A friend who I’ll call “Heather” was describing a common problem among artistic types in their teens and 20s: she wants time to write, but she also wants time for sex, and sometimes the time that might be spent on the former gets slotted into the aftermath of the latter.
“Gets slotted into the aftermath of the latter” is a strange phrase I should explain further: Heather said that she’d invite a guy over after she gets home from work and they’d make dinner, and hang out, and watch a movie, and chat, and get down to it; all these activities necessarily took all night, while I got the impression she was most interested in one of them. Heather also said she’d feel bad about giving a guy the boot on a Saturday morning after he’d stayed over on a Friday, instead of spending most of the day with him. But she also wants to be a writer—would-be writers tend to clump—and she said she’d also feel bad if an entire week had gone by without her managing to accomplish anything because she’s busy running from work to guy to sleep back to work, leaving no time for any substantial projects of her own.
The solution seemed obvious to me, but I have a fair amount of experience in this department, and, as with many matters romantic, the honest and simple solution is often best. Instead of inviting someone over as soon as you get home from work, say, “I’ve got an hour between eight and nine. Bring a bottle of wine.” Or, if you’re more direct, just say, “I’ve got an hour between eight and nine. Come over.” As New York Magazine’s sex diaries series makes clear, this is not unusual or unreasonable behavior. On a weekend, you do your morning thing—like E does in that one episode of Entourage*—and say something like, “I’m going to start writing. You need anything?” If the answer is no, start writing. If the answer is yes, and if it’s concrete, do something about it. Ignore the pouting that may result (more on that below).
Heather and I chatted some more and it came out that the problem is not really the simple stuff—it’s what Heather worried that her actions said about her and/or the guy she’s dating. To me, saying, “Hey, I’m going to start writing this morning” doesn’t say anything other than, “I want to get some writing done.” To her, however, it says a host of other things bound up with femininity: that she can’t be a person who might be perceived as an “easy lay,” whatever that means; that she has to want to develop a deep relationship quickly; that a “deep relationship” means spending nearly every waking moment outside of work with someone; that two people can’t see each other for an hour and still care about each other. She kept saying things like, “I can’t do this to someone!”, until I said, “Your language is all wrong. You’re not doing to someone. And the guy might be happier anyway.”
It turns out she’s internalized social norms into some voice in her head. We talked about that some, and she said—by this point I realized there was a solid blog post in our conversation—”I know what I want. I want it now. Then I’ll create a block: ‘No, you can’t.’ ” The answer, of course, is that she can. And it’s not even really Heather doing it to Heather: it’s what she imagines other saying about her: “You know what gets me into trouble? Other girls. We are a factory of bullshit.” My observation: she just needs to stop caring what she imagines other girls think and how some vast cultural narrative of how relationships works. Because real relationships seldom fully work like they’re supposed to (which is why Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish,” which I just taught Textmate how to spell). Heather said that she feels like if a relationship or hookup isn’t serious, if a girl isn’t being treated in a certain way (whatever “a certain way” means)—it’s automatically bad. But why? There isn’t a great answer.
Philosophy is good at digging underneath assumptions, and so are teachers; while we were talking, I was basically digging at assumptions. After Heather figured out what was going on, she wanted to know: “How do I avoid this shit?” I didn’t have a perfect answer, because it would be something like, “Internalize some of the feminist arguments about cultural conditioning,” which isn’t an easy or short-term process. A more practical, immediate approach is to be conscious of it. Tell yourself: you can make boundaries. The whole argument about, “Am I getting taken advantage of?” go away. Heather feared what others would think of her. That’s a status question, and once you become cognizant of the status games people play you can, I hope, become like Neo when sees through the Matrix and learns to manipulate the fabric of perceived reality itself. You can’t be taken advantage of if you’re getting what you want and giving someone else what they want.
Besides, I told Heather something important: “You are not like other girls: you want to be an artist.” Other girls can be perfectly happy wasting an infinite amount of time sitting in their boyfriends’ or fuck buddies’ apartments (which I know, having been on the receiving end of the sitting treatment before I knew better) not doing anything. If you want to be an artist, you can’t do that, or you can’t do it all the time.
Note that this isn’t an argument for not spending time with another person, or for avoiding intimacy, or for any number of misreadings I can already imagine. It’s an argument for recognizing priorities and for realizing that work, sex/love, sleep, and being an artist can coexist, if you want them to. The trick, of course, is sticking to your offers. When nine rolls around, say, “I’ve got to go to work in the morning.” If the guy (or girl) doesn’t take the hint, say, “I’ve got to got to work in the morning—you should take off.” Very few people will refuse, for obvious reasons, especially if you remain firm.
