I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day.
Tim Kreider’s article on being busy in the New York Times opinion pages a couple days ago struck a chord with a lot of people and I saw it all over my twitter feeds and Facebook pages. He makes a good point about our general state of disrepair when it comes to the amount of activities we fill our lives with. That said, I think he does other “idle” employees (namely, writers) a disservice by over-romanticizing what happens in the down time between writing time.
First, it’s interesting to note the sharp contrast between the definition as proposed by the OED, that we are “actively engaged, doing something that engrosses the attention” and the way Kreider’s identifies “busy”:
It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
Absolutely four or five hours of “actively engaged” writing that “engrosses the attention” is markedly better than eight hours of distracted, annoying, or unwanted busy time that stresses me out. In the summer, after four hours of productivity I may as well go get a “rum bucket” with friends at the Harbor Shack in Rock Hall, MD. The difference, perhaps, between me and Krieder, is that I don’t at all feel like a “reprobate” if I go kayaking or engage in spontaneous outings with friends instead, or even if I take an entire day to watch end-on-end episodes of some long-ago TV show from my youth (seriously, what else were we supposed to do during this stretch of 100+ degree heat?).
The truth is, sometimes I sit down and the work is decidedly NOT something that “engrosses the attention,” and I’ve come to recognize and gauge my level of energy, rest, and brain activity that would lead to such a state. So rather than sit down and force the words out of my would-be mind-constipated state, I skip the writing altogether and get lazy instead. But I hate the term “lazy”, even if it’s less pejorative now (lately lazy seems to connote a delicious indulgence as we step away from our busy lives). Krieider uses the term “idleness.”
While I agree with Krieder’s main argument, his depiction of idleness via Pynchon and Archemedies and Newton is romanticized and impractical. He writes:
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.
This is what irritates me most about most creative or professional writers who speak of their process. It’s still the individual genius sitting around waiting for “inspiration” or the muse to speak. Yes, idle time is necessary to productivity. Idle, however, does not mean disassociated, or disconnected. It certainly doesn’t mean that we’re sitting around waiting for the eureka moment to just pop down on a ray of sunlight, or, as Kreider puts it, “waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration.”
So let me unpack some of that romantic imagery and use some more practical terminology: in the composition world, we might use the term “incuabation” (see Kraschen, Flower, and others). It means to step away from the work, but to continue to keep the work somewhere near the surface of the mind. To consciously step away, but also to let it come back into mind freely in the midst of other activities, to not ignore the work as it inevitably creeps back into consciousness in other moments.
In other words, incubation is not passive, as Krieder makes it seem. In fact, ideas rarely surface as “eureka” moments; rather, the work is just close enough to the surface of the mind that when I do sit down at my desk again the I’ll see what I’ve already committed to the page with greater clarity, and perhaps a greater sense of direction and conviction. This is just as valuable as any profound bolt of lightning.