The Art of Doing Nothing

I get some of my best ideas while in the shower. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve met plenty of people who swear to the same thing – that all of their mental breakthroughs occur while standing beneath a stream of warm water. And for further proof that it’s not just me and my acquaintances, this past Christmas I was given AquaNotes – a waterproof pencil and pad, the latter complete with suction cups for easy mounting on wet tiles. (The thing works beautifully, by the way, though in my home it’s mostly been used to play weeklong games of hangman.)

aqua notes

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that so many of us are at our creative, problem-solving best when we’re standing there in the shower. Is it the water? Its warmth and soothing hiss. And the steam, so calming, that pillows all around you. Or is it the isolation of it? No windows to look out of. No distractions, save for a bubbly bar of soap and some bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Or is it maybe the smell of that stuff? The cucumber-aloe body wash. The shampoo scented with lavender.

I’ve come to believe that all of these things play a part in making the shower such a great space for thinking. But most important of all – for me, at least – is the fact that, while in the shower, I’m often just standing there, doing nothing. Yes, I’ll admit it. Once I’m done with my soaping and shampooing, I often just hang out, enjoying the feel of the water, letting my mind roam, hoping another handful of bright ideas come to me – and, of course, wasting water.

But as someone who usually hops out of bed seconds after my eyes pop open – and, after a quick pit-stop at the coffee machine, am then sitting with my books and pads and computer going, going, going – this period of non-activity is extremely valuable. It is perhaps the only time during my day that my mind isn’t directly engaged. I’m not writing, editing, reading, cooking, talking, driving, running, sleeping, cleaning, watching, e-mailing, crosswording, tweeting, eating. I’m just standing there. Doing nothing.

I’m aware, obviously, that I could be doing nothing less wastefully outside of the shower. But take a second to consider just what that would entail. Imaginatively place yourself in your house or your apartment, and think of all the urges and objects and devices you would have to not just ignore, but actively not think about, in order to really and truly spend so much as a couple of seconds doing nothing.

Don’t sit down at your desk and fire off a quick e-mail. Don’t lean over to scoop up the dust bunny in the corner. Don’t put the jar of peanut butter back into the cabinet. Don’t turn on the radio or TV. Don’t organize the pile of shoes in the hall. And definitely DO NOT touch your phone. Go ahead and let your fingers twitch and swipe at a phantom touchscreen, but don’t grab the thing and punch in your passcode and start playing around. Shove your phone and the mind-boggling number of distractions stored within its slim body as far away from your thoughts as you can.

Hard, isn’t it?

Very.

It’s possible that in our fast-paced and technologically intertwined modern lives, it’s harder than ever to do nothing. All of which is not to say that you should hang around in your shower, wasting countless gallons of water, solely for the sake of that next great idea. No, it’s to say that, if doing nothing allows you to come up with great ideas (as it does for me), you should try harder to make it a pastime. You should practice, and get good at it, so you can do nothing practically anytime and anywhere, and then make a healthy habit of doing so.

To be able to sweep away the day’s dizzying accumulation of nagging thoughts, worries, and reminders in order to either (a) just simply be or (b) think directly, without any distraction, about a problem or an idea – that’s a powerful, valuable skill. A comfortable, distraction-less shower is the crutch I usually need to help me hobble into that mental space.

But I’ve been trying not to rely on the shower so much. I’ve been practicing getting into that restorative mental space outside of the shower. I’ll take a seat on the couch beside the cat and dog. I’ll look out the window. Try to notice things, but not dwell on them. To note – and then let those notes flit away. There’s a German shepherd. That’s the neighbor. A blue car. A green one.

And gradually… my mind slips away. It pulls back from the window and, without my even really bidding it to, picks up those things that require steady, sustained thought – the things that can’t be productively thought through or solved with all the hubbub of daily life crowding in around you.

Everyone, I believe, needs these quiet, peaceful retreats, these – to use a phrase of Haruki Murakami’s – “cozy, homemade voids.” (Murakami says he can only access these restorative mental spaces while running long distances and, usually, listening to The Lovin’ Spoonful.)

Read. This. Book.

Read. This. Book.

But this sort of mindfulness is especially necessary for writers to practice. In part this is because so many of the problems presented by story- and novel-writing can only be properly solved (or can only properly solve themselves) when you unfix your mind from them and just let them be. (I wrote more about this paradox, and novelist Martin Amis’s take on it, here.)

There’s something else, though. Something perhaps even more important. The moments when you’re wholly present, sitting there with all your feelers out, a sponge non-judgmentally soaking up the reality happening all around you – it’s within these stretches of stillness that you so often unearth the inspirations and ideas that sustain you throughout a long project. It’s like you’re cutting the cord that normally tethers your imagination to your everyday life, letting it roam, all on its own. And when it returns, it’ll almost always be toting a little bag of treasures.

