Feeding the beast
I’ve never really had any hobbies. Occasionally, I’ll get bitten by some unexpected bug and plunge into an activity or nerdy subculture for a few intense months, but it rarely lasts. There was a year, for instance, in which I loved doing crosswords. I got so I could reliably finish a New York Times Monday puzzle in two to three minutes and a Saturday puzzle in half an hour, and I even attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament—made famous by the movie Wordplay—when they switched venues to within a short walk of my apartment in Brooklyn. At my peak, I was studying lists of the most common obscure words (ETUI, ASTA, and the rest), venturing into the world of cryptics and acrostics, and even constructing a few puzzles of my own, including a notoriously difficult one that was given out to guests as a themed favor at my wedding. After a year or so, however, my enthusiasm dwindled, and although I still glance longingly at the Sunday puzzle, it’s been a long time since I did a crossword.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself for most of my life, and one that I suspect will prevent me from ever, say, learning a musical instrument or a martial art to any serious extent. And it’s inextricably connected with the fact that I’m a writer, although it can be hard to figure out which way the causal arrow runs. For one thing, it’s possible that I’m drawn to writing fiction because I’m something of a dilettante or serial obsessive: writing is the only profession where it’s all but a requirement to become an expert—or at least a reasonable facsimile of one—in all kinds of random areas for long enough to write a story on the subject. One reason I enjoy writing for Analog so much is that it allows me to compress that process into a window of just a few weeks. When you’re writing a novel, or a whole series, you end up immersed in a network of ideas for so long that you start to feel like you should be getting postgraduate credit. Sometimes, you get a little burnt out. With short fiction, the infatuation is brief and intense, and after two weeks, you can move on to the next enticing idea.
But it’s also true that as I’ve begun to write for a living, my appetite for other activities has diminished. This is partly because I can’t think of a better way of spending my time. When I landed my first job after college, writing was my hobby, and although I took a year off from it when I started work, I spent nearly every evening and weekend thereafter working on some kind of fiction project, few of which ever got off the ground. Now that I’m doing it every day, I don’t much feel like doing anything else. Hobbies often originate as an escape from other kinds of work, and their importance is diminished when your work is the very thing to which you’re trying to escape. Obviously, I need the odd break now and then, but they either tend to be focused, everyday activities—exercise, television, spending time with my daughter, goofing off online—or other forms of writing. (In some ways, short fiction is the closest thing I have to a hobby these days, although I sometimes suspect that it will end up being my most lasting body of work.)
And above all else, writing tends to devour other hobbies whole, turning them into metaphors or access points into the craft of fiction itself. I stopped constructing crosswords when I realized that I was already doing something similar for a living: a novel, at least of the kind that I’ve tried to write, is like building a puzzle that takes nine months or a year to complete, with countless tiny pieces fitted together into a larger pattern. Nearly every interest I have these days—whether it’s movies, music, coding, theater, animation, the visual arts—ends up being subsumed into the way I think about my own work. In a sense, the hobbies are still there, but they’re appendages to this enormous, tentacled, but mostly benign monster that I need to keep feeding. It’s always hungry, and it looks for material both in my own life and in the ideas I fetch for it from the wider world. It consumes everything I can give, and then some. And like most good monsters, whenever it sees something else competing for my attention, it gets a little jealous—and any hobbies had better watch out.