The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

Guest post: Sarah Salway On Doing Nothing

To drift = to trust

To get lost = to discover new things

To do nothing = to recharge

Let’s take your average writer. OK, let’s take me. I am an A* worrier, a textbook Virgo, and more than slightly driven. I love deadlines, daily writing practice, word counts, goals. I take on too many projects and like nothing better than ticking items off my to-do list.

And, from conversations I’ve had with other writers, I’m not alone. The myth of us all sitting alone in our rooms day after day communing only with the page is, I’m convinced, exactly that. A myth. Just hearing about most other writers’ timetables exhausts me but mine is just as bad. When I started writing fiction, I was also juggling bringing up two small children and a part time job. I remember being asked at a reading whether I had any writing rituals, and going completely blank because, at that time, having the iron will and self-discipline to get to the computer was celebration enough. Sharpening three pencils before I started writing, or going for a long walk would have tipped me over the edge, let alone picking fleas from my cat (Colette) and finding a lover who would strip naked so I could use his back as my writing desk (Voltaire).

But, surprise, surprise, I’ve discovered recently that I can’t keep up the pace forever. The well runs dry. And so I’ve discovered the joy of stopping. Not for ever, of course, but just two or three days of doing nothing is enough to sort me out. Not sitting at my desk doing nothing (I do a lot of that anyway). Or reading on the beach (lovely as that may be). Or even the residencies, or retreats, or writing courses, which all have a structure and are infinitely valuable, but are different. No, what’s seems to work for me is that I go somewhere I don’t know, where I’m not known and where I don’t need to make an effort so I can fall into a state of mild gloominess without anyone trying to cheer me up.

A city is best for this kind of anonymity. Drizzly Dublin was my first illicit do-nothing break, although it didn’t start as such. In fact, I had a busy timetable of networking arranged, but hours after I arrived, I developed a strange puffiness around the eyes which carried on puffing up until it took over my whole face. Really. I tried to ignore it, but when a woman in a café took one glance at me and moved quickly to another table, I cancelled all my plans and instead lurked in the corners of art galleries, the dusty shelves of second hand bookshops, the back row of a lecture. I avoided eye contact and barely spoke. I seemed to be using as little energy as possible, spending more than an hour scribbling notes in my journal about just one painting, rather than racing round the whole gallery. Then I walked slowly, in a funk of self-induced self-pity (is there any other kind?), round the park, watching happy couples, and formulated a story about the painting in my head. Back at my hotel room, I wrote this up in longhand.

Slowly, slowly.

By the next day, at one of those free talks all museums seem to offer, I had become so much part of the background that the speaker skipped over me when he went round the room asking everyone where they were from. But from under my invisible cloak, I watched a father laugh with his two teenage daughters throughout the whole lecture and spent lunchtime making notes abut them in my journal. I wandered round shops where I brought nothing, barely looked at anything because I was thinking about who those girls’ mother might be. And then walking, walking, walking the streets, I started a conversation with her in my head. Back in my hotel room, once again, I wrote it all up in longhand.

Back at home, it took much longer to click back into my everyday life than if I’d rushed around as I normally did. Weeks later, I was still thinking about my mood in Dublin and what was it that had inspired me so much. Because on the surface, I must have looked miserable, I actually felt pretty miserable much of the time. I definitely mooched rather than stepped out purposefully with an agenda and guidebook in hand, but something was happening underneath. I left Dublin after three days with three stories in my notebook which, for me, is pretty spectacular. It felt as if I’d stopped the world for a while.

In Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she quotes Walter Benjamin. ‘Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,’ he says. ‘But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.’ She goes on to say that, under Benjamin’s definition, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.

I think this is it. I surrendered to, rather than trying to organise, the experience. I gave myself up to a state of suspension I can’t normally achieve even when I put time aside for writing. This year, I’ve been on a two-week residency with nothing to do but write and that was an amazing experience. However, I still had people to speak to in the evenings. There was no way I got lost in the same way.

My trip to Dublin was three years ago, and in my mind I still flick back to my bank of images from those few day. It was something I remembered all over again this summer, where I found myself unexpectedly in Minneapolis with two and a half days to kill, and absolutely nothing to do.

I’d been taking part in an arts project in Iowa, a state I hadn’t expected to like but found beautiful. It made me want to see more of the mid-west, and as I couldn’t see myself coming back there any time soon, I decided to base myself in Minneapolis – my stop-over point – for my last few days in America, and organise some day trips to explore new areas. I would do this, and this, and this, and that. I looked over maps on the internet, searched out travel times and asked for recommendations.

But when I got to my anonymous hotel room, I wasn’t sure if this was the best use of my unexpected free time. Could I be brave enough to do nothing again?

‘Order room service and write, write, write,’ a friend suggested via email. But remembering Dublin, I set out to get lost in the city again. This time, luckily, my skin didn’t puff up alarmingly but I still became happily invisible.

And, as with Dublin, I felt my internal clock shift. I woke late, and went to bed late. What I would fit into an average half hour at home, having a cup of coffee say, took hours. I walked everywhere whereas at home I might cycle or take a bus to save time. Within a frighteningly short time, I got used to not talking, not least because I didn’t have anything to say. My mind hadn’t exactly shut down, but it had turned inside.

If I hadn’t have known I was going to be catching a plane back, then I might have got worried at how easily I adapted to silence and anonymity, but as it was, I was safe dropping into a temporary chrysalis.

The work I’d brought with me to edit and work on stayed in my suitcase. After a day I didn’t even take notes in my journal. I watched couples and groups sitting outside bars, having food, coffee, conversation almost as if they were another breed. I wandered aimlessly, got lost in back streets and found myself again almost by accident.

On the plane home, I sat next to a man from Minneapolis. ‘So what did you see?’ he asked enthusiastically. ‘Did you go to St Pauls? See the shopping mall? The Modern art gallery?’ I shook my head so many times, I started to wonder if I should lie just to please him. I’m still not sure why I didn’t just tell him the truth. ‘I did nothing. I mooched around like one of those teenagers you want to tell to snap out of it. And it was wonderful.’

OK, as a way of life, it’s not terrific. Even as an artist’s date, I’m not sure it would come up to scratch, and I definitely wasn’t good company – sullen, silent, mouse-like, lacking in all initiative and avoiding all the coolest bars to hang out in, but I know now that getting lost, doing nothing, allowing myself to get gloomy, is as much a part of my writing process as setting word counts and deadlines. As Vladimir Nabokov writes in Pale Fire: The lost glove can be happy too.

Sarah Salway blogs at Sarah’s Writing Journal. Read The Short Review’s review of her short story collection, Leading the Dance.

3 comments on “Guest post: Sarah Salway On Doing Nothing

  1. Clare Dudman
    September 22, 2008

    Great piece! Beautifully written and interesting. It happens with mathematicians too, I think – Poincaré called it incubation.


  2. LiteraryMinded
    September 22, 2008

    I really relate to this piece. In my day-to-day life if I need some ‘nothing’ I just walk around the city, mull over a cup of tea at a new place.Thanks!Angela


  3. Sarah Salway
    September 24, 2008

    Thanks both. Yes, Clare, incubation is a good word for it and litearyminded, strange how it works so much better for me too in the city than the country. A different experience.


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This entry was posted on September 22, 2008 by in creativity, doing nothing, guest post.
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