• Write While Lying Down: On Finding Rest in Creative Labor

    Holly Haworth Tries to Shelter the Muse From Economic Reality

    “Write while lying in bed,” I tell my creative-writing students. I am trying to get their attention, sure, and the suggestion carries a rebellious flair.

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    What I know that they don’t yet is that the weight of the work we have to do as artists, in a world in which time is money, can press so heavily upon us that, well, we need to lie down sometimes.

    I’ve said that my students don’t know this yet, but I can see already engrained in them the years of writing in school to earn not money but the grade they want—the grade they now feel they need, so they can go on to a career that earns them enough money. I can see the worry knitted into their young brows. How deeply their creative process is already entrenched in concerns of an economy of one kind or another.

    What I know that they don’t quite yet is that we have to find creative ways, even, of accessing our creative selves in a world in which grind culture gnaws always at our minds. Finding rest or refuge in our writing is a necessary skill for resilience, our shield against burnout, our sustenance for going the long haul. Telling my students is a way of reminding myself: the page can be a space of pleasure and play. Writing can be a restorative act that fortifies you for all the other work you will, no doubt, be compelled to do.

    It’s a good utopian touchstone, anyway, this angle of repose, even if on most days, if we are being honest, the work won’t look or feel that way. That’s what I know, too.

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    In a culture obsessed with productivity and industry, many of us writers and artists have found ourselves pressured to argue the merit of what we do as bona fide work, especially those of us who try in some way to make a living at it. We know that it can be grueling, that it requires incredible energy, that it takes all of what we have to give. But in a culture that views writing and art-making as a kind of loafing around, we also have to do the work of earning respect, the validation that what we do is, actually, work.

    Like a lot of writers, I suspect, I have often felt my work belittled and misunderstood by those whose work is more obviously industrious and profitable. I would guess that most of us have known the difficulty not only of getting words on the page but also justifying what we’re doing to others. And, of course, there is the grim reality of feeling that we must turn out words as commodity in order to survive.

    And so we are accustomed to thinking and speaking in terms of daily word counts and page quotas, deadlines, and payments. Language people that we are, we have learned to use words from the business world both as a way to honor our own work as such and to prove to others that this writing stuff is real work. That is all very understandable.

    In a culture obsessed with productivity and industry, many of us writers and artists have found ourselves pressured to argue the merit of what we do as bona fide work.

    The problem is that our language is powerful. We ourselves forget that while this is all very hard work for which we should, yes, be compensated, there is also something else at work in us, in the best of moments—something unspoken and beyond all that. There is something else that we are up to here. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,” wrote the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, “There is a field. I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass, / The world is too full to talk about.”

    There is no language in this field where we lie down, and yet it sparks our verses.

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    The blank page is that field where we go to lie down, a field where our thoughts can stretch out, where we meet—in the best of moments—a world so full we have no words, and yet our words begin to bubble up as if from a wellspring, our thoughts begin to flower.

    It takes so much work to get to the field these days. Grind culture and the attention economy grips our shoulder so tightly, dings in our ears, pushes notifications on us wherever we try to go.

    That’s why we have to protect the work of writing as something that happens in a different kind of workspace, a private place. If not a place where we literally lie down—even if actually a desk, like the one where I sit now, or only a blank page and us, on a bus or the train—it is a place where we can hear the trickling stream of our memory, see the light of our lives shifting with the seasons and years, a place where go to reflect and dream, to see the world in its motion or stillness. It is a place where in some way we are able to slow time long enough to see a single moment, to have a single and complete thought. In Thoreau’s 1851 journal, I find this: “Only thought which is expressed by the mind in repose as it were lying on its back & contemplating the heavens—is adequately & fully expressed—”

    The poet William Stafford wrote that, “The stance to take, reading or writing, is neutral, ready, susceptible to the now; such a stance is contrary to anything tense or determined or ‘well-trained.’ Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for a writer or reader is one of following, not imposing.”

    Contrary to anything tense or determined. This is a state of receptivity, a stance that looks relaxed.

