Proper Procrastination (Making the most of doing “nothing”)

There is a habit among creative people to spend time “navel-gazing” which to the casual observer is serious cause of consternation.  Naturally when one is doing nothing more than taking walks, staring at a wall, lying on the couch, or pursuing any other activity commonly recognized as a luxury to the average indentured worker, there are bound to be some questions regarding a person’s ethics.

I have struggled myself with the guilt of taking time to meditate on the thoughts and ideas coursing through my mind.  I have been accused of being a hermit, detached, or disinterested.  In order to avoid the scorn of others I have striven to be constantly at work, prolific as they say, with multiple projects in the air so as not to appear too casual in my approach to life.

I moved this weekend and in the process of unpacking I came across several writing guides, books of wisdom that have helped me navigate the course of my writing career with sage advice I have largely forgotten (or transformed in my head so as to hold only to the kernel of the idea and not so much to the precise words).  One such tome in my library, and to which I now return, is Brenda Ueland’s classic If You Want to Write.  Though dated in its narrative tone this old guide is full of practical wisdom and is one more good read for any aspiring writer.  As for the topic at hand, I came across the following passage and thought I would share it with you in hopes of alleviating any guilt you may feel about the need to take time to reflect while marching along the artist’s path:

“If you write, good ideas must come welling up into you so that you have something to write.  If good ideas do not come up at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all.  Wait for them . . . But do not feel, anymore, guilty about idleness and solitude” (32-33).

We’ve all heard the axiom about idle hands and the devil’s playground, and that, coupled with our puritanical drive for physical labor, makes the act of freedom in idleness tantamount to blasphemy in most cultures.  But there is value, and a warning, in recognizing the usefulness of quiet, idle time, as Ueland addresses further:

“If your idleness is a complete slump [characterized by] indecision, fretting, worry . . . that is bad, terrible and utterly sterile . . . But if it is the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time . . . or dig in a garden . . . or play the piano or paint ALONE . . . that is creative idleness.  With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts” (33-34).

Creativity requires incubation.  Not so much that one is waiting for pure inspiration, though inspiration does come at these times, but that an overburdened life, filled with distractions and quick, short thoughts is not conducive for the creative mind to fill with the expanse of big ideas.  It takes a quiet mind and alone time to allow the slow development of what we want to write (or paint or sing).  By resting and maintaining a meditative rhythm in our lives, artists experience the manifestation of new material in an effortless way.  This is the life of a writer, independent and spirit-filled.

This is not to say that creatives never have time for loved ones, their partners or their children, but that each must coexist within the rhythm of the artist’s life so that the creative spirit can flourish.  This is what Virginia Woolf talked about in her famous treatise A Room of One’s Own.  Ueland would no doubt carry the concept beyond to a field, a road, a path of one’s own – any place that the artist can get to to be alone and allow the mind the embrace bigger thoughts.

It is true, the creative life is demanding.  It requires solitude, courage, patience, and hard work.  What is most often neglected, however, is quiet reflection.  Without it the work can still be done.  Witness the life of Raymond Carver, perhaps the greatest American short story writer of his generation, who sat in his vehicle at the end of the day and scribbled out his stories to the ticking of his cooling engine before going into the house where his wife and young children demanded attention.  But this is not the preferred life for the creative, and regardless of what form the meditative environment takes, we are all encouraged to take it.  This truth is one more aspect of the creative life that some people call selfish, but if one is to create work which is honorable to the craft there is bound to be some selfishness involved.  Writing, perhaps above all forms, demands an unfettered mind.  The voices, both internal and external, which harp on us to give up our pursuit and return to the cage of common living must be cast off so that we can be free to create.  In solitude and idleness will the artist most often find such necessary progress.


7 comments on “Proper Procrastination (Making the most of doing “nothing”)

  1. lpaigewrites says:

    I wrote a really similar post on my blog ( if you’re interested). I agree that the life of a creative mind is so much different from others — that’s why we’re all a little “weird.” It’s hard to be constantly “on” all the time, but we do what we can to make our lives work.

  2. Katie says:

    Unfortunately, I DO spent what feels like an inordinate amount of time in that “complete slump,” rather than letting it all go. Need to work on that!

  3. Serena says:

    Thank you, this was really helpful! 🙂

  4. TamrahJo says:

    I’m printing this, framing it and putting it next to my mother’s phone, so she remembers this when she calls and asks what I’m doing…

  5. Just came to your blog and found interesting writings here!
    About idle time – it’s not only artists and writers who definitely need it, but it would would do good for anyone in this hectic world. – Another more practical comment: white text and black background are really hard for the eyes. Not the most reader-friendly combination.

    • emperort says:

      Thank you for your comments. And re: the white on black, I have had one other person mention that. I’ll look at other schemes and find something easier to look at.

      Thanks again!

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