I’ve been slowly working my way through the book Writers on Writing, a collection from the New York Times. It’s been really nice to see people approach various aspects of the writing life, and I would recommend the book to any writer or reader who just enjoys seeing how writers pull words together.
Today’s essay was written by Jay Parini, a writer who I had not heard of until today but who writes poetry, biographies, novels, and academic essays. He was discussing the importance of mentorships in writing, and he was fortunate enough to have had mentoring relationships with Alastair Reid and Robert Penn Warren (nice mentors, I say), and I was struck by how essential the writing community – especially my mentors – has been to me.
In graduate school, I was blessed to work for a full year with David Ulin, the man who is now the editor of the LA Times Book Review. By the grace of divine will, I found a mentor who was both rigorous and kind, and whose sensibilities matched mine, at least on some level. I also had the privilege of working with Sharman Apt Russell (visit Sharman’s site if you can and click Chapter 1 of her new book; if you like that, visit her blog and read Chapter 2) and Marcos McPeek Villatoro, both wonderful writers who taught me much about what it is to live a life of writing.
But, and I hope they will all forgive me for saying this, none of them talked with me about my need, as a writer and a human being, for leisure time – for the space to just sit idly and think. This week I’ve been pondering this a lot as I realize that part of my fatigue and weariness comes from my inability to have enough time to think through something thoroughly. (And I will fully admit that part of this dilemma comes from my own desire to be involved with everything – my mom will readily recognize this nosiness from my childhood when I always wanted to see what was happening. It does strike me, though, that nosiness is part of the writing life, too . . . so balance here is key.)
This need for more mental space came through strongly as I was watching Randy Pausch’s last lecture with my students in just a small moment as he’s talking about his childhood dream of playing football. At the end of that section of the speech, he says, “As I’m working a hard problem, you’ll see me walking the hallways with one of these [a football].” All I can think as I see that over and over (a couple of classes are watching this) is, Wow, I wish I could have time to walk around the hallways and think through something fully. That would be amazing.
So today, as I read Parini’s essay, this particular section stuck out to me. Robert Penn Warren tells him, after Parini hasn’t been writing for a couple of months, “You must cultivate leisure.” And Parini continues, “I knew instantly what he meant: I had neglected my own essential laziness, that mental place where you have to spend, or to waste, a lot of time. For a writer there is no such thing as wasted time. It doesn’t work that way.”
There it is . . . I need to cultivate leisure. I’ve been doing better at that, but not “better enough.” I need to be lazy more often . . . I need time to let my subconscious work things out; I need space where ideas can flourish and not be drowned out by duties or obligations; I need moments of nothingness where my mind rests and finds itself again.
I also need to keep in mind that I am truly blessed to do what I love all the time. I was made to write and teach, and that’s how I spend my days . . . So I am among the most fortunate on our beautiful planet . . . but still, I long for afternoons on the sofa staring out the window . . . perhaps I’ll get there this weekend. Join me, won’t you?