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Productive Inactivity

Many people think of it as a waste of time, as doing nothing productive. They prefer to engage in constant motion, in endless action and activity.

A few people, however, realize the truth: such "doing nothing" is often the height of activity and, ultimately, achievement.

I'm referring to the practice of sitting idly and staring off into space. It's perhaps best done in the morning, in the cool of the shade on a hot day or in the relative stillness, quietness, and solitude of nature. Beside a small stream in the woods. Along an isolated cove near the shore. But it can be done anywhere and at any time.

Just as the seeming still quietness of those locations is, to the observant practitioner it is anything but quiet and inactive; it's filled with countless examples of activity. So too is the writer who is "just sitting there." He or she might seem to be doing nothing, but that is the farthest thing from the truth of the matter.

Quietness and solitude does not mean inactivity; it means merely an action of a different sort. It is activity of the mind, of serious thought. It is mental activity in the recollection of the past, the contemplation of the present, and the anticipation of the future. It is a busy and productive inactivity.

Increasingly more people seem to have lost the ability to engage in such active inactivity. This condition is what I elsewhere (Country Extra, March 2016) referred to as the "lost art of porch sitting" because that's where much of it is done.

In years gone by, yet not so long ago, people used to sit on their porches, whether the wrap-arounds of rural farm homes or the rowhome stoops of urban dwellings. There they sat quietly and thought. Or, if with others, carried on quiet conversations.

Today, people are more engaged in other activities: workouts at the gym, video games, television, social media. There's nothing inherently wrong with such involvements, of course, but they tend to rob one of the opportunities to sit and "do nothing," to think, to contemplate, to meditate, to reminisce, to appreciate, to plan. In the long run, such "inactivity" can be far more productive than those other activities.

The attitude of most people seems to be "Don't just stand there; do something!" How much better off we might be to adopt as our attitude "Don't just do something; stand there!" Take time to think.

But no, we tend to promote and reward the person of "quick and decisive action," regardless of the consequences.

Granted, there are times and occasions when such fast action is required. In dire emergencies, for example. But such times and occasions are relatively rare. Our normal lives require no such knee-jerk responses.

What we need is balance. A studied balance between activity and purposeful inactivity. At some point, even the reminiscences and contemplations require that we act on them. But the periods of activity must be prepared for in periods of seeming inactivity. We must think before we can act.

How does this relate to the writing life?

Too often, we writers get a flash-in-the-pan idea and we immediately dash off a draft. We give the draft a cursory reading, become enamored of our words, and rush it off to a publication. Some such works might be accepted and published, but many of them are rejected because we haven't let them go through the "cooling" stage of preparation. We haven't allowed a period of thoughtful inactivity to mellow our viewpoint, cool our temper, gestate our embryonic and not-fully-developed ideas. We haven't paused to think.

This time of thoughtful inactivity is part of what Louise DeSalvo called "slow writing." I've been doing more of it lately. I found myself with one large project finished and no follow-up project settled upon. I got several ideas and dashed off to the archives to do some preliminary research on each of them, only to have my interest flag and fizzle.

What does one do at such moments of indecision?


Or so it might seem to those who don't understand. I sit and stare out the sliding door into the backyard. I observe with wonder the spider as it weaves its intricate web between the corner of the sliding door and the edge of the roof. I study the mourning dove that lands on the deck railing and calls to his life-long mate: "Whoo-oo? Who? Who? Who?" I watch the two cardinals cavorting in the branches of their home along the fence row.

It might take a short time, only a few minutes, or it might take several hours. But eventually the answer to my conundrum comes to me. Because I've been willing and patient enough to wait, to do nothing, to engage in productive inactivity.


Only then.

It's time to act. So I write.

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