Artillery Row

The time of my life

Dominic Hilton explains why time itself has become his biggest enemy

Is it me, or are there fewer hours in the day than there used to be? Fewer days in the week, too, not to mention fewer weeks in the month. And don’t get me started on years, which mean nothing anymore, zilch.

“By this time next year,” I said to myself this time twelve months ago, “I’ll be—”

Oh, who remembers? Whatever it was, it didn’t happen.

By this time next year, I’ll doubtless be writing a follow-up to this piece, only more despairing. “Where has all the time gone?” I’ll howl, rebuking my overall lack of progress. “Why aren’t I healthier, smarter, wiser, richer? How come I’m not diving into a swimming pool filled with gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck? Why can’t I bosh out verse like Shakespeare, tinkle the ivories like Glenn Gould, or even make an appointment with my dentist, whose name and address I’ve completely forgotten?”

I pondered the hours I could squander sitting around sterile doctors’ offices in a profitless bid to become more efficient

Time itself seems to be my biggest enemy these days, and hours of my days are spent wondering why. Shaving has become an issue, because it takes too long. Cooking is driving me mad. “Oh, for god’s sake, just boil!” I scream at the saucepan of water on my hob. “You were boiling ten seconds ago in the kettle, so what’s the problem?” But the water never answers. It just sits there, placid, ignoring me, demonstrating zero respect for the unbearable levels of pressure I’m always under. “Oh, sure,” I sneer, “take your time, I’ve got nothing better to do, like improve my mind, advance my career, discover inner peace, or meet people I don’t particularly like for coffees or beers. JUST BOIL ALREADY!

I was bellyaching about my predicament the other night over a long, boozy dinner at a local steakhouse. “But I don’t understand,” my friend Fernando said, who’s not only a successful lawyer but clean-shaven. “Aren’t you a writer? You have all the free time in the world, don’t you? What do you even do with your days?”

I frowned glumly, not realising he’d meant for me to answer him.

“Talk me through a typical day of yours,” Fernando persisted, watching me carefully as he lit a cigarette. “Maybe I can help. I’m a very productive person, compared to you. What time do you wake up?”

I told him and he laughed heartily, jabbing his menthol Lucky Strike at me across the table. “Well, there you go, for starters.”

I tried explaining to him how many coffees I have to drink in the morning before my eyes even start to work and he said, “You should have that looked into.”

“By who?” I asked.

And he shrugged his huge, gym-honed shoulders. “A doctor, I suppose. That doesn’t sound right.”

Filling my wine glass one more time, I pondered the hours I could squander sitting around sterile doctors’ offices in a profitless bid to become more efficient. “Just forget it,” I said. “You’ll never understand.” Then my eyes strayed to a clock on the wall of the restaurant and I discharged a loud, put-upon sigh. “How is it 1 a.m. already? Are you serious?”

I live in Buenos Aires, a city that seduces you into wandering endlessly and aimlessly around its grand boulevards and pretty barrios. The place, like its culture, is practically built for timewasting, and it always surprises me when people ask me if I get bored. “You’ve been doing the same thing every day for three and half years now,” they say, like I’m committing some sort of crime.

I’m not sure I’ve ever once felt bored my entire life, except in the company of other people

I don’t get bored. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever once felt bored my entire life, except in the company of other people and, of course, in all places of work. “Only stupid people get bored,” my mother used to tell me, and even back then, I knew she was right. A general feeling of not having anything in particular to do is an alien concept to me, like gambling, or reading news items about Princess Eugenie. When people complain about being bored, which they always seem to be doing, I can’t help thinking, Oh, really? The literary canon isn’t extensive enough for you? Did Bach fail to compose a sufficient number of cantatas? Exhausted all the free online porn? Get a life, numpty.