You should do this outside of your home, too. In a coffee shop. In your yard early in the morning or late at night. On a subway train. At the grocery store. Walking to the bus stop. Pretend you’re carrying a great big net, holding it out and passively gathering the gush of data constantly flowing around you. This will enrich your writing. Days later, a detail, collected unknowingly, will unexpectedly float up to the surface of your consciousness, filling out the scene you’re writing and adding depth and color to your story.

So, go do nothing. Ignore the turbocharged, ultra-caffeinated, multitasking horde of your friends and families and colleagues and peers. Just sit there, stand around or go for a walk and get a whole bunch of nothing done. And even if no one else can see it, at least you’ll know that you are, in fact, doing a whole lot.

#rereadable

The other day, while looking through a bookstore, a friend told me that they hadn’t been able to so much as think about picking up a book by Ernest Hemingway after a particularly terrible experience trying to read the author’s In Our Time back in high school. They weren’t sure whether their teacher presented the book especially poorly, or whether, at 16 years old, it simply wasn’t the right time in their life for Hemingway’s tough little book of stories. All they could tell me was that the encounter had been traumatic enough to keep them from going near the “H” section of the fiction shelves ever since.

inourtime

Of course, my friend’s story isn’t all that uncommon. Plenty of people have had books ruined for them forever because of clumsy or inopportune initial meetings. Books, not being able to speak up for themselves, can’t easily recover from bad first impressions.

And so I’ve decided to start a Twitter campaign on behalf of all those classics that have been – and still continue to be – sullied by a sloppy middle school or high school encounter. While I recognize that there isn’t necessarily something for everyone in every single book, the fact is that we’re given the books we are in school because, well, they’re generally considered to be pretty awesome. Also, while I value the idea of a literary canon and the classics that make it up, I recognize, too, that some high school reading lists are staid, stuffy, and narrow. In that spirit, I will tweet (and hope others will tweet) about books that belong in classrooms, yet aren’t there, novels that I wish every human being would at some point sit down and read.

I’m using the hashtag #rereadable, an intentionally general adjective to describe any book that deserves a second, perhaps closer, look. My hope is that we can together alter the reputation of some of these “tainted” books – our classics, both old and new – and maybe encourage some readers to go back and pick up one that they for whatever reason ignored, breezed through, or even downright despised.

A great book is a rereadable one – a book whose pages, however many times they’re read through, continue to offer you more.

. . .

Below are a few example tweets. It goes:

TITLE, Author – reason why the book is rereadable.

IN OUR TIME, Ernest Hemingway – to see the astounding capabilities of simple, straightforward language. #rereadable

GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Charles Dickens – b/c no one can make you laugh, cry, think, hurt, and love quite like Dickens. #rereadable

A WRINKLE IN TIME, Madeleine L’Engle – to find out why, as a kid, it blew your mind. #rereadable

THE WESTING GAME, Ellen Raskin – b/c it’s a smart, fun, puzzle of a murder mystery, full of quirky yet real-to-life characters. #rereadable

THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald – b/c no matter how over-the-top a movie version, it can’t hold a candle to this prose. #rereadable

Spread the word, and speak up for the books that have, somewhere or other – or at least according to one person – picked up a crappy reputation. Even if you only change that one person’s mind, and get them going back to a book they never thought they would, it’s worth it.

Long-Distance Running for the Writer

I’m not a runner. I enjoy running, and over the course of my life have, in fits and starts, behaved in a runner-like fashion. There was a year or so in middle school when I was obsessed with it, but since then have run only spontaneously and sporadically. A month here, a few months there – and in between, periods of sloth in which my running shoes collected dust beneath my bed or in the back of my closet.

Again: I’m not a runner.

My girlfriend, though – she’s a runner. She recently ran the Boston Marathon, and she has that thing inside of her that gets her heading outside at six in the morning (a Saturday morning) to run ten or fifteen or twenty miles in the worst of New England’s winter frigidity. And all of this while I’m sitting there at the dining room table with a cup of coffee and a blanket wrapped around me, preparing to start my day of writing (and therefore not stray from the table for the next four or five hours – except, of course, to pour myself some more coffee or grab a banana).

No, I’m not a runner. At least not that kind of a runner. But maybe someday I will be. I’d certainly like to be. My girlfriend knows this, and with her runner’s spirit and zeal, she went ahead and signed me up for a 10K in June (after which she promptly began to convince me to consider running a half-marathon in August).

And so I’ve started to train. I’m taking it slow, as the experts advise. I’ve got a three-month schedule, with daily runs (and a handful of what are sure to be much-needed rest days) all mapped out. And, just a few runs in, I’ve already discovered that approaching running like this – methodically, with numbers and a schedule and a dash or two of science – satisfies the writer in me in ways that my past haphazard flirtations with the sport never could or did.

What’s more, between running myself and talking to other runners about their beloved sport, I’ve found that there’s a lot to be learned about writing from long-distance running. The lessons of the latter can be carried over to the former, and though they’re applied differently, the tools required to run twenty miles or to complete a novel are surprisingly similar.

