What time are you talking about?
How would you describe it?

Five minutes' fun

When I'm talking to aspiring writers, one of the things I often find myself saying is, "Don't underestimate what being published does to your relationship to your writing." Even if you haven't been so foolish as to give up the day job - even if the next book is, or isn't, under contract - even if the way your book launches is bangier, or whimperier, than you could possibly have imagined - going public changes things. It sets up all sorts of complicated stresses about being judged, and the expectations of others, and your expectations of yourself in our Western world which always thinks that if you're not selling more or winning more each time, you're failing.

But for most of us, a necessary precursor to that longed-for contract is a point at which we start taking our writing very seriously indeed; whether it's giving up everything briefly for NaNoWriMo, or your savings to a heavyweight course, or half your job to write, or just giving up going to the pub ... Your writing becomes, effectively, at least a part-time job. And, like a job, you can't just do it while you feel like it, and then stop, and only start again when you want to. It is, if you like, the moment when writing stops being the thing you do for fun - however much fun you have while you're doing it.

Behind that serious time the rest of life has a depressing way of piling up into mounds of dishes to wash and head teachers to email and pets to feed... So serious writing can have a disconcerting way of counting as work in how much you drive yourself to do it, but not counting as work because it's your great (serious) joy, so you don't deserve a proper break and re-fuel when you've done a long stint. And if you work at home it can be horribly easy to get into the way of jumping straight from writing to the Next Thing That Needs Doing... like rushing off to the other job or the childminder, or re-building the garage or going to Ikea. You're never off duty.

But you need to be, because if the thing you used to do just for fun is no longer fulfilling that need, then how are you going to fulfil it? I know that I need a forty-minute walk in daylight every day or I can't sleep in the short term, I get fat and depressed in the medium term, and will die of heart disease in the (not) long (enough) term. But it's taken me ten years to realise that I also need some time when I do something which I don't have to: neither writing, nor reading as it were professionally, nor doing anything else that I have to do, or ought to do, or which will make things run more smoothly or less expensively. Call it conspicuous consumption, if you like. Having that point in the day which is pure but active pleasure (not just sitting absorbing good-ish stuff off the telly or a book) keeps the rest of all the oughts in their place, because I'm refusing to let them drive me: I'm running them. It's like the lovely (life-saving?) moment when you realise that your new baby can wait while you make yourself a cup of coffee. You are not its slave; you are a person with your own rights and needs. And one of them is pleasure.

Julia Cameron is on the right lines in The Artist's Way when she explores why what she calls "artist dates" are so vital for re-fuelling. The essence of this idea is that you do or make something sensory, physical, creative, but which has nothing riding on it except your own pleasure. So it should take you right away from your working mind and body. So if you're a writer it's not reading - that's a different kind of fuel - and it's not too sedentary. It might be buying some paints and spending a morning sloshing them on paper - or a wall. It might be going to an art gallery or a lunchtime concert or a class in Tango for the Terrified. But all of those take organisation, and time, and sometimes you've lost the capacity for either. 

So my big new discovery is a small one: the artist-mini-date, and I'm going into detail because I think it might suit others. The artist-mini-date is very short, but you make it happen every day. Which isn't to say that it might not be painting, just as it might be (non-necessary) cooking, or playing the piano or just waltzing round the kitchen for the whole of a piece of music and without also trying to empty the dishwasher. But above all, whatever you do is is sensory, it's physical and it is, in some way, creative: by the end you've had an experience which is greater than the sum of its parts. It might be actually cooking myself something small but nice for lunch (even better if I make a whole lot to freeze as mini-treats for other days ... but only if I want to, not if I ought to). It might be making a cake. It might be spending two minutes warming up my voice and three minutes singing a song properly the way I would for my singing teacher. It might be settling down with a big photography book and my after-lunch coffee for half an hour, before going back to work.

But my usual artist-mini-date is to take a photograph. As long-term readers may know, once upon a time I took photography seriously, but that was before digital. I've never got up to speed with photoshop, and good digital SLRs are a terribly lump to cart about on spec. But now I've finally got hold of a camera which I can make do pretty much everything I want without needing photoshopping afterwards, and which goes my pocket during that forty-minute walk. And I've finally found a website conceived as a journal, in that it only lets you upload one photograph a day, so while there are some very good photographers there, it does have a spirit not of "This is my best" but "This is what I'm doing today." If I don't get out till after dark, or the light's so flat that I can't find so much as a flower in a wall to shoot, then I'll come home and dig around here to find something to photograph, such as this: 


No, they're not great photographs, and I don't do anything to make them better than they are in the camera (but then I had nearly twenty years of using high-street printers, so I'm used to that). And anyway, that's the point: I don't have to try a drop harder than I fancy trying, because there's nothing riding on this, and I've got nothing to prove or achieve. I'm not trying for any greater outcome than making a picture which evokes what I saw and how I felt at that moment. I am, if you like, refusing most of the motives (good and bad) which drive me as a writer. This is just fun. And so it achieves what artist dates should: it gets me looking for and finding broad-spectrum stimuli: things which aren't defined by and dedicated to the needs of my writing. And so, of course, it serves my writing better, quicker, than five times as much time spent writing would.