Or just get out. The trees, the birds, the sky—they’re all there, begging for your attention, if you’d only notice them. People, too, sometimes, who can be fascinating in their idiotic fashions. Get them talking and they’ll say really strange and ridiculous things, things worth remembering and quoting. Of course, spend your time doing this and no one will ever reward you for creating transformative new value and competitive advantage through agile lever planning, persistent contiguous proximate cross-functional team models and synergistic, hyper-accelerated DevOps productivity—but what does any of that crap even mean?

My problem is more personal, and I blame at least some of it on language. Nouns like hour, day, month and year all sound significant, even though they’re not. “All day?” people exclaim, when you tell them you’ve been listening to music or vanishing down Wikipedia rabbit holes. And I’m not the first to notice that you need a five-year plan just to make a five-year plan. Everybody is always fretting about the rapid rate of change, but what amazes me is how little changes; how little ever actually gets done. Five years ago, I decided it was high time I got my moles checked by a dermatologist. Five years later, I still haven’t gotten around to it.

I’ve been too busy, is what I tell myself. But if so, how come? I don’t have children. I don’t play video games. I don’t do social media. I don’t have Netflix. I don’t belong to a gym or a country club or take evening workshops in Krav Maga or pole dancing. I don’t have a drug habit or a penchant for prostitutes. Technically, I don’t have a job. So, what the hell am I doing with my time?

Most people have completely romanticised ideas about the writer’s life

So-called friends of mine spend their weekends playing golf and cricket, yet somehow find the time to learn Mandarin and the cello. They write country music songs for kicks when they’re not chess-boxing to unwind. Their modish Tantra techniques are second only to the gourmet culinary skills they’ve developed under the tutelage of a celebrity Michelin-starred chef. They juggle start-ups and side-hustles while their professional careers flourish, their various book projects gather steam, and the Bauhaus-style ecohome they’ve designed and built is photographed for Architectural Digest. And these are the same people with mountains of time on their hands, who carp about their ennui, who “Netflix and chill” while raising two obnoxiously gifted children, and another with severe learning difficulties.

“What’s your lockdown project?” someone asked me the other day.

And I rolled my eyes, saying, “To stay alive.”

It has been suggested, not without cause, that I have a problem with my “brain processing speed”. But it’s not my fault daily podcasts about time management last for three hours. And even when I do have something moderately interesting to say, it’s not as if I’m capable of typing it up at 120 words per minute. “In my experience, everything in life takes way longer than you think it will,” I said to one overburdened friend the other day, “except for sex.”

He actually wrote down what I said, then, looking up from his smartphone, asked, “Have you tried taking Viagra?”

His question took me by surprise, and I wasted a good ten to fifteen minutes explaining to him that more sex was the last thing I needed. “It’ll just eat into my day,” I said.

“Yes,” he said in his heavily accented English, “but what a tasty dish to savour!”

I groaned as he jotted down his line next to mine in his phone, nodding to himself with unearned pride.

Thanks to Ernest Hemingway and his ilk, most people have completely romanticised ideas about the writer’s life, as if we hold court all day and night in bars, starting fistfights and shagging flappers as we quaff daiquiris in our birthday suits. In reality, we spend day and night glued to our laptops, worrying that we don’t get out enough to gather decent material. Advice to writers always centres around the “golden rule” that you must carve out great swathes of time in which you just sit at your desk, doing bugger all. “Turn off your Wi-Fi,” advise the hucksters. “Switch off your phone. Just sit there with your thumb up your arse, scratching your balls.”

On some level, I see their point. At least if you carve out some time to write, that time might conceivably come to an end. On my worst day, I actually feel jealous of people who get to clock in and out of their jobs, as my work effectively has no beginning and no end. Most of my best lines are written in my restless mind at 4am when I’m lying in bed, failing to fall asleep, unable to locate a notepad and pen. My best paragraphs are almost always dreamt, then forgotten.

