[process] Time, choices, and the virtues of a boring life

Writer Keith Garrett has a post up this week wherein he takes off from my comment about a boring life, made on Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Coincidentally, I was discussing cancer and writing with Rob Furey in chat in this morning, when he observed that a lot of people in my position would just pick up the remote and sit on the couch.

As I said to Rob, I don’t even have cable. I’d be watching a blue screen all day.

In point of fact, my life is not actually boring. It’s damned interesting. Even now with cancer, and I don’t just mean that in the proverbial sense of “interesting”. But it’s interesting in substantial part because of the choices I’ve made along the way. And those choices have been optimized around and my writing life.

I cancelled my cable in 1994. I’ve never had an antenna. While I still own a TV, and about a hundred DVDs and VHS tapes, I haven’t watched a show on television in 16 years. Incidentally, I have a twelve year old daughter who has grown up without a working television in the house. She’s never seen a commercial in her own home.

This wasn’t strength of character, or some principled stance on the supposed evils of television. This was me realizing that I would turn on a Simpsons rerun at 6:30, turn off the TV at 10:30, and have no idea what I’d watched, or what I’d done with my evening. The biggest reason I drink very minimally, and gave up street drugs during the first Reagan administration, is that I hate feeling stupid. Drink and drugs make me stupid. And TV made me stupid.

I recovered an amazing amount of time in my schedule, and applied much of it to my writing. (This was seven years before my first sale, just in case you’re tracking.)

Likewise, I stopped both console gaming and PC gaming in 2000, for essentially the same reasons. Disclaimer: I still occasionally play games on my iPhone, especially given the toilet-based lifestyle cancer has imposed on me. Sid Meier no longer owns my brain, however. In that case, the plot elements of Civilization-class games were so seductive to me that I found I wrote much less, and needed to write much less, if the itch was being scrapped by gaming. So no more games for me.

Given the amount of D&D and AD&D (first edition, just in case you’re tracking) I played between about 1978 and about 1988, if the modern immersive online gaming experience had been available back then, I doubt I’d ever have made it as a writer. World of Warcraft would have carried me away on a happy tide of leveling up and raiding, much as LSD could have carried me away on a happy tide of color and sensory overload if I’d let it. I am of the opinion that we’ve lost a meaningful part of a generation of writers to online gaming for much the same reasons, though my evidence is purely anecdotal, not data-driven. (And for whatever that’s worth, good for them if they’re happy. Everybody makes their own choices — all of this is intended as observation, not criticism.)

So I don’t leave my house much (working at home will do that to you.) I don’t watch tv or game or go to parties or drink in bars. I sit home where I read and write. I exercise. I hang with my kid and my friends and loved ones. And I read and write.

Did I mention reading and writing?

Because in choosing not to pursue several of the most popular forms of entertainment in middle class American culture, I have made my life both more boring and far more interesting than it otherwise would have been. Cancer challenges me in some of these areas, but it’s a transient challenge. Like having the flu for a year, with bonus mortality risks.

As I’ve written before, I hold passionate views on the role of Consumers and Producers in our culture. Everybody is a Consumer by definition. Not very many of us get to be Producers. And I love being a Producer. I’m raising to be a Producer, if she wants. Most of my friends are Producers, or working hard to be so. Being a Producer means giving up a lot of Consuming. Which is of course a paradox, as you can’t be an effective Producer if you don’t understand what Consumers want, need and love.

So I happily forgo my sixtieth-level wizard-god-kings and my nights telling jokes in the bar and ever seeing a minute of Buffy or Castle in exchange for my books on the shelf and my stories in your hands. That’s just me. It’s not even advice for you. But I’m here to tell you it works. When I’m not in the grips of cancer, the number of free hours I have to write is staggering, given what I don’t do. A boring life holds immense rewards.

How badly do you want to be a Producer? What have you given up? What would you give up? What’s an hour of writing (or art or music) worth to you?

17 thoughts on “[process] Time, choices, and the virtues of a boring life

  1. This post is amazing.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who found games like that too seductive – and I’m sure you got the same utterly confused looks I did when I backed away from them.

    A lot of this is about self-control, but I think the biggest portion of the impetus behind a decision like this is simple: priorities.

    What matters more? Getting words on the page? Telling a story that does to other people what a good story does to you? Or something else?

