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.

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