When people are asked where they get their best ideas, they answer, “In the shower.” “On vacation.” “Doing nothing.” They begin, in other words, by simply being.
This despite the fact that such dreamy purposelessness is too often treated with contempt, perhaps especially here in the United States. We “work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep and feel harried too much of the time,” says sociologist Judith Schor. At least a third of us report that we have no time to reflect on what we’re doing, that we always feel rushed. “I’m so busy,” we tell one another when we meet on the fly, half-proud, half-overwhelmed. “Really, I’m crazy-busy.”
That it might be possible to arrange one’s life so as to be slightly less frantic has somehow become unimaginable. And yet there is a great deal to be gained from doing nothing. We need space to brood and ruminate and mull. We need to slow down to get where we’re going.
Slowing down. This time of year, it means the child lying in the hammock under the jacaranda tree, rocking herself idly with the help of one big toe. It is her father dozing on the worn sofa, surrounded by a heap of unread Sunday papers. It is her big sister walking barefoot along the beach, following the lacy edge of the tide as it comes in.
Numerous writers, artists, poets and musicians have testified to the virtues of such idleness in their own creative lives. It was when he was completely alone, Mozart wrote in a letter, “say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when (he) could not sleep,” that his ideas flowed best and most abundantly.
The short story writer Grace Paley also spoke up in praise of idleness. “I have a basic indolence about me which is essential to writing,” she said in an interview. “It really is. Kids now call it space around you. It’s thinking time, it’s hanging-out time, it’s daydreaming time. You know, it’s lie-around-the-bed time, it’s sitting-like-a-dope-in-your-chair time. And that seems to me essential to my work.”
Such testimony is not just plain good sense; it is good science too. In a recent article in Discover magazine, the journalist Stephen Johnson reported on a conversation with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. The cognitive part of our brain works very fast, Damasio explained. “So you can do a lot of reasoning, a lot of recognition of objects, remembering names in just a few hundredths of a second.” But the emotional part of our brains works very differently, and there is precious little evidence that this is going to change. Tasks that have to do with empathy and imagination, with slow-growing qualities like love and fidelity and ethics, will continue to develop in their own sweet time.
Creativity sometimes seems to be given to us, when rhythm and image fly together: a red kite dancing in a clear blue sky. But such transcendence presupposes other times, too often seen as lost or wasted. When Dorothy Allison was working on her novel “Cavedweller,” she listened to the same piece of country music over and over, swaddling herself in its sound. James Baldwin apprenticed himself to Bessie Smith. Sylvia Plath took a surprising number of baths. Balzac slept till midnight, then dressed himself in a white monk’s habit and wrote till midnight, fueled by fierce black coffee, for as much as 15 hours at a stretch. Pablo Neruda liked to spend part of each day working in his garden. When Alice Walker came to write “The Color Purple,” she left Brooklyn and retreated to the country, sewing quilts and listening to the trees.
Coffee, yardwork, music, silence: the specific details are unimportant. What matters is that one honor and protect one’s idleness, one’s own dreamy, creative/uncreative time. “Creative work needs solitude,” writes the poet Mary Oliver. “It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching till it comes to that certainty which it aspires to. ... Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”
• McEwen is the author of “World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down” and wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.