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The one where you have to live to write
I read this article this week about late-stage pandemic burn-out and the long-term effects of staring at a computer screen for far too long. Which, basically, are that: “I’m just so exhausted all the time. I’m doing so much less than I normally do—I’m not traveling, I’m not entertaining, I’m just sitting in front of my computer—but I am accomplishing way less. It’s like a whole new math. I have more time and fewer obligations, yet I’m getting so much less done.”
Which of course, leads me to counter with Bertrand Russell in his admonishment of our era: “Men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”
I suppose your perspective depends on whether you are reading too much of the New York Times—where I discovered the former statement, or whether you are filling your life with philosophy—where I discovered the latter statement. In either case, I am in agreeance with the latter. Meaning that there are other ways one can occupy their time than by being on the internet.
In fact, according to Socrates: “A man learns more by ‘playing’ with ideas in his leisure time than by sitting in a classroom.”
I’ll give you an example. Every Sunday I send a newsletter. Then every Monday I sit at my computer with nothing to say. There’s nothing new or interesting about my life, I think. No one will possibly care what I think about “that.” I come up with all kinds of diversions: Maybe I’ll only send a newsletter twice a month, or once a month. Maybe I need to focus on quality not quantity.
(I am still in a debate with myself on this issue. Writing once a week is kind of a lot. And yet, remember when I used to only send a newsletter when I wrote one? I think I sent one newsletter every three months. Even then, I never liked what I wrote. So apparently that argument with myself is a moo point—don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
Then, somewhere around Wednesday or Thursday, I find myself sitting on a porch, overlooking a river, drinking white wine straight from the bottle and reading philosophy and I think, “That’s it! That’s what I want to write about!” And I put all those philosophy quotes I just read into a Substack post on my phone and lo-and-behold I actually have something I want to say before Sunday.
What I’m saying is that you can’t sit at your computer all day and expect good things to happen.
Take Victor Hugo, for instance. According to the book Daily Rituals, he worked on his book until 11 in the morning, then he presided over a two-hour lunch with fans and press followed by a two-hour walk and a carriage ride with his mistress, then he spent a “boisterous evening at Juliette’s, joined by friends for dinner, conversation, and cards.” He “filled himself up” with all the unique pleasures of living so that he could “empty it all back out” on the page the next morning. And he wrote Les Miserables—so, it worked.
Ernest Hemingway did something similar. He always said he would write until he was empty, and then he would have to go fill himself back up again. “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice… and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again,” he once said. He worked from 6am until noon, then set himself to galivanting about with a sort of Parisian literary retinue. And he wrote A Moveable Feast based on that Parisian literary retinue—so that worked too.
In my dream world, I too would write until about 11 or so before heading out on an adventure—and I do enjoy that kind of existence on the weekends. But during the week, I have a job and am not granted the sort of leisure time afforded to Victor or Ernest, so I write from 7 to 9 then work until about 4 or 5 (with a break for yoga in between) before I shut the laptop once and for all and head out on an adventure.
That is still a long time on the internet—and I totally burn out on it. How could you not? There is nothing going on on the internet except tedium. It’s all people sharing their every random thought on Twitter and everyone else retweeting it as though they said something truly witty and profound. Don’t get me wrong, good things happen on the internet too, like long-form articles and books. You know, the kind of content where you develop thoughts and have ideas. But the rest is just tedium. And sitting there looking at tedium all day is not going to inspire the next great American novel. It’s just not.
(Nor, I might add, will it inspire good work. Who has ever spent 12 hours at a computer and then said, “wow I had such a productive day!” Well, maybe Elon Musk. But APART FROM HIM. No one, is my conclusion without any evidence whatsoever except my own personal, anecdotal experience of how work works. Even then, I hardly think Elon sits at a computer all day so I rest my case.)
But you know what will? (Inspire the next great American novel, make for a good workday, etc.) Things that happen off the internet. Like spending four hours soaking in a hot spring, or riding your bike along the river, or eating almond croissants, or speaking in French with a guy you just heard speak French, or discovering a copy of La Vie de Marianne in a tiny free library along the path and trying to read it by the water. All of which were things I experienced this week.
I admit, I spend a lot of time at the computer on account of having a job and writing books. But there is no way I could spend any more time than I already do. If I did, well I would become exhausted and unproductive and burned-out. Much like that New York Times writer did, I suppose.
In the end, the actual “at the computer” part of writing, is the smallest part of writing. It’s the living that’s most mandatory.
Thank you for reading.
Until next Sunday,
Quote of the week:
If a man cannot invest his life, or any part of it, with meaning, all he has left are distractions from meaninglessness. —Travels With Epicurus
Articles I’m reading
This interview between two great newsletter writers Ann Friedman and Delia Cai.
This article about 50+ year-olds on TikTok and how they are imbibing our lives with meaning.
This article that will make you want to go out and buy a book about a little boy who is setting out to find his father, the king of Farawayland (I did). And will also introduce you to the word eucatastrophe which is truly the best word ever.
Books I’m reading
I am still reading Mr. Fox though I keep getting lost. Every time I pick it up at night I think, wait what just happened? And then I have to back up ten pages just to re-discover that the book really is that strange and the parts don’t seem to connect in any way. But I persist because the stories are amazing.
I’m still reading Travels with Epicurious (hence this philosophical post) and am absolutely loving it. If you ever want a reminder that sometimes old Greek men just sit on a veranda eating olives straight from the tree as they sip retsina with their friends and that that is totally enough of a life for them then this is your read.
Writing progress this week
Book one: I took the $750 I won as part of a pitch competition and used it to schedule advertisements in other newsletters in an attempt to grow my audience before I debut my novel. I will report how each of these ads does in a future newsletter.
Book two: I haven’t spent as much time on this as I’d like, but that is only because marketing my first book is such a pre-occupation. That being said, book writing is my favorite thing and I want to get back to it. Because of this, I may decide at some point in the next week or so that this newsletter only happens every two weeks instead of every one. And that Twitter needs to take a back seat. But I’m going to sit down and take a look at my goals this week and make some decisions about exactly what will be best for my first book, while giving me time to write my second.
Articles: I wrote this.