It’s always this time of year, as the early cold and un-springlike “spring” gives way to the actual warmth and sunshine of early summer that I think back to my days at the end of college. I often think about this time with a rose-colored view of myself – highly engaged, copiously productive, and focused in a way that I often long for in the present tense.
I think back on the way I think I was back then and I get jealous. Of myself.
There are days now where I wonder what I exactly I’m doing with my time. There are days that I think about other artists and I am certain that they are getting so very much more done than I am. There are lots of days where I think that I am wasting the precious little life I have available to me by not doing more and getting more and being more than I currently am.
Are you an artist who thinks this? Probably.
Because chances are if you are a creator there are a million more idea seeds then there will ever be emotional, physical, mental resources to carry out those initial impulses to conclusion.
This, despite all emotional evidence to the contrary, is as it should be.
I was watching some show the other day on successful show runners for TV and listening to people talk about the insanity of that process. In one case a showrunner described the schedule for the creative product he worked on and then concluded by saying that humans have the capacity to do 90% of what he just explained. The last 10% were fumes and exhaustion.
You know what my first thought was after watching that?
“God you’re lazy.”
You know what my second thought was?
“You’ve only taught a class, written an essay, and spent 45 minutes on a creative project today. This is like a vacation day. Tomorrow you’ll do a real amount of work.”
Can I just say, what the fuck is that?
Because the other part of the show, the one that I think is the most perverse kind of pride, is the strange way that these creators talk about being miserable. They talk about loving the show so much that they sacrifice their lives, their loves, their actual in the moment living for it. What exactly is all of it for then? What kind of art will you make when you have no life other than art to draw from?
This is possible in short term bursts, perhaps. Maybe sometimes even preferable. But this is not a plan of artistic longevity. I don’t just mean that you’ll be tired and exhausted. I mean you literally will have no time to fill your creative research stores to make anything else worthwhile.
I don’t know about you but I want to be creating in 10, 20, 40 years. I don’t want to burn out at 35. To do that I’m going to need some opinions and stories beyond the ones I have now. If I miss all of my life and use up all the creative stores of inspiration in a mass and panicked frenzy of making, what will be left?
There is a complex, I think built in some part by our own internalized sense of worthlessness mixed with a Hollywood idea of fame and success, that tells us that the only version of productive creativity is one that exhausts the creator. We aim for the stay of constant producing, of being pushed to the very limit of what is possible, of working and working in a fevered dream state until we are used up and left empty husk shells at the side of our works.
This is the idea of creativity as inspired and frenzied genius – that it is something that possesses us, that we are nothing without it, that it is only through work that we can prove our value and work.
I know exactly zero people who actually work this way all the time.
I know about a million who work really really hard, then fart around watching bad television and doing nothing of “substance” for big stretches in between.
Of those million I’d say, oh, ALL percent of them feel shitty about the downtime.
Even writing these words, right now, I am thinking about the myriad of actual things I could be doing. I could be writing something that will go towards a brilliant novel. I could be practicing my piano and vocal improvisation skills. I could read one of the giant pile of books on game theory that I’ve amassed on my shelf. I could grade the mountain theater journals sitting next to me.
I could theoretically do all these things and if I try to weigh what I am doing in this moment against all the potential things and their potential values and usefulness, I will always always always come away thinking I haven’t done enough in enough time for enough people.
Does this sound familiar?
As you read this are you simultaneously saying, “Yeah, sure but she can say that because she’s actually doing a lot and I’m actually lazy” because my guess is you are.
I have been busier this semester than I have been in almost any time in the past 10 years that I can remember but I still watched a lot of bad TV. I still found time to fart around on the internet. I still found time to play video games.
And I think that part of the reason I was able to do so much wasn’t in spite of the down time but because of it.
We need to give ourselves a break once in a while.
It’s actually necessary for the work.
I look back at that person I was in college and if I am honest with myself I realize a few things. The first that I never worked as hard as I want to remember. There were long days of producing nothing, of taking time and cooking meals or searching match.com. I also know that I worked hard, but often far less smart. I spent hours and hours on things I can knock out in 20 minutes now. This is what comes with experience, the ability to get down to the heart of something and really do it and be done.
So in the interest of honesty, I’m going to stop pretending like it’s possible to work all the time. I’m going to stop pretending like a 30-minute lunch break is for quitters. I’m going to stop acting as if I don’t have phases where I just need to mess around on the internet. This is actually part of the way that the creative work gets made. The farting around is part of the work.
If I step back and really look at my body of work, I can see that boredom is a necessary part of the process. It creates room for new ideas to form. It allows space for us to consider something we don’t already know.
If you’re perfectly productive, you’ll never get bored.
So next time you think you should be making or doing something but instead you take a walk or a Netflix, don’t get so mad at yourself. I won’t.
Because if there’s one thing I really shouldn’t make time for in my schedule it’s the constant self-flagellation.