Coming to terms with Not Writing

One of the immediate reasons I decided to start blogging again is an issue raised on Dr. Crazy’s Reassigned Time 2.0, which is the practice of Not Writing (see “Reading and Thinking (and NOT writing …)” and “Not Writing”).

It may seem strange to think of not doing something as doing something, but for most academics, and writers and artists, and anyone who does intellectual and creative work, Not Writing, or its equivalent, is an important activity.

But as Crazy points out in the first linked post, it is hard not to feel guilty about Not Writing. Indeed, this summer, almost a decade and a half after I finished my Ph.D., marks the first time I can honestly say that I have been able to accept Not Writing as productive.

The main problem with Not Writing is that there is no tangible product attached to it; there’s literally nothing to show for your labors. The fact that no one, in particular and in the moment, maybe demanding to see anything does not really matter. I think many people raised in America are conditioned to think of work as being attached to things, not thoughts. So, when you spend a day or two or three, etc. working something over, you may know that you’ve done good work, but the fact that anyone else will only have your word for that is what allows the feelings of guilt to creep in.

I think that my writing for PopMatters has slowly helped me to realize that I need time to let ideas cook or stew in my head before writing. The fact that I am usually working on a deadline of some kind and that the pieces themselves tend to require only a day or two of thinking has been useful in that regard in that the tangible product comes pretty quickly after the Not Writing.

What has also been true this summer is that I have, finally, been able to start editing my documentary, and the fruitlessness of sitting in front of the computer monitor without a notion of what to do is so obvious that I have been much more willing to give myself permission to Not Write than I have in the past with more traditional projects like journal articles or conference papers. If you feel like you need to, you can always just start writing prose to ‘get something done’, and that’s mostly harmless. However, as much as digital has turned film editing into a reversible and experimental process, there are still more elements in play than there are in wordprocessing, and messing with footage just because you feel like you need to do something can create more work in the long run, and the work involved in piecing together a segment or scene is such that it isn’t worth doing unless you have some intent to actually use what you’re working on. As a result, I know much more clearly with the film work that I need to leave things alone for stretches at a time than I did in the past with papers, book chapters, etc.

As Crazy notes in the second linked entry, one problem with Not Writing is that it is, despite outward appearances, an activity, one that requires your attention. Just because you’re Not Writing does not mean that you can effectively do something else. It interferes with leisure activities, I disengage from others or from things like books and TV, and I find almost impossible to start writing one one thing while I’m actively Not Writing on another.

When I’m Not Writing I usually need to walk or run, without poor Coco if I’m really deep into working something through. I’ll walk around the house or the yard. Sometimes I can casually throw the ball for Dinah and hang out with the dogs outside. Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust (Penguin, 2001) about how walking can be a way of seeming or feeling productive to others when you’re ‘just’ thinking, but, as she also notes, movement can help some people’s brains get working. That seems to be true for me.

Of course, blogging again maybe a way of Not Writing that involves writing, insofar as Not Writing can involve short, fragmentary forms of actual writing like taking notes, but I think that writing a blog requires enough attention of its own that I’m not sure I use it to Not Write in the same way that I use walking or running, at least not unless I am actually writing about something that I’m Not Writing about.

In any case, the start of Fall term is coming and there won’t be much time for writing or Not Writing.