A Change is as Good as a Rest

September 30, 2012

In one of last season’s episodes of Downton Abbey,  the Dowager Countess Grantham (played so unforgettably by Dame Maggie Smith) said “a change is as good as a rest,” an expression I hadn’t heard in a while, but which can really apply to our creative lives.

Maybe you, like me, sometimes get mired down in a project.  This can happen at any time—you might have a wonderful idea, and then be completely flummoxed about what to do with it.  You might be halfway through your book or painting or film or graphic novel, and suddenly lose, not just inspiration, but the will to go on.  You might have finished it, and not be able to bring yourself to polish it and set it out on its journey in the world (if you’re like me, this means a virtual traffic jam of manuscripts sitting in your computer waiting to be set free.)

In this situation, I think we must sometimes take the Dowager’s words to heart, and just go do something else.  Ideally, this something else might be a cruise around the world, or at least a trip to Disney Land; but in real life, if you aren’t able to just pick up and take yourself elsewhere, it might be going to hear a band on Friday night instead of settling down in front of the TV, or taking a walk in the park if it’s not something you do every day, or even (God forbid)
tackle cleaning out the garage or hall closet.  Or, if you are feeling creative but just hating what you are doing at the moment, you might pick up your camera (if you’re a musician) or some paint brushes (if you are a writer) and try a different way of expressing yourself.

What probably isn’t going to help is sitting with your  work and ruminating endlessly over it.   Of course, we all do this, and some of it is necessary.  But if you are entering day 3 of rewriting the same sentence or playing the same phrase or tearing up a sketch for the 14th time, it may be time to turn your back, shut the door, and pretend what you are doing never existed.  Our brains are strangely subject to trickery of all kinds and if we announce loudly to ourselves, “Well I’m done with that!” they usually believe us, not noticing the little asterisk we have put for ourselves next to it  (i.e., *for today).  Especially if we attach some little reward to it, like that walk in the park or maybe a rejuvenating cup of coffee at our favorite coffee shop.  (Note: our brains are gullible, but not so gullible as to believe cleaning out the garage is a reward, although an hour of that might be enough of a threat to produce all kinds of new and energizing ideas.)

So to those of us who are stuck today I offer a guilt free pass to go take a walk, take a break, visit our local Starbucks WITHOUT the tools of our trade, and just sit and watch all the poor people slaving over their computers.  A change is as good as a rest.  Maggie Smith said so.  And who among us would challenge either Lady Grantham or Professor McGonagall?


September 4, 2012


Is there a relationship between absentmindness and creativity?

Photo by Marcin Wichery licensed by CC-2.0

On a recent Friday night, my mind lit out for home and freedom quite a bit before my body managed to make it out of the office.  My thoughts were revolving around a conversation about history and ghosts at the end of the work day with one of my esteemed collaborators.  I made it all the way to the bus stop before I realized I had left my wallet and Blackberry behind.  Back to the office I trudged, in the pouring rain.  By the time I managed to finally squeeze on to a packed bus, it was past 7. I was immediately distracted by the landscape of the buildings and people surrounded by raindrops, many of them scurrying into Mme. Tussaud’s (a very appropriate place for ghosts and history).

Of course, I left my umbrella on the bus.

If I hadn’t been distracted, I would have walked in my front door at least an hour and a half earlier and a great deal dryer.

Hudson Skyline by Joiseyshoaa via Flckr CC license

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t all that unusual for me. In the middle of necessary daily activities, my mind is often somewhere else, very likely turning what I’m seeing or doing into a scene or story of some kind.  I construct elaborate back stories for strangers (the woman opening a chocolate bar next to me on the bus; the sales clerk at Rite Aid; the barista at Starbucks).  I sink my Manhattan landscape into the Hudson River and envision what the rest of the city would look like.  I have a glimpse of an underground tunnel and instantly the city is connected not just by subways but secret passageways.  I am struck by lyrics to a song that hasn’t yet been written while prowling the sales racks at Macy’s.

In consequence, I usually live in a mild state of distraction. This doesn’t happen when I am sitting down one on one with another human being, or when I am actually working on something that interests me, but when I am in a group activity that doesn’t completely catch my interest, or doing the things we usually do by habit—commuting, shopping, cooking.

Half my creative thinking is done in these intervals of absentmindedness.  (The other half seems to be done when I’m falling asleep or waking up, but that’s another post for another time.)  Although I am not paying attention to the external world, I am completely absorbed in my internal one, and the thoughts and images that come to me while I am barely avoiding walking into open manholes stay with me when I finally make it home and sit down to write.

This state of absentmindedness may be why creative people often say, when interviewed—I do my writing or painting or filmmaking or composing because I couldn’t do anything else.  It can be a bit of a challenge operating in the workaday world when much of your mind is in another place entirely.  But all of us have to operate in both worlds to some extent, and, after all, one feeds the other. The people in your life who value you will learn to put up with your moments of abstraction, and if you are lucky, the people you manage not to run into on the street will pull you out of the path of any oncoming buses.  Our minds, after all, are only absent from this particular moment and place—they are completely present somewhere else, exploring and building worlds and stories and images and melodies.

It might make you late to dinner once in a while, but in the long run, being absent minded is often just part of  being creative.  And, if there is somewhere you really, really need to be, you will just have to join the real world for a little while, knowing that the other world is always there, awaiting your return.

Copyright 2012 Deborah Atherton.  All rights reserved.