Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Giving yourself permission to live your life

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“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work.” – Chuck Close

Most of the time, I love this statement from Chuck Close. For so long, I’ve lived my life doing what I wanted.

When I wanted to quit my job and travel through Europe, I did.

When I wanted to publish a book about punk rock in Toronto, I did.

When I wanted be a freelance writer, and I was.

And when I wanted to start a performance poetry project, go to Las Vegas, and take the Greyhound for long-distance trips, I did.

But somewhere between all of that, an inadvertent side effect cropped up.

Every article that comes out about happiness or regret always seems to circle back to one basic point: that you will only ever be happy if you give yourself permission to do what you want.

Along the way, I have done a lot of the things I want. But the side effect of that constant pushing, that conscious effort, is now, when I’m not doing anything – even for a brief hour or two – I feel guilty. If I don’t have another project or another plan coming up, I feel like I’m wasting an opportunity.

Along the way, I have trained myself to think that downtime is dead time.

“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” – John Irving

Oh yes, I’ve become obsessed. Sometimes I am obsessed with a specific project. The first time this happened was with my first book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond.

I used to get up at three in the morning to work on it sometimes, overtaken with the sudden clarity about how a chapter should flow. Or I would get invited to come out somewhere and I’d pass, preferring to stay in and work on my book late into a Friday or Saturday night. I didn’t care if the book made me late for something. I didn’t care about making anything else a priority. That was all I wanted to do, so that’s all I did as often as I could.

In other words, my book made me an asshole.

But I didn’t see it that way. I just saw it as doing what I had to do.
“Our lives have gotten in the way of our lives.” – My friend Peter

The good thing about Treat Me Like Dirt was that the process had an endpoint, and so did the urgent work schedule. But for much of this year, I’ve found myself tripping back into some of those same feelings with a novel I’m working on, although this time around, I’m making more of an effort to keep that obsessive tendency at bay.

But when I’m not obsessed with a specific project, I am obsessed with productivity. I have to fill time doing something, anything. A lot of times I can’t just watch TV, I have to read and watch TV at the same time. If I go to the park to sit and hang out, I bring a bag of stuff with me to do while I’m there: a book, a magazine, in case I’m not feeling the book, and a notebook, in case I get the sudden urge to write.

I can’t just be anymore.

I wasn’t always like this. Yes, I was always creative, always wanting to work towards something, but never to this extent. There was a time when I was happy to spend an afternoon just watching TV, or reading, or talking on the phone. I don’t look back at those times and think they were wasted. Instead, I look back and think, I never talk on the phone with my friends anymore, because I feel like it will cut into my writing time.

And that makes me feel like an asshole, too.

People are often surprised by how important TV is to me, especially all the reality shows that people love to hate. I don’t even call them guilty pleasures because I have no guilt over my love for them: the tackier, the better.

But I don’t give myself a lot of time to watch much TV anymore. There are a lot of nights when I’ll want to watch something and then I’ll think, no, I should write, and then I do.

There are other times when I’d like to stay out longer, maybe call a friend spontaneously to grab a drink after work and see where the night ends up. I think about doing that a lot, but I don’t, because I think no, I should write, so I just go home instead.

I used to go out. A lot.

It was really fun.
“If, tomorrow, someone gave me enough money that I would never have to sing for my supper again, I’d spend the rest of my life birdwatching, curating my gigantic and mostly uncurated fossil collection, reading, exploring New England, and just being alive. I’d probably never write much of anything else ever again.” – Caitlin R. Kiernan

I have complete control over my own schedule, but there are so many things I’d like to do that I don’t because I have to write, and write, and write and work. Day jobs take up a lot of time, especially when you’re already working as a writer outside of that.
And still, I feel like a slacker. Before I sold my first article, I thought it would be so great to see my name in print, even just once. It would make me feel like I’d accomplished something. But then, after that first article came out, I realized if I wanted to have a writing career, I had to keep at it, so I did. All through college, I freelanced, interned, and worked part-time at a bookstore while doing full-time school. By my third year, my social life looked a lot different from when I’d started my first year, and so did my relationship with my boyfriend at the time, who was growing increasingly frustrated by my shrinking social schedule.

He eventually broke it off with me.

I used to think that when I published a book, then I’d feel like I could really relax. After Treat Me Like Dirt came out, one of my friends even said to me, “it doesn’t matter if you never do anything again – you’ll always have this.” And I knew what she meant, and I knew there was a previous version of me that agreed, but I couldn’t reach deep enough to pull that person up to the surface to help me appreciate the moment, even for a little while.

For the past few years, I haven’t had a lot of downtime. Mostly, it comes in short bursts. Last month, I took a week off, the longest period of time I’ve actually taken in about three years where I made a conscious decision to have as few plans as possible. Of course, I didn’t just sit around. I rode my bike, read in the park for hours at a time, caught up with a few friends (not too many, though, because I didn’t want to overextend my schedule), and watched TV.

But my mind was always working on something.
It’s never quiet, my head, and since I went on vacation last month, it’s felt like it’s melting from the heat of a thousand different voices, all shouting out different ideas, different priorities, reminding me of a to-do list that is never, ever completed. Since that time off, I’ve been struggling to find the clarity and drive I’m used to.

I’ve been struggling to figure out if I even want it back right now.

“Writing has always been something I just did because I had to, not a reaction to anything going on around me.” – Poppy Z. Brite

I have long felt that writing isn’t something I want to do. It’s something I have to do, just as one my favourite authors, Poppy Z. Brite talks about here.

But I wonder if I will always feel like I have to do it, or if other urges will override it.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that my need to not write has been stronger. It’s scary, seeing that sentence there. It makes it very, very real.

While writing is a big part of my life, I don’t want it to be my entire life. I want to not feel guilty for using my weekend to clean my bathroom, catch up on laundry, get a haircut, and get drunk with my friends. I want to spend a night out as if I don’t have to wake up for anything important the next day, as if I don’t need to have a perfectly clear head the next day.

I want to have a weekend like I used to have, with afternoons that felt like mornings that could stretch on forever, with time that was open to possibilities but that wouldn’t lead to disappointment if nothing much happened or was accomplished.

I need to give myself permission to live my life again, to get back to that, at least in some way, without losing my writing, and definitely without sacrificing the novel I’m currently working on.

My head, and my heart, are telling me I haven’t found the right balance yet. Maybe I haven’t found any balance.

But I’ll give myself some time to figure that out. First, I’m going to make a hair appointment.

2 comments

Thanks! I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. Since I wrote this, I've actually been going easier on myself and you know what? It's been amazing! Not only do I feel happier because I'm giving myself permission to do things that I want to do, guilt-free, but I've also been way more productive with my writing. With a clearer head, I've felt more creative, and more relaxed when it's time to get back to writing.

Liz - you've perfectly the argument that takes place in my brain all the time. I feel a little less of an asshole knowing that I'm not the only one who does this to myself. Thanks for sharing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page