On Doing Nothing. Maybe It’s Really Something!?

It started a few weeks ago.

I got the first inkling while reading this wonderful book, Traveling with Pomegranates.

Some close friends been extolling the book for months now. Written by a mother and daughter team (both writers), it explores the pain and joy of a daughter’s transition to adulthood – and a mother’s confrontation with her own aging and mortality.

Certainly themes that have bedeviled and inspired me of late.

And Pomegranates delivered. Poignant, exquisitely crafted, I savored every page.

The fact that the story delves into the creative process, spiritual connection, and is told through a lens of travel made it all the more relevant to me. Just writing this makes me want to read it all over again.

I could go on for hours about the different themes explored in Pomegranates – but the one that keeps coming back and back (from multiple sources) is this idea of feeding your creativity by doing nothing.

Yep. Nothing.

My bitchy inner critic is pounding on my forehead already.

What are you talking about? She yells. You already don’t get half the stuff done that you’re trying to do. First it’s this meditation crap and now you want to sit around and do nothing?? You lazy bum!

Excuse me, while I take a couple of deep breaths and talk her down for a minute.

Okay, I’m back.

I thanked her kindly for her input. But I told her that of course I’m not talking about doing nothing all day!  Just doing a trial run ­– maybe half an hour of staring at the clouds.

Uh oh. Now it’s that fearful inner child.

What do you mean? She wails. Won’t you be bored? What if you start thinking about painful, scary things? I think you should bring a book at least.

It’s no surprise that with those two strident and insistent voices battling around in my head, I’ve spent the last four decades (maybe even longer) seeking out ways to stay as busy as possible.

Busyness is good, busyness is rewarded. People nod approvingly when I tell them how busy I am.

Productivity rules.

And I don’t even have to be productive to remain busy. So many social functions to attend, shows to watch, people whom I simply must call or email. I’ve prided myself on being a multitasker extraordinaire.

Of course as a teenager I was decidedly NOT busy. In fact I loved to sleep as late as I could. But I made sure there weren’t many empty moments spent just staring into space. I already had too many demons to chase away. And chase them I did, quite effectively, by reading fiction. I could put away two or three novels a week in those days.

By escaping into the lives of others I didn’t have to think too hard about how to live my own. Or push myself into realms that scared or intimidated me.

And now here I am, perhaps two-thirds through this precious lifetime, and it’s like – what happened? How come I never wrote that novel? What about those dance lessons I was going to take? How is it that there’s never been time to volunteer at the Food Bank?

Somehow I just got too busy, too productive, to do the things that really matter.

I guess that’s what they mean by busywork.

Woven through Traveling With Pomegranates is Sue Monk Kidd’s story about how she came to be a novelist, and write The Secret Life of Bees (one of my favorite novels BTW).

Well, guess what? She didn’t do it by forcing herself to sit at her computer for hours upon hours (or at least there was a lot more to it – including starting out with a collage instead of an outline.)

Instead she faced her desk to a window where she could gaze at the South Carolina marsh, at the egrets and birds flying through. At times she berates herself, since she often lifts her eyes from the computer to observe the rhythms of the wildlife.

But then she writes, “There is wisdom in this sort of loitering.”

Now I’d never imagined seeing those two words linked together in the same sentence – wisdom, loitering.

And here’s the part that pierced me, that I’m still trying to make sense of:

As the tale of their mother/daughter trajectory is winding down, Sue struggles with a firm deadline to complete her novel. Despite this, when she awakens one morning a few weeks before her daughter’s wedding, flooded with sadness, she allows herself a few days to just sit and process. To really feel that sense of letting go, that grief for her own lost youth.

Not a few hours. A few days.

Afterward she is rewarded with a surge of creativity, the writing pours out. And it’s fueled by her ability to allow herself to just sit. And watch.

“I’ve spent my days moving back and forth between my desk and the dock, alternatively writing for a couple of hours, then sitting out here, doing nothing.”

She is spending precious minutes, hours sitting in a rocking chair doing nothing! And her novel is practically writing itself! Okay – she’s writing it, but the ideas, the inspiration, that sense of connection with her characters and what will happen, it’s flowing with minimal effort.

