Yet Untitled 077 - The Vortex of Unstructured Time
Thinking about how I function when I don’t have a work schedule
Dearest Yet Untitler,
The dream has come true; long live the dream! But a soft nightmare has also begun. After 56 days of shoot where every minute was accounted for, I am now adrift in a sea of unstructured time.
It’s not like there’s nothing to be done. Au contraire, there’s a LOT to be done, a future to be taken care of. But there’s no call sheet telling me what to do from minute to minute. For months - that call sheet from my shoot had been both my bane and my panacea. I was very aware that in some way, it was a solace that allowed me to rest easy in the knowledge that all planning was done and all I needed to do was go forth and simply do. It also allowed me to enjoy what little precious downtime I had to the fullest - because during the downtime there was officially nothing else to be addressed (at least on paper!).
Now, while I am officially in the land of downtime, I’m finding it hard to enjoy it as I did during shoot. Whilst that downtime was experienced as a technicolor extravaganza, this one feels more like an independent art house film contemplating the passage of time in muted colours.
But I’m no stranger to this. Never having had a 9-5 job, this has always been my reality. The only extended experience of structure I’ve had was boarding school (and how!). Only after years of running through this cycle again and again, am I entering this realm of unstructured time with awareness.
20 years ago, I remember a stretch of 3 months after my first shoot ever when I had no clue what came next. People told me to take time off and rest easy for a while, and that “the field must first lie fallow before becoming fertile” (yikes). I don’t think they had a clue how terrifying it was for me - landing on the other side of college with no clear path ahead. It felt like being trapped in a submarine with every assorted demon who lived in my head manifesting as my crew piloting me towards a hulking iceberg.
But there were people I met during this time who have remained precious friends over the two decades that. Many of them could see that I was going through a tough phase (in truth, I think I was skirting depression) and all they could offer as help was companionship and encouragement. I was staying on my own in a flat in Delhi, quite lonely. An aunt of mine decided to send me all my meals, every day. I remember all this kindness and have always held it close, like a treasure.
It all became fine. In a few months, I came to Mumbai, got work and eventually found my feet (and didn’t just settle for photographing them!). But only I know how difficult this unstructured period of three months was for me. So when I step back in to any period of unstructured time, memories of this stretch always come back to haunt me, even though I can see now in retrospect that the difficulty was very much a function of that time, that place and who I was back then.
The vortex’s treasures
Or is it “Vortice’s”? That aside: I have found unstructured time to be full of surprises and discoveries.
I bought my daughter a simple game from out travels - story blocks. In short, 12 blocks that have pictures on every flat side are to be tossed and then a story has to be extracted from the arrangement as it lands. Sometimes, the stories that emerge are surprisingly interesting.
Unstructured time can be like this - with many unplanned elements coming together and yielding something exciting. But I think you need to be looking to catch it. Twenty years ago, in the traumatic unstructured months, I feel I wasn’t looking as much. Even when I was, it was through the lens of disbelief and a lack of hope. I remember Julia Cameron saying in The Artist’s Way that a sense of well-being is often accompanied by a sense of Plenty. Twenty years ago, I didn’t see it that way. I saw my unstructured time as Failure.
Even though I’m quite adept now at handling my periods of unstructured time (I’ve even handled years at a stretch), I know it’s a thin line before a sense of despair starts creeping in. After a few weeks, as the world around me flexes its structured muscles as if to taunt me; as I see my peers in their structured lives, structured jobs, regular paychecks and their year undulating like clockwork, knowing when they’ll be working, knowing that the weekend is a holiday - my self-assurance often leaves me.
Handling Unstructured Time
A. Filling the well
I have many strategies. Most of them revolve around what Julia Cameron (it’s amazing how much of an impression her first book made on me) calls filling the well, i.e. replenishing our creative resources after spending them on a project or simply from feeling that life has drained you in some way.
I draw great solace from my Buddhist practice, which tells me that life is limitless, and the the same power source that lies at the heart of all life existed in us too. I think of a waterfall when I hear this guidance and am always encouraged. But the well can always use a few new fish swimming around it in it.
Photography always helps me fill my well. It requires opening my eyes and looking at the world, waking up parts of myself that often go to sleep during more structured time. My friend Craig Boehman’s photo-walks have helped me immensely with this in the past. Here’s a photo from one of our walks together:
B. Reconnecting with the rest of my life
I have often had to remind myself during the madness of filmmaking that my work doesn’t wholly define who I am. The best way for me to do this is to consciously reconnect with friends and family who have little or nothing to do with my work. It’s usually a revelatory experience, putting both structured and unstructured times of my life into context, seen from a more elevated plane. It always shows me that in the end, it’s the people in my life who matter the most.
For me, the best part of unstructured time is using the headspace they create to freewheel and create new ideas. Unlike other times, the process are sans-deadline, sans-commissioning entities, sans external censors - in other words: lovely and unburdened. In the best of times, these processes remind me why I love what I do. In many ways, using unstructured time for this kind of creation feels earned.
In my opinion, much of my best work was born during these stretches of unstructured time.
D. Creating a benevolent structure that I enjoy
However - creation during an unstructured time takes a bit of discipline too - discipline that isn’t needed within the hard edges of structured times. I find that suddenly, perhaps because I’m more available during unstructured times, many more things are calling out for my attention and hence, it becomes more difficult to reap the benefit of prolonged attention that’s a given during structured times for the process of creation.
Over time, I have learned that fighting for a little bit of structure during unstructured times never hurt. On one such stretch, I pledged to write 500 words every day, come what may, and ended up with a novella! It was never published, but climbing that hill is a win that warms me on many damp, cold and creatively barren days.
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It’s clearly a fight for balance.
Emerging as I am on the other side of an intensively structured spell, I know that even during my intense, structured days I was fighting for balance as I am now. Then, I was fighting for room to breathe and reflect. As you know - this newsletter never ceased during that time, because it was affording me just that. Now, I’m not fighting for breath, but for the right kind of exertion.
This shuttling has taught me so much! So perhaps, I’m a little hard on myself when I begrudge this oscillation between structured and unstructured times. Over the years, I have come to value it and I’m learning how to ride the transitions better.
If there’s a conclusion for me to draw - it’s this: our sense of suffering - whether we feel it during the unstructured spells of our lives or structured - comes mostly from what we perceive as the loss of control. My experience tells me that we have immense scope to exercise control and find balance on either side of the line.
Do you have situations of compression and undulation in your lives that resonate? Do you have any insight to share on negotiation the structured and unstructured parts of your lives.
Tell me. I want to know!
Thanks for listening…
Lots of love