Here are a few things that you might find useful, whether you’re preparing for a run, a novel, or some other kind of long-distance project:

1. Just Do It

I know this is a trademark of Nike’s, and for that reason, I hesitated to use it. But these three little words truly do best capture what I’m trying to say. Just do it. By which I mean just get out there and run, or just sit down in your chair and write. Those miles won’t run themselves, and the first draft of that novel can’t revise itself. And the more you dawdle, the more you gnaw on your fingernails and worry about how difficult and painful it’s going to be? Well, the worse it probably will be.

It’s like swimming in a cold ocean or lake. If you linger on the shore, dipping your toes and trying to psyche yourself up, you might never work up the guts to actually get in (and even if you do, you won’t be able to concentrate on anything but how cold it is). The trick, as everyone knows, is to charge the water full tilt and just dive on in. Your adrenaline masks the cold, and by the time that dissipates, you’ve already adjusted to the temperature, you’ve already begun to enjoy yourself. So just do it. Start running. Get writing. Jump in – the water, it turns out, is fine.

2. Find, And Respect, Your Pace

If you’re planning on running any significant distance, you need to find a comfortable pace and keep to it. Maybe your iPod shuffles to a song that always gets you amped up, or maybe you’re feeling so miserable that you think you’ll just start sprinting and charge through the last couple miles. BAD IDEA. Don’t do it. Find your pace, and respect that pace.

The same goes for writing. Not respecting your own, unique pace is a recipe for misery. Oh, so Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days? And Mrs. Permanent Residence on the New York Times Best Seller List published her first book when she was just 19? So what? That’s not you. And neither is the guy with the statuesque physique who blows by you – twice – on your crawl of a run around the block, his forehead and armpits inhumanly free of sweat.

3. Finish What You Start

Whether it’s your breakfast, a difficult patch of your training schedule, or the first draft of a manuscript, it’s a good idea to finish what you start. As any runner or writer will tell you, it’s not all smiles, sunshine, and rainbows. Maybe it’s pouring out, or maybe you had an exhausting day of work and the last thing you want to do is put on your running shoes and head outside. Or maybe 30,000 words into the first draft of a novel, you find yourself plagued with doubt about the legs this story really has – and maybe there’s another, exciting, seemingly perfect idea nagging at the back of your brain, begging you to write it.

While there’s something to be said about knowing, for the sake of your mental health, when you ought to just take a nap or ditch a not-so-good story, as a general rule, don’t. The best advice I could give an aspiring novelist is to learn how to turn off your brain and just write, write, write until you can write “The End.” Only then should you go back and begin to pick apart what you actually put down, change things, reshape – revise.

I find that it’s only once I’ve got a complete first draft (sloppy and rough as it might be) that I actually know what kind of story I’m trying to tell. And once you know that, revising can be a thrilling, fascinating, fun process. And even if you ultimately decide that the story isn’t worth pursuing, the experience of finishing what you’ve started will – I promise – teach you an enormous amount about writing, both how to do it and how you, uniquely, do it.

It’s the same with running. You had a bad week and want nothing more than to sleep in and be lazy all weekend. But you get out there and run your miles, knowing that you’re working toward a larger goal, that you’ve just taken one more important step toward finishing this amazing thing you’ve started. And by making sure you take every one of those steps, by refusing to let yourself give up, the finishing will be all the more fulfilling.

4. Love It

Amor Vincit Omnia. Translation: Love Conquers All. It’s also the only thing that’s going to conquer 26.2 miles or the seemingly daunting revision of that rough, sloppy first draft of a manuscript. Sure, you can abuse your body and force it past its physical limits. You can sit down at your laptop and hammer out a bunch of stories or even a whole novel in a marathon-like writing session.

But that lack of love? It’s going to show. You won’t have a smile on your face as you cross the finish line. There won’t be any pride to feel on top of your soreness and stiffness and aches and pains. Your characters will be flat and boring. The dialogue will lack energy. Your plot will sag. As Ray Bradbury, that marathoner of a writer, said: “If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art” – so, you know, at least spend nine days on your novel.

And if you really do lack the love, if you know you don’t possess that sustaining passion, then what are you doing running a marathon or trying to write a novel in the first place? There are plenty of other ways to stay fit and get your daily dose of exercise, and, as any writer will tell you, there are (unfortunately) about a billion better ways to make a steady income than sitting at a desk and writing down what you dream up.

Here’s a bit of wisdom from Charles Bukowski, taken from his poem “so you want to be a writer?”:

if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

[. . .]

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

(Click here to read the poem in its entirety — and, while you’re at it, check out the rest of Maria Popova’s amazing site.)

If you do have the love, don’t let yourself forget it. You can’t afford to. The love is what you will – and must – fall back on when you encounter tough odds or an unforeseen obstacle. A 90-degree Marathon Monday when you’ve been training in below-freezing weather for four months. A cramp at the bottom of that last big hill. A string of rejections from publishers. A difficult day with a story. The love is what’ll get you back out there, pounding the pavement again. It’s what’ll get you sitting back down the very next day, eager to tackle those difficulties, loving every minute of it.

Happy writing — and happy running, too.