I’ve been reading through Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and I just got to that oft-quoted chestnut, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that hour, is what we are doing.”
I have had ample opportunity to reflect on these ideas these last three weeks. I’ve been the “Writer in Residence” at Furman University (my alma mater), teaching a creative writing course three hours a day and staying alone in an apartment near campus. The demands on my time are probably less than usual, but they are different demands, and I am just now settling into a routine that feels steadily productive. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not settling into a steady routine so much as producing from a sense of urgency; now that my days as Writer in Residence are almost done, I need to do more writing and less residing.
When I talk to writers about ordering one’s days to ensure a regular time for writing, I usually have to appeal to that time-honored principle, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I am a firm believer in habits and strict scheduling; I’m just not very good at it. (In the same way, I firmly believe in the wisdom of choosing the side salad over the french fries; i’ve just never done it.) Nevertheless, this three weeks of bachelor living has confirmed for me the importance of a regular schedule to protect the important but rarely urgent work of writing from the urgencies that demand a response every hour of every working day.
I love what Annie Dillard says about schedules:
A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order–willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
It is worth considering the difference between what we usually think of as a good day and what we usually think of as a good life. What days do you consider your best days? Vacation days? Those are great, but you probably wouldn’t want to make a life out of them. Your wedding day? As lovely as a wedding day is, you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns if you have too many of them.
“There is no shortage of good days,” writes Annie Dillard. “It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading is a good life.” She could have just as easily said that a life spent writing is a good life.
No doubt you’ve seen the acronym FOMO–the fear of missing out. FOMO is exaggerated by social media, which reminds you that on any given day, somebody is having more fun than you. FOMO is driven by the pursuit of a good day. But the pursuit of a good life is going to require that you commit to habits, perhaps schedules that give shape to the kind of days that add up to a good life.