I took Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write from my bookshelf the other day. I don't think I can ever become an e-book reader with my penchant for paper. My paperback copy, from Graywolf Press, 1987, is a worn blue reminiscent of tile borders, framing the yellow ivory front cover. The glue of the binding is getting brittle with age, someday I might open this book and it will snap into sections, and pages that I have lined with a yellow marker will fall out.
There are two photographs of the author just inside the cover, one in 1938 as a young woman and the other in 1983 as a old woman. In the second photograph, Ueland's decorous image has changed to one much more flamboyant. Instead of a solid color blazer, hers has wide vertical stripes. Her hair is no longer neat and carefully combed. Her gaze no longer pensive but direct. I like to think aging is a process of throwing off convention and others expectations to become more oneself.
Today, I notice Chapter IV: The Imagination Works Slowly and Quietly. She explains what creative power is and how to use it. Be idle, she says.
Of imagination, she writes, "...memory and erudition can smother it very easily," and "...smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: 'I am not creative.' They are, but they should be idle, limp, and alone for much of the time, as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas."
Moodling, she calls it. It is the idle time similar to the play of children, without anxiety or pressure to make something meaningful. It is not using the leisure time to smoke or drink or find endless distractions, but to simply dream. Leave off "measuring, comparing, cautioning, advising prudence, warning against mistakes...anxious doubts" in favor of wandering and searching. Take long walks. Don't be too busy. It's slow work, as Ueland says.
My mother, who spoke English as a second language, used to call social events "doings." This too can become consuming. I used to be so busy with doings. I used to have not one but two jobs.
The photographic images of young writer and old writer remind me of the final destination of each of us: mortality. Life is so brief. We have limited time to do creative work. Why put off a poem or a story until you're done with work, mown the lawn, cleaned the house? Why wait until you've saved more money, retired? Where is the end point of all that busy-ness?
It's a paradox. In order to be productive creatively, you need to give yourself time off. In order to do that, you have to get off the treadmill, avoid debt, re-examine your ambition. Do you really need a larger house or more things? Do you really want to take on more responsibility, work so many hours, if it takes you away from your creative work?
Throughout my life, because I was not wealthy, I thought that one could either have time or money, but not both. I took some leaves of absence, for time, but went back to work. Right now, I've elected time. Before I am like the photograph of an old woman, I've chosen to step away from all "the getting and doing" in order to be in my studio, where like the men fishing on the levee, I will be moodling.