Dani Shapiro
August 28, 2009

On Doing Nothing

It’s hard for writers to remember that doing nothing is as important–perhaps even more important–than doing something. I was reminded of this last week by Ian McEwan, who spoke eloquently at the Sun Valley Writers Conference about how essential it is for writers not to feel like we must be busy (or at least give the appearance of being busy) all the time. How are we going to feel that tap on the shoulder–or see Didion‘s shimmer around the edges–that leads us to new stories, new subject matter, if we’re scrambling the hamster wheel of busy-ness?

People often ask me how many hours of the day I spend writing, and I never really know how to answer. How many hours of the day am I actually setting words down on paper? Not many. On a very good day, perhaps three? Four at the most? But those three or four hours require several other hours cushioning them. They require hours spent reading, running the dogs, doing yoga, meditating, shopping online for boots (just kidding). The work is at the center–way deep down at the center–of that puttering time. We writers are not machines. We can’t just sit down and do it. Or maybe some writers can–but not this one.

The subtle distinction, though, is in the difference between good/useful doing nothing, and destructive/counter-productive doing nothing. And the distinction is, indeed, difficult to make out at times. Bouncing around the internet can be energizing and kind of fun — but more often than not, it leads to a fizzy, buzzy, attention-deficit that can’t be good for the writing. Ditto for talking on the phone. Over the years, I have become truly phone-adverse. Reading (as in, an actual book) is invariably good. Meditating, oddly, is not always helpful. An overly calm mind can sometimes shrug and just give up for the day. As a friend of mine once said, it removes the grit. Yoga, however, has never failed me. If I unroll my mat and do my practice, I sit back down at my desk afterward feeling clear-headed and refreshed. I would imagine this would be true for any form of physical exercise–or at least solitary exercise.

But there’s another, more difficult kind of doing nothing, that exists in the months or even years between books. A writer finishes a book…and then what? Trollope was known to draw a line beneath the last sentence of a manuscript, and instantly begin anew. I love the idea of doing this–it does remove all possibility of self-doubt and fear–but somehow I know I never will. When I finish a book, I have nothing left inside of me. Nothing left to say. This used to bother me. (On bad days, it still does.) When I finished my last novel, I turned to a friend and said: “I’ve got nothing.” But then I realized that having nothing was exactly what I should be feeling. It meant that everything had gone into the book I had just completed. And now I had to allow myself to do nothing. To understand that, for a writer, doing nothing is doing something. I had to push away the impulse to look busy, and instead allow the space and time for that tap on the shoulder, that shimmer.