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When Work Looks Like Idle Time

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

The blank stare, as if I can see through the wall, like Superman. The cat-like, sudden look away at something that isn’t there. Head tilted. Whiskers bristled. The silent and still posture, with eyes closed and breathing slowed—sometimes prone, sometimes sitting. From a distance, these activities don’t appear to be work. Or even activities. They look to be the opposite, I would imagine, to an observer. These are idle states. And they are both intentional and essential. Creative work benefits from periodic rest. When I encounter a writing student or client who is having trouble getting started, I usually prescribe a number of momentum-building activities, including dream journals, morning pages, and writing prompts. The cure for not writing is to write, and these suggestions help get the would-be writer moving: the pen on the paper or the fingers active on the keyboard. This movement produces momentum, and there is great value in building creative momentum this way. The words come faster and easier. Words on the page beget words on the page. Once the log jam is freed, most writers who try these suggested methods find it much easier to face the blank page or their self-imposed daily word quota. There does come a time, however, when the opposite problem becomes a hinderance to creativity: words are flowing and ideas are coming, but something seems to be missing. Something about the way the project is coming together just feels “off.” For me, this often happens around the 1/3 mark for a novel-length manuscript, or around the time I finish a first (very) rough draft for a short story.

A hammock between two palm trees, overlooking the bay.
What appears to be idle time isn't always.

In both situations, I have this feeling: the words are nice. The flow seems ok. The characters are interesting. But I’m just not sure the story is compelling. I’m not convinced there is a significant “why” behind what I have written the story and sufficient reason for a reader to read it. (*) This is when you will find me staring at the wall or ceiling, or tracking phantom images across a still room. What appears to be idle time is actually serious work. This pause is intentional and filled with purpose. It is an opportunity for my sub-conscious mind to bring forward some of the details and modifications it has been working on, behind the scenes. This is the point where the “why” begins to take shape and some of the solutions to the uneasy feelings begin to present themselves. Putting down the pen, or pushing myself away from the desk, allows the mechanical portion of the process to become quiet, so the intellectual and inspirational aspects can be heard, free of the clatter of keys and the frantic scribbling of my fountain pen.

(*) This sort of thing happens in a blog post, too. I reached this point (marked above) relatively quickly, writing straight through, then felt the desire to pause and make sure I was on track with what I had envisioned the post to be, and leave room for some other level of inspiration. I also paused here to contemplate how I would present the points I hoped to make for the last portion of the blog post.

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