When You Use Your Imagination You Literally Empty Your Mind

We tend to think, as a culture, that inaction – indeed sloth – is a bad thing. But what if it was necessary in the creation in art? Australian Playwright Michael Gow thinks this is the case. Here is an extract from his appearance on Radio National’s Spirit Of Things.

Michael Gow:

I work in what’s usually called the Arts. Like everyone else who works in this field, I’ve had the pleading, the blackmail, the parental fear – they don’t want their kids to work in such an uncertain profession. And we get all this negativity because doing what we do, means we might not work. We’ll do nothing, we won’t earn, eat, have a roof, provide for others. We’ll descend into permanent sloth.

But how about us doing nothing, really? Doesn’t everyone bang on nowadays about work-life balance, which means not being at work? Although that probably means spending time with the family, and doing something. But still, isn’t everyone on the treadmill secretly craving time out, quiet time, downtime. But nobody dares take it any more because as things get tougher, the only solution is to work harder, work longer, stave off the inevitable. Even our current Prime Minister we hear is a fanatical worker, no sleep, every minute accounted for, demanding everyone else work as hard, keep up. So from the top down, we get the message: laziness will send you to hell.

But then I look at the work I do. I write. I write plays and I write them because I have this overwhelming need to describe things as accurately as I can in the hope that someone else will experience what I’ve written and say ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s life’, or a little corner of it at least. I recognise that. Do I write all the time? Yes, even if it’s just a list of what I did today, or what I thought today, just to get it down and keep the words coming. But do I produce performable work all the time? No, I can’t. What I do write that gets put on, comes erratically and unpredictably, sometimes nothing for years. Ten years in fact. And then it might not be any good. And when that happens, what to do?

There’s this term ‘writer’s block’. Some people reject the whole idea, some people admit to it, a lot of us dread it. I think the people who deny its existence are rejecting what is really a cliché. People think of writer’s block as being some writer, poor bleary-eyed, unshaven if they’re a man, and maybe mascara-stained if they’re a woman, typing at a desk staring blankly at the terrifying white of a blank page. All over the floor are mounds of screwed up paper. There’s an empty Scotch bottle on the desk, and the writer is about to reach for the gun in the drawer to end this suffering. But that’s all it is, it’s a cliché.

Writer’s block, or whatever you want to call it – and it doesn’t just happen to writers, it happens to anyone who paints or composes or makes anything out of their own imaginations – is how you deal with there being nothing to put down at the moment. To use your imagination, you need those things I mentioned: downtime, quiet time, time out. When you use your imagination you literally empty your mind, and sometimes you need to fill it up again, you need to read, go to the pictures, listen to music, hike through Nepal, visit your friends you haven’t seen in months, or years. Basically you need to not work. But then that guilt kicks in. ‘I’m not working, nothing’s coming, I should be doing something. I have no worth if I don’t work, no value, no meaning. You’ll end up broke on the street. You should have got a job in a bank. You can’t even stack boxes’. On and on. And that understandably, produces panic, and panic is a sure-fire way to short circuit your mind and prevent any idea, thought, images, line of verse or melody, to come into your brain. And the more we panic, basically, the more we panic. It’s a terror that’s really hard to control.

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