Watching Paint Dry

By Joe Donald

Joe Donald is a 19-year-old Philosophy and Theology undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. Born in Dublin, but raised in Edinburgh, in recent years he has developed an interest in exploring the socio-political climate through creative writing. Joe was the recipient of the 2017 John Byrne Commendation Award and was a finalist in 2018.


“It’s like watching paint dry”, supposedly the ultimate insult to something which is intended to entertain. Yet here I am, two hours later. Sitting. Staring. Captivated and mesmerised. Maybe it’s the fumes of the paint talking but I feel like I’m rooted firmly in reality. To those around me I look comatose but I’ve never felt more alive. It always made sense until that moment, the idea that watching paint dry is up there with the most mundane experiences. At that moment it seemed like it was an unrivalled, riveting event. Not only are there a million things more tedious than watching paint dry, but there is little as hypnotic as watching something gradually take full control of your senses. The volatile organic compounds fill the air with a distinct and incomparable stench that makes you very aware of your breathing pattern in a way that little else can. You know you’re inhaling, you know you’re exhaling, you know you’re yawning. Normally that is all controlled by your subconscious, but not anymore. Your eyes are deceived as the paint is a seemingly erroneous fit with the light blue of the wall before it blends effortlessly and seamlessly into the pre-existing coat like a drop of water into a lake, never to be seen again. The rough, adhesive nature of the paint makes your skin bone dry, acting like a tactile version of the holy Eucharist drying up every ounce of moisture from your mouth. The squelching paint is applied to the wall with a roller forcing goosebumps to emerge from your arms with an ominous demeanour, like moles surfacing from their underground burrows, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with perfect posture, each acting as though it wants to be the tallest one on your nape. Your body, overwhelmed, begins to utilise autonomic functions to adapt to the new environment. The clay-like scent seeps into every orifice of your body as the chalky paint creeps into your nose and mouth, completing the sensory overload. The viscous paint, smeared evenly, defends the wall with a moist coat like your own skin trying to protect your bones and internal organs. Perhaps an unpleasant thought, but certainly not a monotonous one. Nothing is boring, not in this world.

I went into that room thinking it would be the dullest experience of my life, that’s what I’d been programmed to think, it was quite the opposite. It turned out to be a cathartic experience, like nothing I’d encountered before. That was the moment that I realised the purpose of life: to break free and be yourself. It was at that moment I realised what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. I wanted to work hard in school and do well in my exams, sure, but I wanted more than a certificate telling me whether or not I could get into university. School and education had seemed synonymous for most of my life but I now knew what Mark Twain meant when he said “Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.” In a weird way I had learnt more from staring at a wall for two hours than I had in twelve years of school. I learnt to think for myself.

The fresh coat was a clean slate and the uninterrupted blue was absolute purity. Here was my chance to start over, I wasn’t sad or depressed, far from it, but I needed something new in my life. Up to the age of 16 my life had revolved around one thing, football, but when I got achilles tendinitis it was time to call it quits, however difficult that might be. I was at a point in my life where I was thinking about my future but I was also desperate to find a new hobby. Watching the paint dry forced me to reflect in a meditative way about what was missing from my life. If I had been a cartoon character, my eyes would have popped out their sockets and a lightbulb would have appeared over my head, I had it, I finally had a goal in mind. It wasn’t an exact goal, not at all, but it was a start. I had a flashback to my time in Kindergarten at Rudolf Steiner school. When I was younger, a teacher told me that if you are really good at something you can make money from it, no matter how obscure the talent is. She cited an example of a friend that played the flute with her nose who went on to become rich in America. I wasn’t quite sure of the details of how that situation came together, but if it were true it was really, oddly inspirational. I never considered becoming a world renowned nasal-flautist, which was convenient as it definitely wasn’t in my skill set, but one thing that I thought I might be able to do is learn how to write, and so that’s what I put my mind to.

I had been listening to a TED talk when I came across the statistic that four out of five people had an occupation that they weren’t truly passionate about. At that point I made a big change to my day to day life in an effort to make sure I wasn’t part of that 80%. Over the coming months I started writing a blog article, I started writing a book of short stories and I even put together the start of a sitcom script. Everything I did was more challenging than the last but I found little reason to be optimistic when I was writing, my pieces were fine, not great, but a decent start. The real issue was that I didn’t know what to focus on and I didn’t know how to make a splash in such a competitive industry so I put down my pen. I decided to take a couple of days off, but sadly I found it impossible to pick the pen back up after dropping it. I gave up.

It had been a fortnight since my last attempt when I came across something which inspired me. It was a statistic about J.K Rowling’s attempt to get Harry Potter published. I read that it wasn’t until the 12th publisher she approached that her book was finally released and to me this represented a glimmer of hope. I had been an idiot, plain and simple. I had been persuaded by Mark Twain that “the secret of getting ahead is getting started” but that was just another theory that I had quickly debunked much like I had when I found out that watching paint dry wasn’t the dullest thing a person could do with their Sunday afternoon. The idea that everything would get progressively easier was a nonsense, I just had to recognise that my dream of becoming a writer, of a non-specific form, required genuine hard work. Not just to start it, not just to finish it, but continually. The hardest part was being persistent, being determined and being regimented. I now had more than a goal, I had a plan.

