THE WRITER AS TORTOISE
My publishing project seems to be taking so long, I sometimes think I should adopt a tortoise as a logo! However, though I have made my share of mistakes, in most cases there are good reasons for the time I’m taking (though some could better described as utterly frustrating—for want of a blunter phrase—and a few as bad luck).
They start off with the fact that I’d prefer to do things right rather than fast; and they are followed by the reality that my resources are currently very limited (the main reason). Besides, I’m rather fond of tortoises so don’t really approve of referring to them in a pejorative way.
Tortoises proceed at their own deliberate pace, are armored against the vicissitudes of life, are of a kindly and non-destructive disposition, treat the environment with respect, generally speaking seem rather content, and live to a ripe old age. Would that we humans could do as well.
For all that, I am not sure that that a tortoise symbol would be right for a thriller author—even though it might well seem to apply to my sense of time on more than a few occasions. Thrillers are supposed to be pacey, fast-moving, and exciting—and I would like to think that my thrillers are just that—so I’m not sure a tortoise would have the right associations. Still, I shall cogitate on the matter at the appropriate speed. Tortoises advance—when they advance—at the truly mind-blowing pace of 0.17 mph. Not may people know that.
The truth is that I do have a rather strange sense of time by conventional standards—though I have to say that it suits me. Of course, mostly I don’t think it is strange, because it is how I think and live—but every now and then one of my more conventional friends will rap my knuckles (or my carapace—to use the technical term for shell) and tell me I should get a move on and do this or that, by this or that date; or I’ll be a disgrace to society and the world will come to an end. I expect tortoises are told much the same thing by mice, dogs, cats and squirrels (though I doubt they pay the slightest bit of attention). Tortoises, as you will know, all practice Yoga and practically define cool.
So how do I describe my strange sense of time? I‘m not sure I know exactly, but I shall make an attempt by giving just a few examples.
For as long as I can remember, I have attached great importance to having large periods of time to myself to read, think and write in. This doesn’t mean I don’t like people—generally speaking, I do—but, as far as I am concerned I don’t feel the need for sustained social interaction and the assurance of my peers, whereas it is clear that most people do. Just to illustrate the point, although I have a cell phone, I rarely use it. Hard to read, think and write when you are talking to someone. Similarly, I don’t feel the need to either send or receive texts. Instead, I find all this discordant immediacy distracting; and normally pointless. On the other hand, I will frequently spend hours writing a single long e-mail to someone I care about.
“But there isn’t time for that sort of thing today!” people cry. Rubbish! in my opinion. It is merely a matter of picking priorities; and there is something special about the long, well-crafted letter. It represents a commitment of thought and time, which, in turn, denote regard; and, depending upon the recipient, much else.
Of course, I occasionally write long letters to thoroughly unpleasant people—but, let’s gloss over all that.
Although I’m well aware of the passing of time in a general sense—and find the seasons handy in that regard—I don’t pay much attention to the passing of days, dates, or deadlines; and sometimes think only a few weeks has passed when actually it has been months. This is not because I am idle—I work longer hours than most. Instead, it is because I am normally focused on whatever I’m doing to the point where the distractions of the outside world are of scant concern. Some people regard that as selfish. I don’t think it is anything of the sort. It is merely that there are some tasks—like writing well—which are extraordinarily difficult to accomplish without absolute focus; and achieving focus is desperately hard.
Perhaps because I regard both life and history as raw material—and this is fundamental—I don’t suffer from the collective amnesia which seems to be such a feature of modern American life, and regard context as extraordinarily important. How can anyone understand life, and the reasons for just about anything, without context? Accordingly, I don’t think of ten or twenty years as long ago; or even a historical event such as World War II. To me the past is a fascinating continuum of rich memories which I try to keep as freshly cultivated as I can.
Clearly, I would be a disaster in a time sensitive job such as pilot, bus driver, surgeon, marathon runner—or in a time critical military mission—but I am, quite deliberately, none of these things; and in my own way, sayand in my own time, I do get things done.
I expect the Tortoise said something like that to the Hare after the Tortoise had won the race. Of course, if he was an Irish tortoise, he would probably say: “Come and have a drink.”
We are—and there is much merit in this statement—a drinking culture; and appropriately social, friendly, and outgoing—with a literary tradition to match. In fact, it would be largely accurate to say that the Irish read themselves to freedom.
And that is no small thing. It is mighty.