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    In Lewis Hyde’s 1979 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (later editions had the subtitle Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World), Hyde wrote that the artist who involves her art in the marketplace “must develop a more subjective feel” for what he called “the two economies”: the ancient system in which art was a gift, as well as a system such as ours in which all things are ruled by money. Though we are living in a hyper-capitalistic society, our writing inhabits (at least) two worlds. The artist must get a feel for “his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together.” She must be able to deal with her work as a commodity and “be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms.”

    Something else rules in this other space, there are other terms in operation—long spoken of as spirits, Muses, ancestors, all the poets and storytellers of the past. The sky, in which our vision might be immersed were we to be lying down in a field or meadow or on a mountaintop or remote strand of beach or riverbank or park bench or rooftop just now, has long been associated by cultures around the world with thought, imagination, and the divine: a common space to which we all have access.

    As artists, when we gaze at the wide sky of stars or the passing clouds, we are working, yes, but we are also in some sense gifted with this work. We understand that time moves differently here, that the words do not always flow at the rate we wish, on the schedule we set, don’t always bend to our annual fiscal goals, and that sometimes they flow like great starry rivers, sometimes they rain down on us.

    If lying down is not the literal position we take when writing—it very rarely is—I choose to stamp this image on my psyche as a symbol of how I must serve the gift on its terms, as something different than simply work. The image of lying down is a humble position, and I like to imagine the words and stories pouring over me, a gift I earned but also didn’t, something I don’t ever have to earn but that I can go to immerse myself in.

    As artists, when we gaze at the wide sky of stars or the passing clouds, we are working, yes, but we are also in some sense gifted with this work.

    Writing is an act I want to stake a boundary around. Hyde calls it the “protected gift-sphere.” This sphere may not be a light-filled study and probably will not be a dream-shack in the deep woods. It’s fantasies and concepts like these that capitalists use to paint writers as loafers, or worse, that make people believe they have to be privileged to write. The protected gift-sphere may be a desk and a chair, the floor, a front stoop, the seat of a taxi. Or it may indeed be a bed, when we crawl into it tired and frayed from a hard day’s work.

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    Then also, it may look like nothing but lazy repose. John McPhee described in a New Yorker article ten years ago how he lay on his back on a picnic table for a fortnight, attempting to sort out the hoard of reporting and research he’d amassed for his book The Pine Barrens, vexing himself over the structure. To anyone passing this would have looked like a man lying on a picnic table. But with writers, we should know better. Much of the work is invisible and requires rest, is done best, maybe, when our parasympathetic nervous systems are engaged.

    I confess now that I have written some of the most difficult passages of my book-in-progress while lying on a blanket on the creekbank in the woods behind my house, my eyes absorbing the most stunning light in the trees, the sound of the creek shushing over its stones and coaxing my words from me. I have unlocked stuck words on my yoga mat, in puppy pose, my notebook splayed before me, my elbows propped on either side, my pen flowing easily, finally, across the page, more fluid thanks to the blood rushing to my head, thanks to gravity, one of my trusted Muses. I have jostled free sentence after sentence while taking long hikes in the mountains, and walking, for many, is also a way of resting, of dipping into the sky.

    Call these creekbank, yoga-mat, trail-walking stances my prayers to whatever wild, abundant, restful forces draw the words from me. In a culture in which back pain and headaches are a kind of virtue-signaling that you are working hard, I am learning to accept that sometimes I just might not look so virtuous. Some passerby in a suit might make a silly passive-aggressive joke like working hard or hardly working? in this culture where we’ve all learned to shame and police one another about productivity, in which we’re conditioned to believe that anything that looks like play, rest, or pleasure can’t possibly be work.

    Hyde draws a distinction between work and labor that I have found useful. “Work is what we do by the hour,” he writes. “Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace.” Because of that, it “is usually accompanied by idleness, leisure, even sleep. … When I speak of labor, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by its society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.”

    My emphasis is on the phrase that conveys urgency, because we know how this labor can grip us, too, how the Muses don’t always visit between the hours of 9 and 5, and nor do we shutter our doors or ears to them on Saturday or Sunday. They can ring the bell at the counter at any moment, and we must appear from the back room to serve them. We know, in truth, that we are always laboring.

