The Happiness of Doing Less

It’s been four years since I retired. For most of what I call my “professional” life, I worked for an engineering company on various projects in various roles. The atmosphere at work was always friendly and what I did was meaningful and consequential. I enjoyed a generous and flexible approach to personal time off, and to benefits in general. My commute to work was 15 minutes or less. Life was good.

Many who reach the age of retirement worry about the change and ask themselves a simple question: What will I do with all that free time?

I did not have any of these doubts, and I looked forward to retirement. I never considered engineering my calling in life and I always wanted to write. Retirement meant being able to finally dedicate myself fully to something I felt passionate about, even though it would not pay the bills.

My dream was to write and publish fiction — short stories and novels. When I was working, I wrote at night and on weekends. Sometimes days and weeks would fly by without me finding a moment to think about my writing. Now, with nothing else to do, this doesn’t happen. The characters and scenes I work on stay with me whether I am in front of the computer or not. They often develop in the subconscious, while I do other things and sometimes at night while I sleep. With few exceptions, I work at my craft every day, six to eight hours a day. It is hard and exhausting, lonely and extremely rewarding. When I have a good day, I am on top of the world.

Strangely enough I have less time for reading, and I find that as important as it is, reading interferes with my writing because it draws me out of my own plot and style, and it influences me. When I read something well written, the voice of the author fills my mind and, without realizing it, I begin mirroring it. I have to protect my own voice, with its authentic pitch and tone, its strengths and weaknesses.

So, once I stopped working, I spent my first year finalizing, editing and publishing my novel No Portrait in the Gilded Frame. I translated it into Romanian, to make it accessible to readers from my native country.

Then I started a new novel, The Ultimate Patient, largely based on our family’s history (my wife’s and mine), which is a massive undertaking, challenging and emotional at the same time. I discovered the difficulty of putting certain true stories about my family on paper. I was lucky that my grandparents, parents and in-laws had shared their memories with me, but often I have to let my research or my imagination fill in the gaps. Writing a love scene with characters inspired by my grandparents is not easy at all. When I think about their lives through wartime and peacetime, emigration and deportation, crossing borders and oceans, I feel nostalgic, introspective and grateful for their legacy.

Blogging every Monday on a variety of subjects, for over three years, I imagine myself being a professional columnist writing to a deadline. That makes me happy as well.

Last spring in Key West, I visited Hemingway’s house. There I found out that, on average he wrote 500 finished words on a good day. I try emulating that model and sometimes I succeed. This gives me a rhythm for my writing, which I greatly appreciate. It gives me a benchmark and keeps me in front of the computer even on those days when I activate the word count tool every five minutes or so.

I do not consider my writing a hobby. I think of it more as a career change.

My wife is retired as well. That gives us a lot of time together, but more importantly, she decided to get involved in my writing. She is now my first editor and I have to say she is the best. It is very difficult to edit the work of somebody who is close to you. It is impossible to be totally honest and maintain the relationship at the same time. Maybe so — but the two of us are good friends. Even when I am skeptical of her comments, especially when she praises me, I trust her and I feel lucky to have her help.

I like the sense of freedom retirement gives me. We can travel at any time. I can watch a late show on TV because the next day I can sleep in. I can start writing at eight, or at eleven, my choice entirely. No worries, no stress. When I worked, spending the best part of my day at the office, five days a week and sometimes on the weekend, everything else I had to do — pay bills, buy a pair of shoes, go to a museum — had to be done in the evening or on the weekend. Now there are few preset schedules and no time limits because I own my time. Each day is what I decide it will be.

Tomorrow is truly just another day.

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