    Excellent post. I’d like to reference it later, if you don’t mind.

  2. Likewise with the no cable (though for my family it’s also an economic decision: cable is crazy expensive, and you can’t possibly use it enough to make it worth what you pay without giving your brain fully to the box). I don’t game as much as I’d actually like to, for reasons of having no time.

    Sadly, I don’t have time not because I’m using it to be a producer, but because I’m currently using to be a consumer of advanced education.

    1. Jay says:

      If I had the time and resources, I too would be a consumer of advanced education. Sigh.

      1. It’s exciting for the first year. But when you’re also doing a regular, soul-numbing and mind-draining full time day job and “consuming” advanced education in your evenings… well… by the end of the second year you’re ready to be done. I’ve got one full year left, now, but I’m getting tired.

        1. Jay says:

          At one point, I dropped out of law school on the first day of classes. These days my sights are more set on an MFA so I can teach.

          1. That would be cool. I was considering going on to get a PhD to teach, but one thing has held me up on that front: while I’d have to quit my day job (b/c the PhD is a full-time gig), I’d basically be making a pittance in the form of a stipend that wouldn’t keep my family of 3 above the poverty line for 4 years. I decided that’s just not worth it, even to get out from under the yoke of soul-numbing corporate jobs.

  3. Ellen Eades says:

    Absolutely. I, too, am a former gaming addict. When I gave up World of Warcraft, my time for painting and reading skyrocketed. I, too, don’t have a working television, although (disclaimer) my kids and I are working our way through Buffy on DVD. The point is, we are doing it together, and we’re talking about it together, and it’s a bonding experience. We tried gaming together as a bonding experience, but shouting “HEALZ NOW!!111!” across the room is shallow amusement compared to getting outside and drawing a tree or growing a vegetable garden. My spouse disagrees with me about gaming in general, but he is able to play something for a couple of months and put it down — an unusual trait that I don’t have. For people with a rich fantasy life, WoW does, indeed, scratch the itch; but I always felt something missing when I scratched it that way. I don’t anymore.

    1. I tried WoW once on a friend’s account: they were able to create trial accounts or something to try to hook their friends, too.

      It didn’t scratch any itches for me (not the way D&D could)… I believe b/c it lacked something fundamentally important that single-player games and tabletop RPGs do much better: tell a story with a defined beginning, middle, and end – a plot, characters, and a problem overcome.

      Constant raids and camping for loot just don’t do it for me.

  4. cate says:

    From something you mentioned in yesterday’s post, it sounds like you are raising a producer child (ie, she was knitting). BTW, it sounds like she was using double-pointed needles and perhaps making a sock or a hat?

    I grew up with cable when I lived at home. Once I moved out on my own, I couldn’t afford it. I quickly discovered that I didn’t miss it at all. Instead, I started a DVD collection of things I knew I’d watch, and would watch more than once. I also took up watercolor painting, knitting, cello playing, photography, and writing to fill up the free not-staring-at-a-box hours.

    I could afford cable or satellite or FIOS now, but I haven’t bothered to get any of them. I can’t justify the expense for how little I would use them. I’ve never understood paying for a bunch of channels I would never watch anyway. If it were more of an a la carte pay by the channel, or even by the show, I might consider it. I know there’s pay-per-view, but you have to have cable or satellite or FIOS to use it.

    Even with the DVDs and what little TV I do watch, I can’t just sit and watch. I need something else to do at the same time – knitting, folding laundry, watercolor painting, paying bills, or whatever. I suppose that means I’m more of a TV or movie listener than viewer, and it’s probably why I like audiobooks and podcasts, too, since I can listen to them while I do other things.

  5. Paul Tseng says:

    Great post, Jay!

    Lot’s of wisdom in counting your time as too valuable to just veg out. Games and doing nothing can be addicting and ultimately weakening. Buy you’ve shown great fortitude as evidenced by your considerable work and product. Watching TV for me is a way to hang out with my wife and we only watch about 1 hour each time. I only watch DVR recorded programs that I find some story value in and sometimes they spark my own creative fire.

    When my wife was away for two weeks, I didn’t watch a minute of television it play any games. However, there is still the lure of the Internet and excessive research, blogging and facebook.



  6. This was a fantastic post. As an avid gamer (which I somehow justify by writing paid articles about gaming), I often think about the plus/minus ratio of how I spend my free time.

