Donna Tartt once wondered whether she was spending too much time on too few books. No, we spontaneously scream, no, of course she wasn’t, because she’s a bestseller and a cult writer. The Secret History alone has sold 5 million copies and was translated into 24 languages. That’s success, not waste.
Success vindicates time spent, or what we perceive as success, namely the production of something excellent (in quality or quantity) by our own standards or those of the race. But one’s standards can never be entirely one’s own. Standards can be of a minority, but they’re always collective to some degree. Recognition is fundamental to the received notion of success. Someone sees worth in what you’ve done. They then enquire, worried, how long you spent doing it.
When we address time as a separate entity, it disappears. Time exists as a dynamic between earth and the other bodies in our galaxy. Time is motion, and we’ve mapped it as we map the land, by means of points and their relations. As with land, we’ve recreated it with notions of ownership. How can we own land? We work with it and impose our politics on it, but it owns itself far more than we own our bodies, which are the communal property of cells, genes, bacteria, circumstances and the great, ever busy, big T.
How can we speak of ‘wasting time’, or ‘spending time’ in the same grammar as ‘serving time’ or ‘passing time’? Time is never wasted in its own terms. Neither does it pass. It keeps repeating itself. When we ‘serve time’, we’re perhaps closest to it, because we’re out of our constructed gradations, but what we might be wasting or spending is our selves, and our conscious ones at that. Furthermore, we can’t waste anything except in terms of a given purpose. So we’re not concerned with time or lives, neither of which we own; we’re concerned with opportunity towards some goal.
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes....
– Dylan Thomas(1)
We project outwards our social and biological paradigms, turning time, the movement of things, into the belly of a monster. Everything is futile, because there’s no guarantee that the number of hours given will gain a return. I would have benefited from a precise quantification of my (ti)me allocation when I was born, and an algorithm by which to assess how much input I should apply for how much output. As it happened I grew up in a state of wanderment, where time had no purposeful striations.
I’ve never learned how to gaze,
and so have missed ten thousand things
that stood before me, loyal as soldiers.
– Máighréad Medbh(2)
Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson(3)
I’m not sure. Maplessness is limbo. It feels good to aim at things. It feels very good to get those things. Nassim Nicholas Taleb counsels what he calls ‘stochastic tinkering’—effort without requiring an assured outcome.(4) We can’t always do this. We can rarely do it. We see our names in lights after the first paragraph of our first novel. Or we don’t try. My first novel took a lot of me to write, and a lot of me to prepare for publishers. So did my second, and my third, and my fourth. To date none of them has been published in book form. I’m recognised as a performance poet, and gave a lot of me to that too, but I didn’t turn it into a full-time occupation. Which allocation of me was correct? The poetry because of recognition? The novels because of the discipline and risk? Both, because I enjoyed both, and willingly suffered both? Neither, because I’d have made a good living as a psychologist?
If all my books were published but sold only one copy each, would that be vindication of the me I spent writing them? How many do I need to sell, and how much recognition is enough? (Algorithm, please.) Why do I need vindication? To construct a consoling concept of me? For the sake of human improvement? To satisfy a biological imperative? To satisfy whom?
One works hard, attends to detail, holds to routine. It is
futile. There is no arbiter, no approver, no dependant on this
presence. The work could be done by an other just as well.
One grows careless and sullen, makes deliberate mistakes,
drugs Oneself oblivious.
“Always be mindful that your pursuits will maintain their
integrity as long as they are of worth to you. Remember he
who, when asked why he toiled so hard on a task that only
had significance for a scant amount of people, replied: ‘A
few, or one, or even none is plenty’. He speaks the truth; you
and one companion are sufficient company, each for the
other, as indeed you are for yourself. Let a crowd consist of
one, and one be a crowd.”
(Michel de Montaigne: Of Solitude)
If we obtain the approval of others, it’s usually because our
actions are beneficial to them or the race. We’re
programmed to keep moving and to produce. All activity is
survival or its metaphors. I might accept what my nature
proclaims as its needs, decide on priorities and modus
operandi, seek no affirming seal.
– Máighréad Medbh(4)
Might we return the word ‘success’ to its womb-word, ‘succedere’, Latin, meaning ‘to come next after’? When my environs first started humming with notions of ‘success’, I was lost for understanding. I was all about just being there, earning enough in a doable job to allow creative activity in the evenings, but also squandering me and money on circular thinking, men, entertainment and trinkets. There was effort without considered end. Movement was the thing (as with time). The ‘success’ mentality seemed all about ends, and single tracks to get to them. You had to seize opportunities—that’s if you could see them, and you had to see them first. Daydreamers and myopics didn’t make the grade. There was failure on the back of every wave.
Time is a country, the present moment
A spotlight roving round the scene;
We need not chase the spotlight,
The future is the bride of what has been.
– Louis MacNeice(5)
One can only dwell in the aftermath of some action, ‘succeeding’. Is that feel-good pedantry? A project can fail to achieve what you wanted it to achieve. But there again, the effort in itself might be of use. And must everything be useful? Nature doesn’t wonder if it’s wasting itself.
You bend among
the native corn and set to reap, but blinded
by the sickle and the sway, you forget
the work you do has sense beyond the sense,
that, once revealed, brings power to possess.
– Máighréad Medbh(6)
Publishing my novels as ebooks might assure me that it wasn’t a ‘waste of time’ to write them, though maybe not if they get terrible reviews. I must admit that I already feel ‘successful’ for having managed the formatting of the first one all by myself. Either way, I swing between thinking my ti-me has been wasted, and indulging in feel-good pedantry to keep myself keeping on. I’ve been rehearsing a speech for my sixtieth birthday, in which I say, ‘At the very least I tried a few things.’ With that, I re-discover my para-successful self, inching crablike in from the sidelines, just because.
Weather is not sorry. Leaving cities in shards, it breezes to the next event with a billionaire scatter of self.
– Máighréad Medbh(7)
The Body Coat, my first novel, is now online at Smashwords.com (and its several distribution retailers) for $2.99.
(1) Thomas, Dylan: 'Fern Hill', Dylan Thomas, The Poems, ed. Daniel Jones, London: Everyman, 1985, p. 195.
(2) Medbh, Máighréad: 'the second of april', unpublished (new collection).
(3) Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 'Self-reliance' (1841), Selected Essays, London: Penguin Classics, 1985, P.189.
(4) Medbh, Máighréad: Savage Solitude, Dublin, Dedalus Press, 2013, p. 114.
(5) MacNeice, Louis, 'Autumn Journal', XXIV, Lines 13-16, Collected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 2007, p.162.
(6) Medbh, Máighréad: 'the second of april', unpublished (new collection).
(7) Medbh, Máighréad: 'Weather', unpublished (new collection).