Where Does Our Non-Writing Time Go?

Nobody writes 24/7. But what we do when we're not writing matters.

Back in April, I came across a tweet by the television and comic book writer Bryan Edward Hill:

Snark Wars on Twitter are fine and all, but make sure most of your energy is dedicated to practicing your chosen craft and building alliances. You can’t pay rent with the endorphin rush of social media. If something isn’t making you money, it’s likely costing you some.

Right away, people latched onto that last sentence and accused Hill of having a mercenary attitude. So he went back onto Twitter later that day to clarify what he’d meant. “I do many things that don’t DIRECTLY bring in revenue,” he wrote, “but they all secure my peace of mind… which makes it easier for me to do things that do bring in revenue. The mind is unified, everything affects it… If something isn’t adding to your productivity, then it’s taking away from it.”

That resonated with me for two reasons. First, I do love me a good snark war on Twitter; it’s been a helpful way to release some of the frustration I’ve felt over our political and cultural miseries. Yet I’m also mindful (some days more than others) that clever putdowns aren’t necessarily that helpful in the long run. I’m not so much worried about it affecting my “brand;” if people online know me as nothing more than a vocal advocate for progressive causes, I’m okay with that. But I do try to make sure that, when I do get into these discussions, I’m putting in an effort to clarify my beliefs and, when I can, to steer readers towards other people who have relevant wisdom to share. I fall short of that goal often enough, but I keep trying.

Second, I’m very much into the idea that the writing life is something we work at even when we’re not sitting at our keyboard, or with our pen and paper in hand, that it’s something we should strive to be focused on continually and consistently. “What do you want from writing?” I ask audiences when I talk at literary conferences and workshops. “And what are you doing that gets in the way of achieving that?” How are you wasting time and energy that could be better applied toward your writing—and what prevents you from abandoning those wasteful practices?

Again, this isn’t some cutthroat command to “always be working.” As I conceded when I tweeted about Hill’s message, “We all have to go off the clock sometimes.” But I also qualified that statement immediately: “not in ways that’ll throw us off our game come game time.”

What do I mean by that? Well, I explained, “I spend a lot of my non-writing time reading, but it’s all (even when it’s just for fun) with a glimmer of hope that it’ll make me a better writer.” I also do a lot of things that I hope will ground me, make me a calmer, more reflective person, whether it’s taking time out to play with my cats or spending Sunday mornings at Meetings with Friends. I also try to be mindful about how much television I let into my life, although, let me tell you, that one’s hard. You set out to watch one nature documentary on the DVR and before you know it you’re absorbed in an all-night string of competitions between amateur weapon makers…

But, you know, that’s okay, too. Or, at least, I’m not going to beat myself up too badly over it. We’re not writing machines, after all. The key is intention: If you’re willing to continually apply yourself to your writing, even after you’ve seemingly fallen short of the mark, you’ll have something to show for your work eventually. And, perhaps, every time you pick yourself up after having a setback reduces the likelihood of falling into that same trap again. (Reduces, not eliminates. Again, we’re not machines.)

So let’s bring this back full circle and talk about a project that Bryan Edward Hill has coming out: Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey. I’m genuinely excited about this comic book—more excited than I’ve been about any comic in about fifteen years—precisely because it’s such a ridiculous idea at first blush. The more you hear about it, especially from Hill and his main artist, Denys Cowan, the more intriguing it sounds—you get a sense that Hill is taking some formative icons and giving them a truly personal creative spin. (Not to mention his gleefully uncontained excitement about getting to work on a comic book with Cowan—which, being just a few years older than Hill, and therefore also a comics fan coming of age in the ‘80s, I completely get.)

Early in the interview I linked to above, Hill talks about how he came up with the original idea for a gritty take on Hong Kong Phooey eight years ago, but was told that it was undoable. Much later, he had an opportunity to pitch another story to DC Comics, and he gave them a different, more subdued Hong Kong Phooey concept. And then DC’s co-publisher told him, “I can see that you have a story you’re a little scared of telling me about. But I want you to tell me that story. I can smell it on you. Give me that story.” And here we are.

Very few people enjoy immediate success as writers. For most of us, it’s a matter of staying in the game, continually focusing on refining our craft, diverting as much of our energy as possible into becoming the best writer we can be, so that when an opportunity like that comes along, we’re prepared to take it. Bryan Edward Hill got a shot to tell a story that he’s nurtured for years. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.