If you don’t value your imaginative life, no one else will

As some of you know, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport, book author and writer at Study Hacks, a blog which explores “patterns of success.” His most recent post, “Welcome to the Post-Productivity World,” speaks to a lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately in terms of time, writing, and big-picture living:

Productivity, of course, is still important. Most mature work philosophies require that you can organize what’s on your plate. But when you’re guided by a philosophy, this organization becomes the easy part. Your drive to accomplish what you believe needs to be accomplished has a way of sweeping away the ineffective.

It’s hard to judge an era while still in the middle of it, but from all accounts I think this Age of Workplace Philosopher represents an exciting shift in our thinking about work and happiness. The more seriously we struggle with the question of ‘What defines a good working life?’, the better off we are.

I recently finished writing a proposal for a new book, which has led to some reflection on my writing career in general—how it started, the twists and turns of the past 20 years, where I am today, where I want to go. I’m sorting through how to organize/consolidate my blogs now that I have the one at Psychology Today in the mix. I’m doing the difficult but necessary work of prioritizing, pruning, planning, preparing. It feels good.

Cat at Window
photo: Milan Jurek

I’m also taking a long, hard look at my time. Like everyone else, I have 24 hours each day, and how I spend them is no one’s responsibility but mine. For a writer, or at least for this writer, some of that time might look to the outside world like frivolous fun, downtime, anything but work: reading the writing of others, making notes for future projects, networking with other writers, staring out the window, taking a walk while listening to the latest New Yorker fiction podcast (something I highly recommend), even writing blog posts. It is all part of what Joyce Carol Oates calls the imaginative life (from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art):

All the desks of my life have faced windows and except for an overwrought two-year period in the late 1980s when I worked on a word processor, I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming, or brooding. Most of the so-called imaginative life is encompassed by these three activities that blend so seamlessly together, not unlike reading the dictionary, as I often do as well, entire mornings can slip by, in a blissful daze of preoccupation. It’s bizarre to me that people think that I am ‘prolific’ and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spend most of my time looking out the window (I recommend it).

Without this imaginative life, we might still be productive, but at what cost? I know that when I give in to the temptation to pack every spare hour or moment with tasks, as I have during the past couple of weeks, when I don’t build in cushions of time between activities for reflection and creative synthesis, my writing suffers, my mood suffers, everything suffers. I may still write as much, just not as well.

I have said some difficult “no’s” to people recently, and I’m not yet finished. It’s not easy. No one said it would be. Sometimes I feel like Donald Sutherland in Animal House when he stands in front of his students and pleads, “Listen, I’m not joking. This is my job!”

What defines a good writing day for you? What “no’s” are you willing to make that day a reality, to be able to say “yes” to the imaginative life of a writer?

17 thoughts on “If you don’t value your imaginative life, no one else will

  1. I loved this post, Lisa. It even motivated me to turn my desk so I can look out the window as I write. It’s a hard lesson to learn that to be creative, you need time to nurture your ideas. It’s a lesson I find myself learning over and over again. Thanks for the reminder to make time to be imaginative!

  2. That window. One of the biggest accomplishments in 2011 was putting a bird feeder outside the dining room window where we can all see and imagine for much of our day. It’s also where I’ve stationed my lap top. None of this is coincidence.

    Power to the No, Lisa. Power to your imagination!

    • The bird feeder is a wonderful idea, Victoria!

      Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂 When our son was young, I was pretty good at not filling our days ridiculously full. If we had something at 10 a.m. and something at 3 p.m.,I considered ourselves “booked.” I need to go back to that mindset, but for this new stage of my life.

  3. I love the idea that looking out of the window is actually a useful and vital part of the process 🙂 I’ve always been a window-looker-outer-of and for most things it doesn’t always help 🙂 Perhaps writing is the right choice for me 😀

    • I first read what Joyce Carol Oates wrote about being a “window-looker-outer” (love that!) several years ago, and the image and message have left a lasting impression. Yes, writing sounds like a great choice for you!

  4. I worked at a newspaper where we all had those darn tiny cubicals and there was not a window in sight. I used to take my pad and paper out back and sit on a step as the trains from Philadelphia to New York wizzed by and I could catch a glimpse of the Delaware River. These days I have a window and I look out over trees…lots of trees. Sometimes I see my little dogs out there. Daydreaming happens a lot.
    Great post Lisa!

  5. What a great post, Lisa. First off, I subscribed to the New Yorker Fiction podcasts and listened to two stories this past weekend. What a treat — a definite creative energy! Thanks for that link.

    And my perfect writing day? One in which I complete at least one main goal and have time left over. It happens. Like today. And I think what I’ll do with that extra time right now is read with my son and knit a little.

    We all need those outside activities to influence the inner workings of our creative selves.

    • I’m so glad that you like the New Yorker podcasts! I’m addicted to them. As soon as I hear that bouncy theme music, I start walking. 🙂

      I love your perfect writing day, Christi.

  6. This post was just what i needed to find thid morning. I have done exaclty what you say and filled every moment, been too busy and then my creativity suffers. I love the idea of staring out of the window more, musing and reflecting and will be doing more, thank you.

    • Mairi, I am beginning to think that we all need to give each other and ourselves permission to do more window gazing! Thanks very much for stopping by.

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