In my previous post, I lamented my writing struggles. That week, words were simply not flowing for me. And now, just two weeks later, I’m at the tail end of a frenzy of productive writing. You can never predict when the muse will show up, which is why she always has to find you working. That is why I try to write 5 or 6 days a week, whether I am feeling it or not. The key is just to keep putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and working out the blocks in your mind until you can write that one glorious sentence. The muse hit me two weeks ago. In that early morning, liminal space between sleeping and waking, in she slipped. I jumped out of bed with a short story idea that I loved, and spent the next two weeks working on it furiously. I knew the ending of the story right from the start, which is always a relief, and the first draft was an exhilarating race to see if my fingers could keep up with my thoughts. After that it was endless re-writes as I tried to get the words on the page to match the vision in my mind. Yesterday, I polished what was probably the 10th draft of the piece and now it’s time for a rest.
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking. ~ Tim Kreider
I usually try to take at least one day off of writing per week. It isn’t always possible, as this most recent short story demonstrates. It demanded to be written and re-written and I ended up working almost every day for two weeks. Now, rest is critical, for me and for the piece. I find that if I keep working on a piece of writing without stepping away from it, it becomes muddled in my mind. Stepping away momentarily allows me to return with fresh eyes and spot problems I wouldn’t have before. And, as hard as it sometimes is, the rest is important for me as an artist, as well. Writing, as any art, is draining. It doesn’t just require hard work, it is emotionally taxing as well. Writers must become their characters, we must feel their emotions, which oftentimes are not easy ones. We must build other worlds from scratch, envision alternate ways of being, and carve new narrative paths into shape. If we don’t take the time to rest, to allow our minds to idle and rejuvenate, eventually we will start running on fumes. Not only will we feel depleted and exhausted, but our work will become tepid and lackluster.
What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self. ~ Ferris Jabr
The idea for my most recent short story appeared one morning when I was drifting in and out of consciousness, not really asleep and not yet really awake. I absolutely love that state of awareness, when the mind is totally unfettered and when, without even trying, the most amazing ideas can spring to life. Our dreams are potent sources of inspiration, which is why I recommend using a dream journal to keep track of them. Resting can mean taking naps or just daydreaming, both of which replenish the creative source and allow us to experience that intensely magical state of mind. Yoga and meditation are also both vital tools for me, not just as a writer, but as a person trying to live a more fully experienced life. They both can alter your state of consciousness in a way that can be deeply restful, but also profoundly energizing and inspiring. It is the weekend here now and I intend to revel in it. There will be reading, yoga, movies, dinner with friends, and slow, lazy days of nothing much. Let the replenishing begin!