    For writing, I’ve given up: TV (not that I ever was a TV lover), a lot of social stuff (again — I’m a bit of an introvert, so this actually is okay for me, mostly), a lot of money (this is a big one — I’ve been a freelancer for years and am always juggling love-writing time vs. paid-writing time. the answer for me is almost always that I am willing to “have less” (money, clothes, objects, etc.) in order to “create more”. Of course, I am single and don’t have children, so this is an option that isn’t available to most people).

    There are very few things I refuse to give up for my writing: loved ones, physical activities, reading and good food being the big ones.

    I would say my biggest time killer is social media and gaming. In truth, I am streaky with both. I go through periods of great productivity followed by periods of little productivity. I used to beat myself up about this, but I’ve come to realize that I really am like a sponge. Sometimes I’m just too wrung dry to come up with anything worthwhile and working then is a waste of time and effort. So I hit the games for a little while, kill some things, have some (probably much-needed) social interaction, forget about writing and let it all percolate underneath my conscious brain. Then I come back to the writing. Social media is most just a waste of time (except for discovering great thought-provoking stuff!), and I wish I could/would do less of it.

  7. Also, Ellen, the HEALZ bit made me laugh too incredibly hard!

  8. David Wilford says:

    My biggest leisure time sink has been social media, but lately I’m wanting to spend less time online and more time singing songs and playing my guitar. I can tell something is up when I’m finding myself wanting to be a better guitarist, because I’m getting deeper into the music and not just being a passive listener.

    I’m thankful I’m no longer a Civ addict too, but I do still role play once a month with friends.

  9. Jason Block says:

    Nice post. Although I think the social aspect of video and movies is unique and valuable. While I get most of my truly meaningful stories from books, I experience those stores alone, to be shared after the fact, if at all. Video and film offers us stories that can be shared in real time with a small group of people. And snacks.

  10. Cora says:

    I was never a big gamer anyway and gave up on videogames entirely several years ago. Never was into the whole RPG thing at all, so I can easily see how one could be sucked in.

    I’ve given up on magazines, crosswords and comic books. The comics were not a deliberate sacrifice, I simply realized that I just bought them out of habit and no longer derived any joy from them.

    I used to have a blog, which I stopped updating when I was scrambling to finish my MA degree. When I was ready to come back to it, the blogging software had upgraded and locked me out, so I never started it up again. I will probably remodel my website and restart a blog (on another platform) sometime, but I won’t let it turn into a timesink again. And I’m staying the hell away from twitter and Facebook and the like.

    I’ve never been a big socializer and never understood the whole “going out every weekend” thing. I’m an introvert, so going out with friends twice a month or so is enough for me. What I did do is cut down on social events that do not bring me joy (e.g. birthdays and the like in the extended family) and leave earlier. It’s okay if I leave after two hours or so, I don’t have to stay all night. Besides, I’m single and have no children, which also frees up a lot of time (and time spent with children and partners is pretty much non-negotiable).

    Giving up TV doesn’t work for me personally. My brain needs visual as well as written input in order to create and TV is fuel for the story machine. However, I am picky about what I watch and there aren’t a whole lot of programs that I will give my undivided attention. I sometimes leave the TV on as background noise while I’m doing something else (needlecraft, household stuff, websurfing).

    The important thing is to distinguish between activities that provide inspiration, emotional and imaginative nourishment, etc… and activities that are just empty entertainment calories. Good TV shows or documentaries provide inspiration, while videogames, even the good ones, are just empty entertainment calories for me.

  11. Russ says:

    Great post, Jay. I decided to give up TV for 40 days, except one day a week, as an experiment. What I discovered was freedom, as odd as it sounds. And that I am an addict. In our house we’ve agreed to being TV free five days a week.

    In my opinion this discussion also applies to other outlets these days such as twitter and face book addicts. These social networks are touted, by some, as social networks and places for people to meet in a sort of virtual e-party. True, but these networks can also become addictive as gaming and TV, movies etc. and it seems to me that face to face human contact will all but disappear, and people will forget how to interact in real life situations. At my local coffee shop, for example, I see young people fixated on keyboards or Iphones not looking at anyone or talking to anyone. Their lives are being spent outside reality. In my view a very worrisome trend.

    My 2 cents.

    Take care, pal.

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