I was scrolling Twitter the other day when I came across a few friends discussing a book titled “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” and I smugly thought to myself that, based on that title alone, I’m perfectly on track to get a ton of work done this summer.
Now, I haven’t picked up that book yet (but I plan to), so I don’t know anything about the author’s arguments, but I do know that downtime can be a very good thing for my creativity, even if I have to remind myself of it dozens of times.
I haven’t had any serious work hours since my post last month, when I was away for a few days doing a DIY writing residency. I did a double-take when I looked at that post because I couldn’t believe it had only been a month. It feels like ages ago. My summer schedule really messes with my sense of time.
It’s an interesting summer because, for the first time, I have a child who is old enough to stay alone at home, briefly. Her little brother isn’t quite there yet. So, I’m still playing games and hanging out at the pool with them, but they are also getting more independent. In those moments where they’re fully occupied with something, like jumping on the trampoline with the neighbors, I really should be writing. But, I get distracted, so distracted, in the summers. I always manage to start a bunch of house projects, this time re-doing my son’s room, and then, I tell myself it’s still creative work! (It is, though, let’s be honest, I’m painting walls, not murals.)
Summer is also the time when I like to be the first one up in the morning, with no lunches to pack, and open up all the windows and sit in my yellow chair to listen to the birds. I grew up in a house where, if anyone was caught sitting down for more than a moment, without a project in their hands, they were immediately scolded by my mom and given some cleaning-related task.
But I had a little trick. If I went outside and hopped on my bike, riding back through our fields (we lived on a dairy farm), no one could see me or know what I was doing. And what I did was dream. Sitting on a low branch of my favorite tree bordering a corn field, I’d think about all sorts of things and make up all sorts of stories, which I told to my dogs, who were excellent listeners.
In the presentations I give to schools, I show a picture of this tree and describe how I would sit under it and look for animals in the clouds and make up stories about them. The kids are usually pretty interested in this, and the teachers get a different look, a wistful kind of look, like, man, those days are gone. This experience has made me really conscious about how my own kids fill their days and that is especially true in the summer, when they have a lot more free time. Though they are active in sports and clubs, and some school nights can get a little hectic, I always try to leave some evenings (entire days in the summer) where we have “nothing” to do, no obligations at all. On car trips, I actually enforce looking-out-the-window time. We listen to audio books, they get some Minecraft time on their tablets, they read their books, play with their countless canisters of silly putty, but I also enforce that window-time.
They always groan, at first, and then after a few minutes the questions and comments start. Look at how tall that building is! Look at the trails behind that plane! And my favorite—I see an animal in that cloud, can you guess what it is? I feel like kids (and adults) don’t get enough time to just “be,” without any other distractions, to let ideas come and go, to let the good ones marinate. In some of my kids’ downtime in the past week, they’ve managed to construct a cardboard fort and start writing a field guide to imaginary animals.
I’ve been doing a lot of marinating these last few weeks, and I find myself quick to write off that time as laziness, but I also know that when I come back to the work, the work is better. Today, for example, I have a full day of work time while my son is in camp, and when I sat down to a document where I keep picture books ideas, I suddenly found that I was full of them. The ideas were probably there all along, but they were getting crowded out by the VERY BIG project I’ve been consumed with lately, my first middle grade novel.
Switching gears is very, very good for me, putting aside the novel revision to think of new picture books, writing humor pieces, or just taking my dog for lots and lots of walks around the neighborhood. The writing will come. It always does. And some of my best ideas happen when I’m doing “nothing.”