Last week, despairing (okay, not despairing, but fretting) over my inability to focus for any length on my writing project-at-hand, and wanting some input on how to manage a writerly life, I went out for coffee with my old friend Paul Lima. I thought we’d have a quick bounce-around of ideas, slurp our lattés, and then move on to social and/or “writerly” topics. You know, movies, books, the neighbours, the angst of the artistic process. I thought I’d buy his book – Everything You Wanted To Know About Freelance Writing – and then we’d lounge about being…you know…writers. In a coffee shop.
Well, that’s not what happened. After having spent nearly ten years as a lawyer, I can tell you that Paul Lima is someone you don’t want to be cross-examined by. I didn’t get to whine or wriggle. I had to answer his questions, and if I demurred, he just kept asking the question until I answered it accurately. He drilled down to exactly what my time management problems were. And then he told me how to deal with it. To my surprise, one of the things he advocates (so to speak) is keeping a time sheet. Yes, a time sheet. Like a lawyer does. You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. A time sheet?
Now: let’s be clear here. I quit law because I wanted time to write. There are other reasons, too, but that’s another topic (actually, that’s probably a novel). Time was a big thing in the lawyerly profession, largely because it ate up so much of it. When you weren’t working, you were preparing for working, or worrying about working, or doing all the support tasks (professional filings, continuing legal education) that were required to keep you working. It was all about time. So one of the things that was necessary to being an efficient and responsible lawyer was keeping a time sheet, commonly called a docket sheet. While nowadays it’s kept on a computer database with an automatic timer, it used to be a handwritten chart where the lawyer would record (in six-minute increments) the time spent on a particular task. For many years before I was a lawyer, I was a legal assistant, and often I had to type up the lawyers’ dictated dockets. I can still hear the rhyme of the lawyers’ voices in the Dictaphone, as they dribbled their lives away. Point one hours, letter to counsel, review correspondence. Point three hours, drafting and research, conference with client. Point two hours…point six…point four…
Now here was Paul – and his book – recommending (actually, insisting) that I start a time sheet again. I could appreciate the irony: to flee from the constraints and stress of a legal practice into the life of an artist, only to find that an artist needs a schedule, too. I could also appreciate that Paul’s time-sheet system, although distasteful from a but I’m an creative type, dammit! perspective, would work. I knew that I had a lot of what Paul’s book refers to as “time holes.” There’s nothing like a docket sheet for a lawyer to find out where she or he has been losing money: if you spend “point five” in the kitchen blabbing with the other lawyers about your court appearance that morning, you just lost half-an-hour’s worth of money. The same thing applies to writers and, well, Facebook. And websurfing. And playing online Scrabble.
I have a lot of irons in my smouldering creative fire. I want to write the novel I’m working on right now (Whale Cove); I want to get back into article-writing; I want to put together an amuse-gueule poetry chapbook; I want to put those lyrics I wrote in Mexico to some three-chord melodies. I want to have a blog and a website, and I’d love to have a column again (I had one with the Women’s Post for years, but they’ve changed their parameters so that’s gone the way of the dodo). I also know that – absent a wolf at my door or a looming deadline – I’m perfectly capable of spinning my wheels for days on end. Having that old bête noir – a time sheet – open on my computer reminds me that there are only so many hours in the day. There are even only so many hours in my life.
There’s an odd side benefit to this time sheet thing, though. It’s a diary. It’s not Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank – nothing that worthwhile or important or glorious – but it’s turned out to be a sort of found poem: an abstracted journal. I can look back now at this week’s entries and not only locate all the time holes, but I can also see a short of stripped-down blank verse. I can see the bare bones of potential poetry. There’s something to work with in those entries, which I have phrased as brief commands. Walk dog, I say in the “task” section of the time sheet. Make breakfast. Print pictures, call mother. Book the ultrasound. Work on chapter, read poem, go downstairs for tea. Buy strawberries. So onto this time sheet this goes – write blog post – along with all the other coffee-spoon measures of time.
As darkly humorous as I found the idea of keeping a time sheet to be, I have to admit it’s a good idea. It was about time I’d started one.