A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with a group of fellow mothers who regularly meet for a meal and a child free chat. Helen, who is a writer (as well as working as an archivist for a major organisation and being a wife and mother of two children with all that that entails) was freshly returned from her first writers residency at a house up in the Blue Mountains. She had been awarded two weeks living in a house far away from her everyday job and her family and where all the planning, cooking, shopping and cleaning were done by someone else. Her whole task, every day, was to find ways to use the time to practice her craft. At dinner we were all interested to hear how the experience had been, partly because we hoped it had been good for her and partly because we were looking for some vicarious enjoyment.
It had gone exactly as I would have predicted. Away from her children for the first time in eleven years, Helen had taken a couple of days to sufficiently wind down from her everyday life and for her mindset to change over to one that centred on herself and her writing. She was inspired by the beautiful scenery surrounding her and had appreciated it both by gazing out of her window instead of writing and by going out for daily walks. She enjoyed the company of the other writers who were sharing the house at the time of her residency, they had had a lot of stimulating conversation, especially over dinners. She appreciated a chance to hear the insights of the other writers who were also parents. She relished being taken care of, fed, nurtured and freed from every-day responsibilities.
At the same time and unpinning her obvious relish of the whole experience, Helen admitted that she felt guilty about gazing out of the window or going for walks when she thought she should have been writing. She felt guilty about late nights sitting around the fire, sharing insights when she knew she could have been writing back in her room. She felt guilty that she took several days to find her feet in a new situation and did not launch straight into writing. She felt guilty that she came home without a large number of new words written.
A few days later I was having coffee at Barmuda, my local hang out, with a friend who is a retired lawyer and published author. I asked about his writing and he confided that he had just sent his latest book to his publisher. I jokingly asked about the next one – being totally facetious and meaning only to comment on the fact that he, as an overachieving sort of person, might already have considered the next one. “Oh”, he mourned “I don’t know about the next one, I might be too lazy to write it.”
It struck me that somewhere along the progression of our civilization, we have moved to a place where society’s values are entirely antithetical to the creative process. Darling Helen, during her time in the Blue Mountains, did exactly the best things for her own creative process. She retreated from life, found new sources of pleasure and inspiration, expanded her network of creatives (see my last blog for why this was such an awesome move) and gave her overworked mind time to breath out, to expand, to look at the world, to think thoughts and process emotions and information. This may not have led to an immediate and massive word count but this way of spending her time will have future benefits that should be too obvious for me to need to spell them out. Her guilt about all the time she didn’t spend writing cast an unnecessary pall over time well spent.
As for my overachieving retired lawyer and published author friend, when did we reach a point in our society that we could even dream that the next book must be ready to be written as soon as the current book is finished? And when did it become “lazy” to require some down time, some time for thinking between projects? Moreover, when did we lose sight of the fact that time for thinking, contemplating and mulling is not just a luxury, it is a necessity for any worthwhile creative process?
There are myths about the artistic frenzy, about the artist gripped in a passion of creating who can’t sleep or eat until they have vomited out the product of their inspiration. Wide eyed, hair on end, demanding that the world leave them alone and pale from lack of sleep, food and sunlight, they nonetheless manage to continue until their creative fever burns out. I have certainly been caught up in work that demands my attention, directs my thoughts and engages my entire consideration. But, even then, I did not create without thought. In general, to create without contemplation, without time for reflection and consideration rarely leads to great output. Even so, artists, like everyone else, have become caught up with the need to produce and fall into the trap of feeling guilty when part of the process of producing is time spent apparently doing nothing.
I used to be a lawyer. Every workday I started with a sheet of blue paper ruled into a grid where every line represented six minutes of my working day. I had to fill in every single one of those lines so that my work could be billed to the appropriate client. I had a daily target of billable hours that I had to meet to keep my job secure and my self-worth intact. To keep moving, keep billing, keep producing, don’t ever be seen to be doing nothing was paramount in this environment. Over twenty years after leaving the law I still have nightmares about going back to legal work and forgetting to fill in my time sheets. These are nightmares of visceral horror and shame, equivalent to the dreams a child has about arriving at school not wearing any clothes. I was finally forced into inactivity in my late twenties by an illness which lasted for about seven years. It took being unable to do much more than clean and dress myself to force me to stop and find value in doing nothing. I learned to understand that daydreams were a way to survive despair and that the fact that days went by without me producing a single thing did not mean that my life had no worth.
Even so, somewhere deep within myself I still buy into the idea that a true measure of effort and worth is output. I still equate work with visible momentum and production of artefacts and have to fight not to feel guilty about stillness, contemplation and daydreams. In modern art it is generally regarded as axiomatic that the foundation for every artwork is an idea. Ideas require time, thought and reflection untrammelled by guilt. If I am ever lucky enough to be granted an artist’s residency I am hoping that I can keep Helen’s example in mind. She did all the things most likely to foster her writing in the long term. But in a world where one of the most estimable answers to “How are you?” is generally considered to be “Busy!”, I will strive to excuse myself the busy-ness and avoid the side order of guilt.