I was no longer writing for others, I was writing for myself. I figured this was the best plan to ease my way into what had been a unfulfilling experience up to that point. I was one of millions of people who expect success because they started, but that was the easiest part in my book, it was time for me to make a change. I took aim and went full throttle, tackling the pieces one by one. That night I finished my first blog article, a piece on corruption in FIFA, writing was once again a hobby. There was no pressure to produce a masterpiece, just a simple urge to continue writing through the night. I went through my piece five or six times, meticulously picking out repeated words and grammatical errors with a thesaurus tab open behind my word document. By 3am I was done, I would have been proud but I didn’t have the energy for that so instead I slept.

I woke up the next morning with a number of new ideas for the blog article rattling around my head. My mum always told me that if you fall asleep thinking about something then your brain will continue to pick away at it through the night, and this was now more an old wives’ tale in my mind. I made some minor changes, made an account for the blogging website Medium and put my piece online. 36 people read it, admittedly that was pretty poor, but we’ve all got to start somewhere, and I was weirdly proud of it. I had made the first step but like I said, starting was the easy part.

Heading into the next year at school I finally had an understanding of what career path I wanted to take, so I chose my subjects accordingly. English, History and PE, three of the few subjects that would force me to write an interminable and arduous dissertation but in some ways I relished the challenge. It was an instantly regrettable decision, I was back to the old problem of having too much work to do and relentlessly trying to meet deadlines. The enjoyment was sucked from me, I was a paint bucket, the paint was my enthusiasm, and the dissertations were an endless supply of paint brushes tirelessly soaking up my creativity. So I decided to recalibrate once again. I asked myself three questions. Why am I doing this? What do I hope to achieve from this? Can those things be achieved simultaneously? I came to the conclusion that I wrote to try and get people to laugh and to get people to think, but I was doing it all while thinking of the effect it had on others and not myself. Everything I wrote up to that point lacked opinion, it was full of other people’s ideas but not my own. I was struggling to detach myself from the idea that I was writing for a reader, subsequently I was struggling to say things that people might not want to hear. I was just regurgitating other people’s thoughts but like Wilson Mizner once said “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; Copy from two, it’s research”. The aim of writing shouldn’t be about performing a balancing act and creating a totally generic, objective piece, not unless that’s your job. The aim of writing should be to take an idea and run with it, run with it in a way that only you can and make something out of your own experiences. That way, no matter what you write, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent at least you can say you’ve created something that’s original. This realisation is something which I’m slowly coming to grips with. I honestly believe my best chance of pursuing my goals doesn’t come from what I’ve been told to think by a silver-spoon politician or a fanatical news caster but instead the realisation that I came to through my own experiences. The idea that the only way to truly succeed in such a competitive industry is to be yourself now seems obvious. Everyone out there who is trying to achieve their goals by copying an exact blueprint will find themselves competing against a far larger crowd than those who take the road less travelled.

The difficulties I was facing when pursuing my dream of becoming a writer are ones that most people are familiar with. It was about identity, from an early age it’s drilled into people that being different somehow is damaging but now that I’m older that idea seems entirely counter-intuitive. Dr Seuss put it best when he said “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind”. Life isn’t about absolute agreement and it’s not about creating conflict out of nothing. It’s about genuine opinions, it’s about taking a step back and thinking about what you actually believe and what’s just an idea that’s been drilled into you so many times throughout your life, that it’s starting to creep into your idea of reality. If people spent less time reading corrosive articles written by political and religious zealots with beliefs aligned exactly with their own and instead expanded their horizons by familiarising themselves with ideas that contradict their own views on morality and ethics then I have no doubt that the world would be a better place. I believe people would be less inclined to engage in religious wars that they’ve been convinced are a personal attack on their way of life. I believe people would be less inclined to kill civilians with political views that deviate even slightly from their idea of what is right. Most importantly however, I believe people would be more fulfilled because they could live a life that is their own, not influenced or controlled by the author of a provocative tabloid or the leader of a cult determined to eradicate rational thought or free will. It is time to step back and understand who you are and what you want, because I guarantee your happiness isn’t dependent on someone else bowing to your system of belief. The world needs conflict, not manufactured conflict, created simply to antagonise, but genuine ideological variations on which different cultures and societies can be built. It is time to wave goodbye to outdated, predetermined beliefs about others and make up your own mind and ultimately live your own life in a way that benefits as many people as possible. Watching paint dry onto the wall was an apt demonstration of watching the world being overrun by toxic words and deeds which are impossible to eradicate. No matter how many times society starts over, we will always have an underlying coat of tension, though we may sometimes be able to paper over the cracks, humanity will never truly experience a fair world until people take some time to consider all of the options rather than following on the political, religious and moral views of their family. If you come to your own conclusions and live life on your own terms I guarantee it will be less damaging than systems of belief you have been inundated with from birth by friends, family and media. You will quickly realise that there is no foundation for thinking Muslims are terrorists, blacks are thieves and whites commit school shootings. Thinking for yourself should quickly eliminate your prejudices and give you faith in humanity, something that too many people are seeking to oppose. But hey, maybe I’m painting with too broad a brush.

Watching Paint Dry