We live in a productivity-obsessed age where we streamline our lives with the efficiency of assembly lines, devoting our every minute, every second to the capitalist task of “getting things done.” Today some ten-year-olds have busier schedules than corporate CEOs. Hour after hour is crammed with basketball games and ballet classes, playdates and piano.
The problem? In our rabid race to achieve, we leave little time for idleness. We all need “time freed from time”— respite from the relentless hamster wheel of duty and obligation. Savoring a cup of chamomile tea, unwinding in a hot bath, lounging on a languid summer afternoon with nothing pressing to do and no set plans: such idle moments are restful commas in a hurried sentence.
Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that we all require time for rest, renewal, and relaxation. Yet in our “time is money” capitalist culture, we feel guilty if we don’t maximize every hour and do something “useful.” If we fritter away a Saturday morning painting or writing sonnets or simply staring out the window, we’re slothful— or worse— sinful. Idleness is an unforgivable violation of the capitalist credo.
In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, delightfully defiant Brenda Ueland suggests idleness is not a condemnable waste of time but a critical component of the creative life. Much like Rebecca Solnit, who argued the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour, Ueland believes the imagination “works slowly and quietly.” Indeed, throughout time, idleness has been behind all human progress. The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.” “What we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing,” wrote Leo Tolstoy.
Sadly, in our accomplishment-manic society, we find it hard to tolerate the idleness so crucial to creativity. To write, to paint, you need long stretches of seeming un-productivity. Or as poet Mary Oliver so elegantly phrased, “a place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.” To be an artist, we have to resign ourselves to the dispiriting fact that some days we’ll slave for hours and have almost nothing to show for it; some days “working” will consist of simply staring out the window and sitting at our desks. But if we’re to remain artists, we can’t be discouraged by this apparent lack of progress. As Ueland writes:
“When we hear the word ‘inspiration’ we imagine something that comes like a bolt of lightning, and at once with a rapt flashing of the eyes, tossed hair and feverish excitement, a poet or artist begins furiously to paint or write. At least I used to think sadly that that was what inspiration must be, and never experienced a thing that was one bit like it.
But this isn’t so. Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly. Say that you want to write. Well, not much will come to you the first day. Perhaps nothing at all. You will sit before your typewriter or paper and look out the window and begin to brush your hair absent-mindedly for an hour or two. Never mind. That is all right. That is as it should be,— though you must sit before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper sooner or later. And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day and so on, forever and ever.”
Though we tend to idolize what the ancients called the vita activa, or life of action, Ueland believes we should devote just as much time to quiet contemplation. Our ideas are like seeds: we can’t plant them in the ground and expect them to immediately sprout— they need to sit in the fertile soil of silence and solitude before they can bloom into fully-formed flowers:
“Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong. Bernard Shaw says that it is not true that Napoleon was always snapping out decisions to a dozen secretaries and aides-de-camp, as we are told, but that he moodled around for months. Of course he did. And that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people often say: ‘I am not creative.’ They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time.”
For Ueland, there is one crucial difference between the active, go-getting man and the idle man: while the go-getting man mindlessly follows other people’s maxims out of a stern sense of obligation, the idle man is a free thinker who has his own ideas and creates his own rules.
“It is these fool, will-worshipping people who live by maxims and lists of chores and the Ten Commandments— not creatively as when a fine, great maxim occurs to you and bursts a little, silent bomb of revelation in you— but mechanically.
‘Honor thy father and thy mother’… the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behavior.
The idle man says:
‘Honor they father and mother.’…That is interesting…I don’t seem to honor them very much…I wonder why that is? and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained. This distresses him and he puzzles and thinks and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination shows to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: ‘Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?'”
When we get quiet, we can hear the hushed whisperings of our own heart. As British philosopher Alain de Botton so eloquently put it, in idleness the “more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.” In what is perhaps my most beloved and oft-quoted line from If You Want to Write, Ueland reassures us if we sit still and listen hard, the Muse will strike:
“So you see the imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: ‘I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.’ But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from the office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.”
For more of Brenda Ueland’s heart-sustaining meditations on art and creativity, revisit art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies. Longing for more insight into writing and the writing life? Read advice from our era’s leading literary lights including Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood, Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, and Maya Angelou on her writing routine and the exquisite torment of the creative life.