It hit me on a recent five-hour road trip from Tunisia’s arid south, past all the remnants of her rich history, to her verdant north. My laptop battery was dead, so I sat looking out the window, my notebook in my lap ready to catch any inspiration that might squirt from my mind.
And squirt it did. The novel that had stalled for lack of a viable turning point soon had a grand new climax. I came up with a new strategy for reducing my work time without compromising the quality of my work. And for the first time (go figure) I noticed how much of Tunisian land is devoted to agriculture.
Best of all, I realised that none of these petite epiphanies could have happened had I continued slogging away at my work.
“Work” for the purposes of this article has two meanings: 1). activity undertaken for an immediate and fairly certain monetary reward, and 2). activity undertaken to bring a creative idea to completion (practise, research, study, editing, revising, rehearsing, discussing, planning, etc.).
Number two necessarily includes number one, because the work we do to earn a living is what supports our artistic pursuits, at least until we’re lucky enough to live by art alone. And at times number one includes number two, notably in cases where we’re called upon to bring someone else’s idea to fruition.
Work brings pressure with it, and play is your pressure release valve. You feel you have to work but you don’t feel you have to play, at least not at any particular moment. For those who don’t have to work, play often takes on the characteristics of work (remember those neighborhood kids who always took baseball way too seriously?), in which case changing the kind of play becomes a release valve for the pressure of play itself.
Where the Danger Lies
Let’s use a more complex metaphor: Work is urban expansion and play is the green space you should be creating within it (and guarding with your life). It’s that place in your life that you carve out (if it’s not carved out for you by dead laptop batteries) and keep sacrosanct, protected from the kind of developments that inevitably eat up all your resources and leave nothing meaningful to show for it.
Both work and play are essential to the creative life, whether the creativity involves discovery or artistic achievement. The problem arrives when we fail to put a limit on the demands of work. Without the existence of the green space, urban development loses its way and becomes all about paving Paradise and putting up a parking lot.
If you think that allowing work to consume all your time is the key to success and that inspiration will arrive unbidden despite the grindstone, think again. Eureka moments depend on us putting a stop to the relentless repetitive grind characteristic of work-centred thought and action. The histories of both art and discovery are full of evidence that new ideas are born of dreams, quiet moments, art consumption, film-viewing, reading, music listening, lighthearted sports activities, watching sports, the contemplation of nature, and even moments during work when the worker puts everything on hold to entertain that spark of light long enough for it to grow into a fully fledged concept.
Work Begins With Play
Play is what we do just to be happy. This even includes boredom, if boredom means the avoidance of something that makes us unhappy.
No one knows this better than children. When we were children complaining of boredom, did we ever take up our mothers’suggestion that we help with the housework?
Jean Piaget’s research provides ample evidence that children learn best and most from play. Play is how children eventually grow into productive adults. It’s how they learn to work.
Artists know that every good production begins with a period of just messing around for fun, experimenting with colour, tone, movement, etc. The fact that the production of a beautiful work of art requires long hours and much effort, not to mention courage and self-discipline, should not tempt us to minimise the value of the play from which the toil emerged.
You know you’ve found the proper balance when your play becomes so regenerative that you become eager to return to work, full of new ideas you can’t wait to try out. If that hasn’t happened for a long time, consider how you might take a vacation, or at least create a little quiet time each day.
Easy For You to Say . . .
I’ve always been skeptical of people who’ve experienced incredible good luck and who then turn around and tell me that I can do it, too. This isn’t that kind of message. I’m addressing you from the trenches of creative struggle. Seriously, it’s not like I can afford to give up even a small chunk of my salary; some important artistic goals actually necessitate earning a little more. Believe it or not, it’s this final factor that encourages me to work less.
After the little aha moment on the road trip mentioned above I began mentally developing a “work less” campaign (this was much easier when I had nothing to do but stare out the window), which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds but which had some very satisfying results.
In my personal experience the need for economic survival has been the main impetus for delaying play time. Sadly it’s been only recently that I’ve discovered that only by carving out play time can I figure out ways to reduce my work time while bolstering my bank account. Filling my time with work because I thought I must actually made it impossible to work better. It kept me from working on the projects I loved, was becoming monotonous and futile, and just lead to more work.
I harked back to my adolescence, during which a rural Canadian setting with miles of woods and waters to explore, a solitary bent, and a house full of books and music all conspired to the debut of a lifetime of jotting down thoughts and then trying to put them into palatable form. Ever since then I’ve struggled to recreate the joy I felt in those wondrous hours of learning, growing, and making. I’m happy to report that it’s finally happening. But more about that in future articles.
May your “green space” be playful, fun, delightful, and the source of much beautiful work.
(This article is an excerpt from the book The Mindful Bard: Social Conscience and the Creative Self.)