I love my new life in Portugal and I’m so happy and grateful to be here. However, I have encountered one major roadblock–I simply cannot replicate my daily writing routine that I’d relied on in the UK for nearly twenty years. I used to get up and leap right on the page, but now I keep horses on my property and their care and feeding come first, before I even get my human breakfast. And horse care is the last thing I do before sunset. If once I was a morning writer, now I’m a late morning/early afternoon writer. Writing gets sandwiched between horse care. Creative ideas bubble up as I ruminate while picking poo in the early morning. I’ve had to find a new rhythm that fits my new life.
Many of us, particularly many women, are struggling to find their daily rhythm while balancing the demands of remote-working with childcare, home schooling, and elder care as we enter the eleventh month of our global pandemic. This can be depleting, to say the least. To make matters worse, the old boundaries between work, family life, and “leisure” have unravelled and become impossibly blurred. Many of us feel under even greater pressure to be productive during this time.
Experts preach that we need to manage our time, plan every minute of the day by making little boxes for each task in our daily planner. I have tried to do this, but always rebel in the end. It seems a pointless task to try to force the flow of my day into orderly boxes. Instead I try to find what rhythms work for me so it feels organic rather than forced.
Now as a woman in my mid-fifties, I feel I have arrived at the other side of the mountain. I moved to Portugal, in part, to slow down. To be less frantically obsessed about work and career. To take a step back from the whole competitiveness of the writing world that can be soul-destroying and completely antithetical to the creative process. I’m done running myself ragged in some misguided attempt to get ahead. Perhaps I’m losing my “edge.” Perhaps this is what it means to be literally “over the hill.” You’ve come so far on your journey that it’s too late to return to old ways of doing things or old ways of seeing the world–the view is completely different up here.
Due to the radical reset of the pandemic, I think that a lot of people are arriving at this place, regardless of their chronological age. At some point we reach a peak of life experience beyond which there is no going back. We have entered a new landscape, brand new territory where the old maps will not get us anywhere. We have to seek a new direction. We have arrived in the place where we can claim our power, our inner sovereignty, and live our life to the rhythms that work for us.
For me this means abandoning the cult of productivity, the pervasive belief that living to work makes us virtuous. That our worth is determined by our output. This cult is particularly damaging to women who still carry the bulk of childcare and domestic work–the whole second shift of wife work that goes unrecognized, unvalued, and unpaid. I believe the majority of male productivity gurus can only adhere to their monastically rigid schedules because they have an unpaid woman in the background doing all the childcare and mopping up all the mess.
One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that, if we let it, the cult of productivity will completely poison both our creativity and our spirituality.
The cult of productivity diminishes our daily spiritual practice as yet another demanding task on our to-do list, a result-oriented form of competitive striving. “I’m not a serious spiritual seeker unless I get up at 5:00 am to meditate. How else will I be on track to achieve enlightenment?”
Spiritual practice is by its very nature the precise opposite of doing or striving. It’s letting go, surrendering to a state of pure being and receptivity, relaxing into the divine luminosity welling up in our hearts.
As for creativity, international best-selling author Hilary Mantel, one of my great idols, has written one of the best essays on the writing process I have ever read. Writing world-class literature, for her, is not a matter of locking herself in her office for eight hours a day or adhering to a rigid word count but of finding the right rhythm.
“I have to grab a notebook and write before I am properly awake,” she writes. “The day’s writing starts to unroll in my head. It’s fragile and often a matter of rhythm rather than words.”
Mantel stresses the importance of writers trusting themselves, trusting their creative flow, rather than obsessing about productivity. Good writing is not a matter of “persecuting paper with ink or pounding the keys. . . . You can’t measure your productivity day-to-day in any way the world recognizes.”
Then Mantel spills her secret that cuts the productivity gurus down to size:
I feel shy of saying this, because to non-writers it sounds lazy–but if, seven days a week, you can cut out two hours for yourself, when you are undistracted and on-song, you will soon have a book. Unoriginally, I call these “the golden hours.” It doesn’t much matter where I find them, as long as I do. I usually work many more hours. But sometimes I wonder why.
When we step into flow, either creative or spiritual flow, we enter a realm of timelessness, where our calendars and clocks dissolve into oblivion. We lose ourselves in that rich inner world. And it’s not forced. It’s not imposed upon us. The flow carries us. May we all be blessed with golden hours.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.