I keep turning over this image in my mind – of Sue Monk Kidd out on her dock watching the egrets. Of course we know that the novel went on to win great acclaim and be made into a movie.

The novel that was nurtured by allowing introspection, by allowing stillness, by being okay with doing nothing.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, bitchy inner critic!

Up until now, if that had been me waking up flooded with sadness and grief, I wouldn’t have allowed myself even a few hours to feel it. I would have stuffed it down and gratefully turned to my To-Do List. Logged in hours at the gym, made a few more commitments.

And then wondered why I felt so stagnant and uncreative.

It’s been about a month since I read the last page of Pomegranates and regretfully closed the book. But since then I keep getting hit on the head with same message. It might be a blog post, a line in a book, a magazine article, a snippet of conversation.

It’s this notion that great ideas don’t come to us when we’re head down, nose to the grindstone working. Oh no. They come when you’re out walking, taking a shower, gazing at clouds. When you are not pushing to get more and more done.

Creativity springs from that pause. We have to create space.

Last night there it was again. In some tips for getting in touch with your passion and your true strengths. Reading it, I inwardly cried “Uncle!” At least I hope I did.

These particular instructions were to take an hour (or more!) and go hang out somewhere, preferably in nature, and just sit and gaze. And not just once. Often.

That’s a tall order for this busy girl. You should see today’s To-Do List.

Can it possibly be true that I can ultimately accomplish more by making time and space to do nothing?

I think I might give it a try.

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Showing 8 comments
  • Jennifer Savage

    Love this, Sarah — I’m reminded how many “brilliant” essays and stories I’ve written while walking on the beach, spacing out at the ocean. Now, how to bring the inspiration that strikes when doing “nothing” back into the place where I’m getting stuff done!

    • Sarah

      So true! If I had a dollar for every story or blog post that I crafted while out walking or on a long drive , but then never wrote – well you get the idea. I’m trying to get better about writing down the ideas as they pop up – so I can go back and play with them later. (I hope that still qualifies and letting myself do nothing!) I’m learning that the sooner I get to it the more likely I can pull up that original inspired feeling.

  • Reply

    I can relate to it being a tall order! Hard to leave that endless to-do list even though my soul knows that this is exactly what I needed to hear.
    Thanks Sarah for the gentle nudge in the right direction

    • Sarah

      You’re so welcome Claire! Thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m still struggling to allow myself that quiet “nothing” time. Each day I have to renew my commitment. I should probably read my own words here every morning!

  • Colleen

    Hello Sarah! I came over from Puttylike. I, too, am a multipotenialite! I can totally relate to your comment about “spending the last 4 decades trying to stay as busy as possible”! I am still waiting to write my novel and at 48 just started taking dance classes again (you can imagine the looks when you are old enough to be everyone in the rooms mother) LOL! I struggle with doing nothing – I don’t have time for it and it seems so wasteful…looks like I need to read the book. Thank you for introducing it to me.

    • Sarah

      HI Colleen, I’m so glad you wandered over and found this post. I’m just beginning to explore this whole multipotentialite thing – exciting to finally have a name for this penchant to constantly want to try new things! (And something nicer than ‘dabbler!’)

      That is awesome you are taking dance classes. That is yet another thing I want to make time for (around the nothing time of course 🙂 ) And who cares if you’re the mother in the room. Bet those gals wish their own mom was out there shakin’ it! Do get your hands on a copy of Traveling With Pomegranates. You will love it – especially if you love to write.

  • Pamela

    What joy to have found your website and blog posts! Thank you for sharing and encouraging us, your fellow mid-lifers. Your comment about messages you need to hear coming in various forms and repeatedly resounds with me. It’s important we listen. I’m ordering Traveling with Pomegranates now certain that it is what I need in my life at this time. Your blog post is grace in my life: a devine gift. Thank you and blessings.

    • sarah

      I just discovered your comment Pamela and I just wanted to let you know how much it warms my hear to know that my words resounded so profoundly for you! I hope you got your hands on a copy of Traveling with Pomegranates, and that you loved as much as I did. Blessings to you!

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