Thursday, July 29, 2010

Doing Nothing

Elizabeth Zelvin

Among the tchachkes on my mother’s shelves was a tiny ceramic pitcher that she brought back from a trip to Italy in the 1930s. It was hand painted and hardly big enough for a dolls’ tea party. Written on it was an Italian proverb: Dolce far niente. “It is sweet to do nothing.” It was an inappropriate motto for my mother, who was always on the move and doing something new. Her response to the “empty nest” when her children went off to college was to go back to school herself and get a doctorate. At every dinner party, she bustled between dining room and kitchen, refusing help and ignoring her guests’ perennial chorus: “Judy, why don’t you sit down?”

Measured by this standard, I had a hard time believing I ever did enough. But somehow the message that doing nothing would be sweet if only I could get away with it burrowed into my soul. It took me many years to discover that not everybody thought doing nothing was a reprehensible, even shameful failure to act. For creative artists, including writers, far niente is not niente at all, but an essential element in the creative process: the incubation period necessary to produce art. And writers are not the only ones.

This topic first occurred to me when I read on Simon Wood’s blog that his father doesn’t get baseball. Simon is a transplanted Brit, and I gathered that the comment was in response to Americans saying that they don’t get cricket. I have always heard that cricket is the most boring spectator sport there is. It goes on for hours and hours, long enough for everybody to break for tea. But I can understand Simon’s dad’s reciprocal bewilderment. In baseball, the perfect game is one in which nothing whatsoever happens. They call it pitching a no-hitter. That must be boring not only for the spectators, but for the players—except the pitcher, I assume.

But swatting a ball with a bat is not the only sport that encourages and even cherishes idleness. Look at fishing. Yes, yes, there’s plenty of action in battling a giant tuna or a supple trout. There are dramatic stories of the one that got away and homely tasks like gutting and scaling the catch and cooking it for supper. But fishing also seems to be a meditational art. And that means it’s not always about catching the fish. The recent movie Crazy Heart caught the mood perfectly, in the scene in which Robert Duvall takes Jeff Bridges fishing. The lake is still, the small boat motionless, sky and water a brilliant blue bowl, and the desired catch not bass but serenity for the Bridges character, who needs to stop running and make peace with himself.

To get back to writers, what may look like doing nothing to the observer (especially when they want us to listen to their stories, cook dinner, or get a real job) is in fact a vital part of our work. Our bodies may be idle, but we’re thinking, stretching our imaginations, letting our characters roam free in our heads and talk to us at will. How could we write fiction if we didn’t dream? We need a spaciousness, a lack of clutter, however temporary, in order to bring our imaginary but vivid characters and their settings and adventures to life.

8 comments:

Carole said...

I might have to post this on my fridge so the hubs can see it. There is great value in quietness and reflection.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Carole, I'd be honored to be on your fridge. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I wish I could get my brain to shut down at night! I can't count the number of times I've been up at 3 a.m., making notes on this or that. I guess a writer's brain never turns off.

Beth said...

Thanks, Liz!

"Time to think" is exactly what happened to me this summer, with my precious two free months off from teaching. My "to do" list hasn't gotten much shorter, but by allowing myself time to simply sit out on the back deck, listen to the birds, laugh at my chickens, and *think*, I've gained a level of rejuvenation that would have been impossible otherwise. Not to mention a whole lot of new ideas for fixing up the side yard, dealing with my two teens' latest issues, starting a new novel, which bush to plant where, how far the wisteria vine has grown since yesterday....

I'm glad someone else has noticed the need for quiet time!

Ron Scheer said...

My idea of doing nothing is meditation, where you turn off the voice in your head and just pay attention to your breathing. A few minutes of that everyday works wonders - so I'm told. I'm a workaholic.

lil Gluckstern said...

What a lovely reminder; you're not really doing nothing, you're simmering something on the back burner...

Diane said...

Take up knitting. Nothing fancy, just a small project that doens't require a lot of attention. It really is a meditative occupation. And has the side benifit of others thinking you're busy, so can't be distracted. If interrupted, start counting out loud, so they think they are distracting you (which they are) and will go away! "Two, four, SIX... I'm counting, darn it. You made me lose my place. Now where was I?."

Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz! You are obviously not a baseball fan! A no-hitter is a riveting contest between pitcher and batter after batter. The true fan knows the game is about that contest as much or more as the scoring.

But I take your point. :) I realized a long time ago that I need a certain amount of quiet time, and alone time, to be a mentally healthy person and esp to be a creative mentally healthy person. It's a big reason why I hike and garden. I like the way a singer-songwriter interviewed on the local radio a few weeks ago put it (even though I can't recall her name): 'You gotta be quiet long enough to hear the voice within.'

Although, as Sandy says, that's often easier said than done.