I spend a perverse quantity of my day fielding phone calls, mostly from other lonely writers

Worst of all is the thinking. I hate thinking, not only because it’s so unhealthy and rarely leads anywhere good, but also because it takes so much time to think of anything much at all. Worse, thinking doesn’t look like work. Nobody who sees me staring at the wall, tongue lolling from my mouth, drool slithering down my chin, thinks, Wow, look at him, working like a trooper every hour God gives. More often than not, they say, “What’s the matter with you?” Or they just assume I have a condition. It’s no use telling them that I’m deep in thought, as nobody’s paying me to stare at walls, I’m not wearing work clothes of any recognisable kind and if they ask what I’m thinking about I’ll say something self-defeating, like, “It’s… hard to put into words.”

Whenever possible, I blame other people. “The great enemy of writing,” says Joyce Carol Oates, “is interruption.” Which sounds about right. I spend a perverse quantity of my day fielding phone calls, mostly from other lonely writers. Ours is the equivalent of water cooler talk, except that we mostly talk about ourselves, and how impossible it is to write sentences that don’t repeat words ending in “ing” or “ed”, and whether it’s appropriate to use verbs other than “said” after dialogue.

Ageing’s no comfort. It’s a cliché, but when you’re younger you’re certain you have all the time in the world. Getting older, you realise that even if you had all the time in the world you still wouldn’t get much done. The answer, I’ve decided, is to stop time, a miracle performed by God in the Book of Joshua, by Superman when flying at super speed, and by waiters in Buenos Aires cafés whenever you try to get their attention.

I resent the inhuman ability of reporters to knock out fifty-word news items in the time it takes me to shotgun an espresso

Reading in particular is my enemy, as it takes days, or sometimes weeks, to read a book. But aren’t writers supposed to “Read. Read. Read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad”? I’ve read Faulkner and it hasn’t helped me at all. I honestly wish books would just go away. But there they are, staring down at me from shelves, or out of e-readers, tempting me with their cryptic titles and abstract covers, wasting more and more of my precious time with their compelling narratives, twisty stories and beautifully crafted sentences, none of which were written by me.

Reporters kill me. I resent their inhuman ability to knock out fifty-word news items in the time it takes me to shotgun an espresso. Of course, they all had training, the bastards, which is why they have skills. I had no training, which is why I have no skills and lately, thanks to the ribbing I’ve taken from reporter friends, I’ve been wondering if I need to get some, to become less human and more of a machine.

“Time management,” my friend Luke said to me last week, “that’s what you need. Your days are a mess. There’s no structure, do you see? In your life, every day is like a badly crafted story by a terrible, talentless author. Where are the acts, the chapters? Where’s the mid-point, the climax and the resolution? Do you even have a plot or a theme?”

It’s scary when someone reads you so perfectly. How, I wondered, does he know me so well? Has he been talking to my girlfriend? How long has that been going on?

Catherine is super-organised, and when I confronted her, she expressed some of her concerns. “The problem with time management,” she said, “is that it takes so much time to manage.”

And all I thought was, Oh, that’s such a great line, damn you, before writing it down.

The current trend amongst industrious types, she informed me, is to break up days into blocks of time that help you work smarter, adopting practices like “intelligent neglect”.

“I can do that,” I said.

She shook her head. “It doesn’t mean what you think. My problem is that I now spend my evenings planning my days, which isn’t ideal.”

“Then what?” I said, tearing my hair out.

“Well,” she said, casting her eyes to the ceiling in a brainy sort of way, “many hyper-productive people pair together their daily activities. For example, I empty the dishwasher as I make my coffee every morning. Other people maybe brush their teeth while doing their squats.”

“Their what?” I asked.

Later, as I sat at my desk, picking my nose while staring into the infinite whiteness of an empty Word document, I found myself wondering what activities I could maybe pair together in the course of my day. Writing in the shower struck me as unmanageable, but writing on the loo? “Oh, I do that all the time,” an author friend messaged me on WhatsApp. “I find it a profitable use of twenty-five minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes?” I wrote back, astounded. “You should have that looked into. That doesn’t sound right at all.”

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