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The Surprising Importance of Doing Nothing

Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr) [1]
Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Pop quiz! Studies have shown that creative people are known to:

A) Daydream. A lot.
B) They lose track of time.
C) Have wandering minds.
D) Stare at the wall. A lot.
E) All of the above

If you picked E, you are correct! Successful creatives spend much of their time so deeply immersed in their own internal worlds that, in the eyes of the world, it often appears that they’re doing nothing.

But of course, we know how very untrue that is. Our minds are busy working. Synapses are sparking, neural pathways firing, different corners of our brains coming together, making connections, leaping around seemingly unrelated topics, playing with ‘what if’ possibilities all the time.

The act of thinking used to be a respected one. It was understood that in order to have well-formed ideas and opinions—or even just make good decisions—we had to think about things. But that process doesn’t seem to be held in as much regard anymore. In our productivity-enamored, technology-driven, instantaneous response world, the act of thinking is often considered, at best—quaint, and at its least flattering, an indication of a slow mind. We’re expected to make snap decisions, instantaneous judgments (with or without all the facts, no less!) have ideas gush forth in brainstorming meetings or large, communal bull pit type offices. Then, once the idea has been decided upon, we’re expected to produce, produce, produce non stop in a straight, continuous line until a project is finished. Frankly, I’m exhausted simply writing that paragraph.

So what if your brain doesn’t work that way? Well, now you can take heart in the knowledge that many creative peoples’ don’t and in fact, if your brain doesn’t function that way, perhaps it is due to its creative nature.

For some writers, it takes time to peel off layers of ourselves and weave them into our work. It takes time to observe and study human nature, collecting and appropriating mannerisms, emotional dynamics, and dramas, and then incorporate them into our stories.

This is absolutely not to say that writers or other creatives who are prolific are not creative; creativity comes in many different flavors, sizes, and speeds. But in a world where output, production, and speed are the gold standard, it’s important to remind ourselves that fast doesn’t always mean better. For some people, speed gets in the way of producing their richest, deepest, most creative work.

Even that bastion of productivity, Stephen King, has confessed to having periods of apparent idleness interspersed with frantic bursts of impassioned writing.

Note the word apparent. I’m guessing he couldn’t have one without the other. In fact, those fallow periods are what lead to the frantic production.

I’ve always loved that word fallow. The idea of letting the land lie dormant for a season in order to restore its fertility. But there are lots of terms that work: percolating, stewing, fermenting, gestating. All of the processes take a set of original ingredients and, through the simple alchemy of time, turn them into something more than the sum of their parts. So often we forget that time itself is an essential ingredient to creativity.

Our brain—our subconscious—is doing all sorts of things, even when our conscious mind does not appear to be engaged.

One of my favorite parts of the creative process is discovering the trail of breadcrumbs my subconscious has left me. Those are the bits we put in a story–maybe a line that doesn’t quite make sense at the time–that feel as if they need to be there, so we leave them in. Or a character that comes out of left field, or a plot thread that we hadn’t planned and—-worse!—-we’re not sure where it’s going. But listening to our gut, we leave it in for now, assuring ourselves we can cut it later.

 Only it turns out, later, when we go back, we see that those bits are absolutely essential to the deeper meaning of our story, or bring a whole new layer of subtext and meaning to the characters’ actions, or allow for a deeper resonance.

That’s our subconscious at work, making the connections and building the links that we didn’t even realize would be the most critical parts of our story. And sometimes, oftentimes, that really can’t be rushed without sacrificing depth or quality.

I also suspect that, early in our writing journeys, the stories just gush out. We have such a backload of stories we want to tell, of things we want to say, and they burst out of us fast and glorious, like a geyser. But eventually, that initial flow slows and we become more intentional and discriminating in what stories we choose to spend our creative capital on.

I want to be clear that fallow periods and daydreaming aren’t about waiting around for the muse to show up or waiting on inspiration. This is about giving ideas the time they need to fully develop. It’s about staring at the wall and thinking about the story, thinking about the characters and the themes and the deeper meanings behind it all rather than getting words on a page to meet a daily goal. Maybe that means doing a lot of pre writing or story journaling, or writing a bazillion drafts. Whatever method works for allowing you the time you need to fully develop your ideas and let them ripen and mature. 

And sometimes, to the rest of the world, it can look a lot like simply doing nothing. So maybe instead of feeling pressured to hit the keyboard or pick up that pencil before you’re ready, give yourself permission to stare at the damned wall.

The thing is, there are so many reasons to rush: to finally hook an agent, to get published, to generate enough income to quit your day job or pay off your student loans, or to produce a book a year so that the reading public doesn’t forget you.

But it’s important to keep in mind that there are many writers for whom the announcement of a new book is an event. Donna Tartt, Michel Faber, Meghan Whalen Turner, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R. R. Martin to name a few. The world will happily wait the required time it takes them, because they know that the payoff will be great. They know that the book will be rich and layered and nuanced and full.

So maybe instead of frantically meeting your daily word goal or making sure you spend three hours each day with your butt planted in the writing chair, allow yourself to go forth and do nothing—proudly. It just might be the best thing you can possibly do for your story.

 

About Robin LaFevers [2]

Robin LaFevers [3] is the author of seventeen books for young readers, including the HIS FAIR ASSASSIN trilogy [4] about teen assassin nuns in medieval France and the upcoming COURTING DARKNESS [5]. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

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