Doing Nothing A Lot
A lot of my time in the MFA has been spent doing nothing. It’s my fault that I spend a lot of time doing nothing and it makes me feel bad, failed, and lazy. Doing nothing may not make me a better poet but it’s been part of me writing poems since I took up the practice a few years ago. To clarify, “doing nothing” is not just not writing poems. It’s not thinking about poems, poetry, art, coursework, professional obligations, or personal relationships. “Doing nothing” mostly consists of me lying down while I spend a few hours convincing myself to get up and tacitly exercise. Then I’ll buy a sandwich and spend a few more hours working myself up to do whatever needs to be done for tomorrow. Deadline pressures eventually shake me from doing nothing around the end of the semester. Poems eventually get written and I’m fine with them. For the last three years I’ve felt like I’m not making the most of the time I have in Poem School. I’ve had three years where my primary work is the work of poetry, work I purport to be primary and necessary, and I spent most of it doing nothing. As I exit the MFA I’m trying to learn how to do nothing well.
Poems don’t get made on fixed timetables for me, though such constraints might spark something into being that would have marinated or decayed a while longer. Making a piece of art, be it a poem, story, painting, etc…, hasn’t taught me how to do it right the next time. Creating new and original art objects with honesty seems impossible to do in the fixed intervals of academic calendars. There are only so many months in a semester, so many semesters in an MFA, which has myriad requirements in addition to writing poems. I worry that school has pushed me to think of poems as products, language trinkets I mold in my likeness. But I spend a lot of time doing nothing so writing a bad poem is due to bad effort and time management on my part. It feels like that. It’s helped for me to think of writing poems as a practice of poetry. Considering poems this way makes me write them more often and alleviates the pressure to write a good poem that builds up with prolonged bouts of not writing and/or waiting for inspiration to strike. I still spend a lot of time doing nothing.
There have been stages to my doing nothing. One of them was YouTubing Charlie Rose interviews. One of my favorites is with David Foster Wallace. Foster Wallace says that he spends an hour of the day writing and the rest of the day worrying about not writing. It’s not that he doesn’t know what to write, he does, and he just doesn’t. It seems like a lot of artists and writers spend a lot of terrible time doing nothing and it’s deeply alienating. Poetry itself can make me do nothing. I think of Wordsworth going on long walks with cold pork in his pocket composing poems in his head, getting at something sublime. I think of Frank O’Hara walking around New York being spontaneous and sexy, real and engaged, all of him working toward the poems and other things. This can depress me and I find myself doing nothing.
A poetry teacher once offered me some comfort about doing nothing when I was getting serious about poems. That teacher said that doing nothing is a common and important part of making art. It’s likely that the next art-thing I make will be a poem but I still need to figure out what to make. What’s being made needs to be somehow composed before and during the writing, consciously and subconsciously, in creative bouts of writing and in long bouts of doing nothing.
There are healthier ways of doing nothing than the ones I listed in the first paragraph. I started doing YouTube yoga last week. It feels good and I’m starting to get why people like yoga, especially if your primary practice is sitting-intensive. I don’t know how to finish this blog post without forcing a self-helpy aphorism. I’ll say that you aren’t alone in feeling like you’re doing nothing and feeling bad about it. It has helped me sometimes to think of the physical act of writing (putting words on a page) as a non-event. It makes the time between the physical act of writing feel less failed and it allows some necessary breathing room for the raw matter of an art-thing to generate. That feels safe and tidy enough to say.