Monthly Archives: July 2012

Wasted Time

Recently, I’ve had some problems with time for my writing. It’s not that I didn’t have enough. I felt like I was wasting it.

I’ve been very busy, but most of the work was “non-writing” work. To make sure I got everything done, I was very organized with my time. I tried scheduling time to write, but it’s hard to block off a certain amount of time to “be creative.” Other than writing exercises, I had no output. The irony was that once my non-writing workload eased, and I had more time I could have spent on writing, I found I was doing many things but.

Mostly, I was reading.

And, get this: I was chiding myself for reading.

This was patently ridiculous. I’ve always been identified (and identified myself) as a bookworm. I tend to be in the midst of several books at once, and blow through enormous tomes at record speed. In this short space of free-ish time, I had been reading, and finished, one book.

I believe my non-writing productivity deserves some of the blame.

The creative life requires a gestation period. Art takes time to develop. It grows, sort of organically. We start with an idea, and need to nurture it. Natalie Goldberg, whose writing advice I adore, calls this “composting.”

The thing is, this work doesn’t actually look like anything productive from the outside. In my early days on the job as an editor for med ed materials, my boss told me that a legitimate chunk of this kind of work included sitting in a chair and staring out the window. This did not mean he wasn’t busy. It just looked like daydreaming.

The thing is, sometimes it is daydreaming. And it’s actually a good thing. See Goldberg. Also, famous writers of all stripes agree that in order to be a good writer, one needs to read.

But I was having a hard time accepting that I wasn’t writing. I called myself lazy. I had all these goals — how was I supposed to meet them if I was wasting time sitting on the couch with a book? Not always reading it, mind you.

I was getting a lot done on my non-writing list, though. And that was really the problem. It was as though I was running at top speed along a ridge, and my sudden free time was a plunge off the edge I hadn’t seen coming, because I was too busy charging ahead. I hadn’t been paying attention, and now I was in creative free fall.

My productive self was ready to produce something tangible. But I had been neglecting the intangible. I was just running — I hadn’t been composting anything.

That was what my reading brain was trying to do: find compost.

Unless we add the raw materials, nothing else will come out the other side. No tomato is ever going to grow in my plant pot if I don’t water it. Words don’t grow unless I water them with other words.

We need to be careful of the dichotomy of wasting time and productivity in the creative life. Some of the most tangibly productive things are stealing time, energy, and mental resources away from creative composting.

Sometimes the best use of our time is to sit in a chair, staring out the window.

Farming the Imagination

Writing is a lot like farming.

Bear with me here. They both involve hard work. While farming requires a lot of physical labor which writing does not, try asking anyone who has sat in front of a blank page or an empty word processing document, writhing with the task of producing something worth reading, whether they toil. Metaphysical, mental, emotional toil, it is true, but toil nonetheless.

image courtesy of

They both require a hefty time investment, and a lot of attention and care. Holidays are things for other people.


There is no guarantee of results.  Despite every effort, the product may never make it to market. Bad weather conditions can spoil crops; illnesses can afflict farm animals. Editorial gatekeepers, agents and publishers reject work. If the product does make it to market, there is no guarantee that it will sell for a price that will cover the cost to produce it.


There is a lot of advance work. Before anything ever is ready to come “to market,” the farmer and the writer have both put in countless hours in the planting, growing, shaping, nurturing, and improving of their goods. In all that time, they have not been remunerated by anything outside of their own desire for success.

Both produce something from nothing.

I’ve had farming on the brain a lot recently. I’ve been following stories of small farmers across the country being harassed by government agencies for one thing or another (as if farming wasn’t hard enough on its own), and I’ve personally been trying to source farm-fresh goods for myself, now that I’ve moved most of the way across the country and depending on my previous supply is not very practical. So I naturally turned to the article in this spring’s edition of Women’s Adventure magazine, featuring three women farmers from three different regions of the United States.

By any measure, it is clear these three women love what they do, and they pursue it with a sense of purpose: to share their knowledge, passion, and results with other people. Their work doesn’t end on the field, either, as two of the three have off-farm jobs and the third runs a non-profit organization around farming. And clearly, none of their experiences were a get-rich-quick scheme.

None of these ladies had a boss. There was no marketing department, or a crop (pun intended) of interns to take care of the grunt work.

The same thing goes for writing, really, or any other creative endeavor. It fills me with a sense of purpose. I’m writing for myself, but I also want to share with others: the glories of the imagination, the advantages of information. I don’t have a boss; I don’t clock out at the end of the day. I don’t receive assignments from someone else. I don’t delegate. I don’t have conference calls to strategize with other people. I do it because I love it and not because I had an idea that I’d be able to retire to a private island in the Caribbean after a certain prescribed amount of time, and stop writing.

Retirement? It’s such an ugly word. Talk about boredom.

Like the farmer, whenever I start something, I have to start from scratch. I may stay up all hours to complete a project. Saturday and Sunday are just days – time that can be used. Although I can turn to others for advice, ultimately I am the one responsible for the flourishing of my creative seed. Eventually, I set up my little farm stand, and hope that someone will enjoy the appearance and the flavor.

There is not much that I can do if they don’t. Tinker with the recipe. Try different ingredients, different methods of production. And get the word out to more people.

If there is a run on the stand, I have to be sure to have enough to provide for the market. I don’t want anyone to go empty-handed.

Even before I’ve sold the crop, I’m thinking about the next one. I’m laying the groundwork, I’m getting the seeds, I’m fertilizing the soil. Maybe I’m sprouting in the greenhouse, and I can check whether it’s ready to go at any time. I’ve asked around, to see of other people might be interested in partaking of this new crop. This one here – this is just one season. This is just one year. This is just one effort.

And so we begin again, the farmer and the writer.  Rolling up our sleeves.  Making sure the equipment is in order.  Getting ready for inclement weather.

The difference is, the farmer is outside.  I’m farming the imagination.