    I confess now that I have written some of the most difficult passages of my book-in-progress while lying on a blanket on the creekbank in the woods behind my house.

    Stafford’s golden threads, as he called them, are what we pursue across the land and seas even while we are on “vacation.” That’s the way it is for us, to be ever occupied, always making notes, noting details, keeping journals, paying attention to conversations, keeping our eyes open, finding inspiration, to be ever OPEN, as the signs on shop windows say. Mary Oliver hid pencils in the nooks of trees in her woods, kept paper scraps in her pockets, in case a poem were to strike her when she intended to be only musing at natural wonders. Even our dreams can be fodder, and so we also labor to dream and know that it is part of what we do.

    When I think of the artist laboring, I think often of Frida Kahlo, who painted her most incredible paintings while lying on her back in bed. She painted that way, as we know, because of the terrible injuries she had sustained in a bus accident, which became a source of chronic pain.

    And so I think, too, of the very serious necessity of finding a sense of rest in our creative labors at a time when debilitating chronic pain and illnesses are increasing. These afflictions are much more common among women and people of color, who bear a disproportionate burden of work of all kinds, who face more violence and who still earn lower pay in the workplace. In her book Rest is Resistance, Tricia Hersey argues that rest pushes back against the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. “Naps provide a portal to imagine, invent, and heal,” she said in an interview. “Our dream space has been stolen, and we want it back.” It’s a very intentional kind of rest, a mindful play, a crucial repose that we take. It is our job as writers to dream better worlds, and to dream we must lie down.

    Hyde makes clear the truly harrowing reality of a money-driven and work-obsessed culture. He writes:

    As those who must worry about the livelihood of artists are fond of saying, “You cannot play ‘The Minute Waltz’ in less than a minute.” Worse (or perhaps better) you cannot write “The Minute Waltz” in less than… what? A day, a week, a year —however long it takes. There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

    That was in 1979. Forty-five years later, AI can likely write a minute waltz in less than a minute, and more students are using ChatGPT to pass classes so they can have more time not for leisure but for higher productivity. It has become more efficient to consign art to the robots. What once was considered a gift is now pure commodity, and this is tied, too, to climate collapse. Hyde wrote back then that in an “age of monopoly capitalism,” gift wealth is converted to market wealth also as “forests, wildlife, and fossil fuels” are sold “and converted into private fortunes.”

    The gift of art can provide rest from the brutal and ceaseless conversion of all the world’s gifts into commodities. The implications are quite serious, and Báyò Akómoláfé has said that, “When we rest, the earth heals.” The value of writing is beyond all calculation for its power to re-imagine and envision better futures and alternative realities, and to show us the world in which we’re living. For Hyde, art gives to society “a storehouse of works that can serve as agents for transformation.” It creates nothing short of “a sense of an inhabitable world—an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods.”

    And so, I tell my students, write while lying down. I tell myself, as I labor with all my heart and might on my first book, which I am writing under the incredible stresses and strain of supporting myself with a pauper’s teaching salary. I don’t fool myself that I can actually attain such a state of rest all that often. But the idea of writing in repose, writing as refuge and sanctuary away from the din and grind, is one I hold dear and close. “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow,” wrote the poet Robert Duncan in a poem we know well. “It is so near to the heart, / an eternal pasture folded in all thought.” The meadow is “only a dream of the grass blowing / east against the source of the sun / in an hour before the sun’s going down.”

    There, my phone doesn’t ring or ding because I’ve turned it off. There, email doesn’t reach me. There, I am pulled into a current of thought and feeling so rejuvenating, all the worries of bills and expenses fly from my mind. They take wing, a flock of sparrows diving and wheeling in the golden light that burnishes the field and sets my vision blazing. I am richer here than the world will ever know.

    I will meet you there, where our souls can lie down in the grass, where the world is too full to talk about. 

    Holly Haworth
    Holly Haworth
    Holly Haworth’s essays appear in the New York Times Magazine, Oxford American, Lapham’s Quarterly, Sierra, and at the On Being radio program blog. They have been listed as notable in The Best American Travel Writing and included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her first book, This Resounding World: A Field Guide to Listening, is forthcoming.

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