Heather observed that she was worried she’d get attached to a guy who wasn’t attached to her. It’s not an illegitimate fear, but my response to it was simple: so what? The sex in the meantime is probably better than none. Being the kind of person she is, Heather observed that, if she gets attached and the guy doesn’t, she still gets a net Pareto improvement, demonstrating that, as Dan Ariely and Tim Harford have shown, economics does apply to love. And she’s right. There’s been a spate of dumb movies about what happens when people in their teens or twenties who start out mostly just having sex develop feelings; No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits are the most recent I’m aware of, although there are doubtlessly others. People who’re just doing it often develop feelings. And if they don’t, that’s okay too.
Look: you don’t need to have a stopwatch next to your bed, couch, chair, or kitchen table, and no one wants to feel like they’ve been scheduled into a slot. Or they don’t want to in the heat of the moment. But it’s also reasonable, if you’re an artist or want to be an artist, to make time for your work. You can find a million posts and essays and so forth like “Find the Time or Don’t” (which is John Scalzi’s version) that all say what his title says: people who find writing (or other art) valuable will find time to do it. Those who don’t, won’t. But you shouldn’t have to compromise on your love life. And you don’t, which I pointed out to Heather. You can be reasonable about time: you don’t need to fit someone in a “slot” every day, and it’s reasonable to spend an hour hanging out when you wake up on a Saturday. If you’re a writer, you can also involve your “friend” by asking him or her to read your work, since almost everyone knows how to read even if many people are effectively aliterate. If you’re reading this, you’re highly unlikely to be aliterate, but there’s a decent chance you’ve also slept with someone who has been. While their comments might not be as helpful as an editorial assistant for a literary agent, who I’ve been told are good to sleep with for multiple reasons, reading tens of thousands of words also takes at least a couple of hours, during which you, the writer, can produce some more words.
Even if you can’t get that person to read, after an hour or so you can get up, make breakfast (if you need to), and say, “I’m going to start writing. Do you need anything?” If the person says yes, and it’s a small task (“I need potato chips”), give it to them, and if they say no, start writing. If the person interrupts you with questions like, “What did you think of The Social Network?” Turn and stare at them for a good three to five seconds. Say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” and go back to writing. They’ll stop interrupting you. Print a copy of “A Nerd in a Cave” if the need arises. If they’re bored and don’t have anything to do, suggest they go home; meet up with them later in the evening, perhaps with new pages for them to read.
The danger is lounging in bed for two hours, then going for a leisurely brunch, then coming back to “hang out” (assuming “hang out” is not a euphemism for something more fun), then going to Bed Bath & Beyond (which is like death itself condensed into one shiny, plasticized place), then you find it’s 5:00, which means you’re going to meet some friends for a drink, or you promised your family you’d have dinner with them, or the person who you found in your bed that morning wants you to have dinner with their family, and so on. The occasional day like that is obviously okay. Having every weekend day like that while you work a weekday job means that you’re not going to get any real writing done, and any kind of writing can only be done one keystroke, one word at a time. So if you don’t guard your time to some extent, you’re going to let it through your hands until you wake up and realize that you haven’t accomplished whatever you wanted to accomplish, and the fault is your own.
The other extreme—simply saying, “no sex while I do this”—sounds even more unpalatable than having someone slurp your entire weekend into nothingness, and I suggested to Heather that one can have both. If, of course, you’re willing to set boundaries. In her case, that meant understanding the social conditioning she’s had, which implies that a) she always has to be on the hunt for a “serious” relationship, b) that she needs to play games to gauge a guy’s commitment, c) that feelings might be hurt by her having other interests, and d) that the person you’re sleeping with has to be at the entire center of your being. None of those have to be true, but when they’ve been ingrained since, if not birth, then your advent into American culture,
None of this is especially true: feminists have been saying stuff like this for years. Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own. But the conditioning remains, and if you’re not willing to dig underneath the assumptions that are preventing you from doing what you need to do, you might also simply not have the tools to be a writer. Heather does, from what I can tell, and if she has those tools, she should also be able to apply them to the conditioning she’s undergone as a member of our society. She once said, “I can’t help it. I’m a girl. Our foreplay starts 12 hours before the actual sex.” That might be true, but she can help it, or re-channel her energy, or take other steps to make sure she’s not wholly bound by other people’s desires. I’m merely pointing out to her that it’s possible for her to do so.
If it’s possible for her to do so, it should be possible for you to too.
* Found it: Season 2, Episode 2, “My Maserati Does 185.” Worth watching for, uh, educational purposes.