Some people call it puttering, or screwing around, or just plain goofing off. Others, of a more kindly bent, call it day-dreaming. Kurt Vonnegut used the quaint old term “skylarking.”
Then there are the sanctimonious, uptight, non-creative types who call it, simply, wasting time.
What I’m referring to, of course, is that well-known, rarely discussed but absolutely essential component of a successful creative person’s life—the down-time, when you’re seemingly not doing anything of consequence. Certainly not doing anything that pertains to that deadline you’re facing: the pitch meeting set for next week, the screenplay you’ve been toiling over, the important audition that’s pending.
The concept of down-time, or goofing off, is shrouded in mystery for one very simple reason: it infuriates the creative artist’s spouse, family, collaborators, agents and friends. Let’s face it: they just don’t get it.
Here you are, struggling with a TV pilot re-write that’s due in two weeks, or behind on the final cut of the short film you’re submitting to festivals, and your mate finds you spending precious hours looking out the window, or reading The New Yorker, or watching His Gal Friday for the fifteenth time.
Not to mention the valuable, potential working time wasted repairing your old bicycle, cleaning out the garage, or organizing your bookshelves according to author and/or subject.
I know what you’re thinking: the above examples sound suspiciously like procrastination. I understand your confusion. But there’s a very subtle difference between procrastination and creative, productive, process-nourishing goofing off.
Procrastination, as I see in my therapy practice every day, is a product of an artist’s inner conflicts around his or her creative gifts. Fears about failure, questions about one’s sense of entitlement, doubts about competence, concern about the potential for shameful exposure.
With rare exceptions, I’ve found that artists procrastinate to avoid the pain of discovering what they feel will be inadequacies in their art—and often, by extension, in themselves.
I remember, from my days as a screenwriter, the painful, embarrassing feeling that procrastinating brought to the most trivial and pleasant of diversions. Hanging around a bookstore, walking on the bluffs in Santa Monica, indulging in three-hour lunches with other writers—all these activities were tinged with anxiety, with the awareness that I should be elsewhere, back at my desk, writing.
In other words, these were all things I was doing instead of writing, instead of grappling with problems in plot and character. Instead, moreover, of examining what might be going on inside my head about my ability to solve these problems.
How different in feeling this miserable state is from the liberating pleasures of goofing off, or skylarking, or puttering! In my experience, when an artist is working well, these same side-activities—hanging pictures, reading, cleaning out your files—serve as an adjunct to creativity. They provide necessary down-time for letting your thoughts percolate, for letting a sudden new idea simmer in the pot for a while.
Think of it this way: You’re not watching the entire first season of Mad Men merely to avoid working. Rather, you’re allowing that part of your brain that creates to labor away unconsciously, filtering and sorting, selecting and discarding.
Equally important, I think, is that there are often analogs between seemingly non-creative activities and creativity itself. Who’s to say that clearing out your desk isn’t a way to help organize your thinking? That talking with other artists about their ideas, goals and troubles isn’t a way to help re-invigorate your own creative ambitions, or to get perspective on a particular concern?
Let’s take writers, for example. Certainly reading others is a path to clarifying your own writing goals and issues. Many screenwriters find both inspiration and motivation in reading noted screenplays like Chinatown or The Social Network. Smart television writers know the value of reading each season’s best pilot scripts.
(In my own case, as a writer of mystery fiction, I make it a point to read The Great Gatsby every year, just to revel in its jewel-like prose and striking emotional economy. As an aid to my own writing, I’ve found reading it the perfect way to clear out the cobwebs.)
Finally, one salient fact must be accepted: the creative process is goddamned mysterious. As a kid in parochial school, I was often chided by the nuns for gazing out the window, my attention who-knows-where, instead of focusing on the blackboard.
I was a “day-dreamer,” according to Sister Hillaire, the principal, in sharply-worded notes routinely sent home to my parents. “Nothing good,” she warned, “could come of this.” (Nuns, I was to discover, could be melodramatic as hell.)
The point is, most creative types start out as kids looking out the window, their heads “in the clouds,” their minds “a million miles away,” etc.
But one man’s “day-dreamer” is another man’s “artist-in-training.” No matter how much we try, it’s impossible to quantify the creative process. It’s mysterious, even to artists themselves, and it resists all attempts to explicate its secrets.
Which is why it’s ultimately fruitless to try to explain to family and friends what you’re doing when—instead of banging away at the keyboard, or rehearsing that difficult scene, or re-doing the storyboards for your short film—you’re re-cataloging your CD collection.
In such cases, I suggest you just give them a knowing, mysterious, “genius at work” smile, and go on about your business.