Like most writers, I long for that gift of uninterrupted time. An hour is never enough. Two hours is acceptable, but not when it comes infrequently, and when I do have two hours to write on a regular basis, I can only think how much I’d get done if I had a whole day to myself. I am greedy for time alone the way that a diva is greedy for praise — any bit that comes my way only feeds my insatiable hunger.
Now, I’m proud of myself; I asked my employers to sponsor a weekend for me, away in a cabin. I used the excuse that I needed to learn more about the Tarot. I couldn’t satisfactorily interview the characters if I didn’t understand the cards, right? But in reality, I already know everything I need to know about Tarot. I’m going to use my time to work on my novel. For hours. I’m going to write the first draft in a hot blast of inspiration. I’m going to immerse myself in my story world.
I pull up a long, rocky path to a cabin, far away from everything, and park right on the side, where another car is parked. This is bad; I need to be alone. I leave my bag in the car and look around to the front door. Just as I reach it, a woman comes out, paintbrush in hand. “Ah! Our guest for the weekend,” she says, winking at me. “Don’t mind us. We’ll stay well out of your way.”
Only slightly mollified, I fetch my things and settle in.
An hour later, I’m still staring at the laptop screen. I have five sentences written. It’s the banging of a hammer outside my window. Way too distracting.
“How long are you going to be here?” I ask the handyman, who has surrounded himself with tools, lumber, and what looks like a small pyramid of PVC piping.
“As long as it takes,” he says, smiling innocently.
I remember my headphones in the car. With them on, the sound of the workers is muffled enough that I can finally concentrate on my work. I read and re-read my five new sentences. Forty-seven words.
They suck, every one of them.
I delete them all, put on the music I brought to remind myself of the story idea, and start again. Four entirely different sentences, thirty-three words, and the writing of them is as smooth as roller skating on a pile of gravel.
It’s the presence of other people. I know it. This was a nasty trick of my employer. But there was a shed out back. Maybe there’s a spot to write there. I cart my laptop out to it and open the door. It’s beautiful inside, finished, with lots of light from windows and a desk.
It’s also occupied.
An architect has plans laid out on the desk. He beams at me. “Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here. You can give us advice on the best uses of our space for writers and artists. Come see.”
“Thank you,” I say through my teeth, “but I desperately need to finish what I’m working on.” I tamp down the anger and try to explain myself. “I thought that was why I came.” I sound like a whining child.
The architect, however, is gracious. “Of course,” he says, rolling up blueprints. “Come sit. Just let us know when you’re free.” He leaves, closing the door behind him. The space is perfect now, the sounds muffled. I have everything I need. Peace. Quiet. I start with a new document. Three sentences later and forty-five minutes later, I realize I’m hungry. Well, of course I’m hungry; I traveled half a day to get here and ate nothing since I woke up.
“You know,” I tell the painter in the kitchen, my mouth full of a sandwich, “I thought I’d be able to dive right into this work, but I’m blocked! How unfair is that?”
She smiles mysteriously. “Perhaps you could help us, and we’ll get out of your hair much more quickly.”
I balance things in my mind. “Okay.”
They put me to work sanding the porch railing. It isn’t easy, at first, but after a bit, I get into a rhythm, and time flies.
“Take a break,” says the woman. “Go write for an hour.”
“Okay,” I say. One hour. In the shed, I pop open the laptop. I don’t have time to worry about quality, just quantity. I crank it out.
We continue this back and forth, working on the cabin, breaks to write and other breaks to eat and rest, for the rest of the day. The next morning, I look at the work I’ve done.
It’s brilliant. It has the touch of genius.
My artistic ego blows up like a pufferfish.
When I tell the painter about this, she grins at me. “Of course,” she says. “The life of an artist requires balance. Can a child learn to play the piano in one hundred hours straight? No, he must do just a little each day, for many days. Can you make a tree grow faster by watering it twenty-four hours every day? No, you must do your part, and then let Nature and the tree do theirs. It is the same with you. How badly you all want this all-or-nothing, unlimited immersion in your writing. But you are a whole person, an integral part of a community, and it’s that wholeness and cooperation that feed your art. You must balance writing with taking care of all of your needs, and others as well.”
“But how? How can I do that, when others’ needs are always getting top priority?”
“With discipline. You give them time, but limit it, and when it is time to write, they will have to wait for you. They need you to be a writer as much as you need to be a part of them. We are many things to many people, and it’s good that we are, for if we were allowed to focus all of our energy in just one direction, the paucity of inspiration would starve our creations.”
When the workers leave, they leave behind a Tarot card on the table. The resemblance is plain. These workers were the three in the Three of Pentacles — the architect, the builder, the painter. Once again, my employers have shown me that they know exactly what I need, often better than I do. And what I needed to learn this weekend was the message of the Three of Pentacles: real progress happens incrementally, in small steps each day, achieved through structure and discipline, teamwork and balance.