sweeps over you and is gone? Modern society puts the expectation on us to keep busy, our working day spilling over into our evenings and weekends, so much that what we “do” defines us.
Listening to A. S. Byatt, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and Alain de Botton at the Words in the Park literary festival, I came away ever more fascinated by the way others work, what their “process” is, how to switch off, and what makes work fulfilling – or not.
A. S. Byatt, who turns 77 this summer, is an unapologetic academic who has dedicated her life to a prolific career as a novelist, essayist, anthologist and critic. Interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire, Culture Editor of The New Statesman, she is both formidable and friendly in the flesh and, when talking about her work, has the same thoughtful, descriptive precision as in her writing.
Her daily routine is one of absolute absorption. There is no question of her battling against the clock, or wasting time idly. Before she has even started her day, or a project, she has already submersed herself wholly in the research of her topic to ease herself into the first stages of a new venture. She starts writing as soon as she wakes up every morning. I imagine her at a Dickensian writing desk, in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a dewy, melancholic English garden. This old-fashioned image seems to fit her outlook on time and work.
“Why do people need to tweet all the time? Nobody is quiet anymore. You don’t see anyone walking along the streets in silence these days,” she said, though she later conceded that these strangers seem more jovial than those she remembers on the streets of her childhood.
Maybe it’s her quieter, Twitterless life that has helped her maintain such strict routine. Within this space, she has, and continues to, rebel against the rules of others. Constantly pushing the bounds of storyteller, poet and lecturer, there are plenty of so-called writing rules that A. S. Byatt does not subscribe to.
For instance, she stoutly opposes what most creative writers are taught: that you must “show” rather than “tell”, since it is with the latter that a more profound connection with the reader is formed. She receives countless anthologies and is always a little disheartened, not by the writers’ technical skill, or of the shape of their stories, or of their talent, but by their unwillingness to break the mould.
“In being too prescriptive, the power of a story can be lost,” she said.
Throughout her life, A. S. Byatt’s discipline may have remained steady, but the way in which she works has changed. Rather than creating a character and allowing her story to develop around it, she now creates the “box”, setting the stage and the story, before filling it in with her characters. The process is ultimately organic. Her characters find their voice as she continues to write; she does not impose it on them at the beginning.
The next afternoon at the literary festival, I had to convert from the conscientious work ethic of this heady intellectual from the evening before to the “anti-work” modus operandi of a cloud spotter. Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founding member of The Cloud Appreciation Society, is as subversively eccentric as the name of his society implies. Pictured in the festival’s programme as sanguine and relaxed sitting on a fake cloud, on stage he slipped between various personas – a nepholologist, a romantic, an author and an idler.
Coleridge and the Romantics were hardworking, he said, and yet they knew how to kick back on the grass and, after spotting a few rabbits and marshmallow women on bad hair days, wrote:
O! It is pleasant, with a heart at ease,
Just after sunset, or by moonlight skies,
To make the shifting clouds be what you please…
With a growing number of social platforms and mobile apps making us feel as if we have to be “switched on” at all times, it’s important to remember that we can and should wilfully fall into a free frame of mind, into aimless activity, without guilt.
Gavin pointed out that cloud spotting is a pastime that goes back further than the Romantic poets. The earliest illustrated indication lies in the background of a 1289 Giotto fresco (left). In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare also talks of finding things in clouds. But The Cloud Appreciation Society has a deeper message, and it’s about how to remain sane in our frantic, work obsessed modern world, that we might do well to break our routine from time to time, emptying our minds of work, shutting our mouths and looking upwards to the ephemeral beauty of the sky, because “Clouds are for dreamers, and their contemplation benefits the soul.”
This point was strengthened by Alain De Botton a few hours later, who, in his Religion for Atheists talk, demonstrated that many religious practices are designed to slow us down, to stop us working from time to time. Being a workaholic makes us forget that humans didn’t make everything, that there is a higher order, whether it’s God you believe in or something else. Being so preoccupied with the detail of what’s in front of us, we often forget to reflect on what is beyond us. An antidote for this kind of megalomania can often be found in religion, like the Jewish Sabbath or, more in keeping with Gavin’s cloud spotting, in Buddhism, which provides a date in the diary for looking at the moon.
The external structure of religion helps gives our internal structure shape, de Botton said. When religion collapses and the importance of work and love are heightened we are more prone to mental instability. Therefore, he said, “Secular societies need its own institutions that give space and support to our inner lives.” We find these in community based projects, listening to inspiring lectures, visiting art galleries. Once our inner and outer beings are looked after, we can work, and love, with a greater sense of purpose, of self, and creativity.
When we think about our relationship with this thing called “Time” and how much of it we spend either working or stressing about work, it’s good to remember that we don’t actually have much of it, certainly not enough to waste it. The balance is always crucial. We must keep the score between “Time” and “Us” so we never risk being lazy, frustrated or worse, depressed. And it’s not difficult. Perhaps all one needs is a mixture of routine, cloud spotting, and a day at a literary festival.
Juliette Golding studied at Cheltenham Ladies' College and The University of Manchester before going on to study creative writing in San Francisco. She moved to London as a script writer and marketing executive and is in the process of completing a book of short stories. She currently lives in East London.