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So, there are two types of hunger — the kind that feeds you (life) and the kind that inspires you (creativity). They don't exist alone.
BY LISA MARIE BASILE
Downtime is a divine thing. Downtime as in the purposeful act of taking time off, or the involuntary act of retreat. But it's often treated as creative stagnation. Dead air. Lack of inspiration. Or the dreaded maxim, "Writer's block."
As a writer, I am always in a state; that is, we all are. I am never outside of a condition — especially the conditions that create writing. You know this feeling. If it's not conception, it's development. If it's not development, it's editing. And so forth. But writing — with all of its heart and death, all of its starts and stops — is the same as day and night — which can’t exist without the other.
Yet, we’ve come to burden ourselves with the idea of necessary production. We feel guilt when we aren’t active. We use the phrase "writer's block" as if the natural state is to be a continuous pouring thing; we throw around "writer's block" as if we encountered something that wasn't meant to be there. A cancer. But writing isn't magically exempt from the laws of gravity — up and down, and so forth.
Our light slowly fades when we pressure ourselves too much. When we can't break the 'block', we start to ask questions: What's wrong? Why can't I just use my stress as a catalyst? Maybe I'm not a writer anymore? I haven't published in a year! And like most fools, we rarely imbue the wisdom to know the difference between simply being burned out and burning ourselves out. We are, after all, alive. There are things of money and family and health that sit by, prodding our creative centers, hexing them, lighting them up — or shutting them down.
So, we flail. So many of us aim to “stay in the game” in ridiculously tiresome ways — when we’re not writing, we’re reading. And when we’re not reading, we’re retweeting the statuses of others who are. And we call these things 'citizenship' — we promote these acts — as truth. But we’re constantly a foot in and a foot out because we fear stepping out too far. Would we simply disappear? If we’re not making some sort of noise, does our voice even matter? Is there even a voice at all?
It is the nature of humanity to want to be productive, to give, to make something of our existence. As creators, the impulse is doubly strong; it’s almost divine, irrational. It's like having two bodies — the one we're in and the one that lives in our heads. Maya Angelou wrote, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Our health — mental and physical — hinges on creating. Our faith, our hope, our livelihoods depend on our creating. We lose a sense of aliveness when we’re not living up to it. Because it is a gift and it must be recognized as such. We’re like sexless animals when we’ve gone without for too long, but even temporary abstinence (both proverbial and literal) has been known to clarify. Sometimes this agony is part of the process.
This summer, I was lucky to visit Stresa, Italy, in the Alps. I sat, nightly, at the same bar (in the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromée) Ernest Hemingway sat at in September 1918. He was 19, back from the war, recovering from his wounds. It was in Farewell to Arms that he’d written about the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées, its enchanting qualities, the same I swooned over. We were both disarmed by the flora of Italy and opulence of this town. But I couldn't figure out what to say. What do you say?
At Hemingway's bar, I took out my notebook; the waitstaff brought me wine and green olives and peanuts, and the pianist played to a room of glass and gold and velvet. I thought, “This is it, this is the time to write!” but nothing came. I forced it, milked it — and it shriveled up: my small, scared, pathetic little voice. Who was I if not inspired by a place so dear to my ancestral self? Why wasn’t I a writer anymore? Where did I go? What the fuck?
Like we say, writing is a gift, but greater gift is to be alive — and perhaps to be in a position that allows us to write and publish freely, to be healthy enough to write, to be privileged enough to buy books, to love ourselves enough to do it.
We are humans before we are writers or artists. And we must feed the humanity in order to do what we do and do it well. So, there are two types of hunger — the kind that feeds you (life) and the kind that inspires you (creativity). They don't exist alone.
So instead of writing at that little bar there — the broken record that I was — I simply let it be. The room enchanted me. There was the elevator with the cherubs atop the door, as if you could ride up into heaven. And the grand lake outside the window, and all its little islands. The way the waiter looked lonely as he refilled our drinks. That was the writing. It didn’t need an act.
In the fall of 2014 — so, two years ago — my first full-length collection made its way into the world. For me, it was momentous. The young girl I was — the one in foster care, the one who saw her parents taken by drugs — she was the one who benefited the most. She had survived and turned all that darkness into something else, something honest and lasting. It was exhilarating and validating — but there was this grim dankness hanging over it all. The very act of publishing somehow turned it into something else — this disease of What shall I follow this up with? How soon do I publish again? set in. Another one of my writer friends summed up her post-partum book experience as, "So this is it, huh?"
Years before then, in graduate school, I’d check my email compulsively: Did I get an acceptance? Did I get rejected? My sense of self-worth was irrevocably attached to this idea of producing art — I mean churning, churning, churning — and having it be accepted by some small part of the masses. It made me real. To not be prolific was an insult to my body, my heart, my ancestry, my whole life.
This need to produce, to do more, to get more, to be bigger — is somewhat illusory, isn't it? Success is relative, and often it's defined by parameters that don't sync with the purpose of art. The writing is the core act; everything else is periphery — or should be. Being so focused on the more, more, more can get in the way of the writing. I eventually, in the past two years, got so fed up with the whole idea of producing work and sending emails and doing promo interviews that I stopped writing poetry, stopped submitting, stopped thinking about the whole thing of it.
I’d transmorphed into commodity — and I put myself there! There was a stink of careerism to it, which would have been wonderful if I had let myself be me — instead of the thing I thought I should be. A machine. Because the business of poetry has always eluded me; I am not a natural networker, I don’t care to promote people who I will benefit from promoting and I’m disinterested in popularity. If you've ever talked to me in person, you likely know this.
Eventually, it was all a cycle. My "muses" had abandoned me. I hadn’t let myself stop. Think nothing. Stop doing. I hadn’t let myself live. When I began saying the break was good, healthy _ something that didn’t even need to be defined — the concept of the misanthropic self faded away and became the self that needed a break. To engage with being alive. Watching the success of others was a pleasure. A year in the literary world meant new journals, new writers, new awards, new reading series, new opportunities — and I let them all just be. I didn’t engage. I was happy to disrupt the literary fear-of-missing-out and exist outside of it. I still am.
This doesn’t work for everyone and it’s not a necessity by any means. Everyone has a different process. But when I hear writers say things like, “I suck — I haven’t submitted work in months” or “I feel like there’s so much amazing work out there and I have nothing to contribute,” the impulse, in me, is to say, “that’s OK.” Maybe you aren’t ready right now. Maybe those poems could do with some time. Maybe you don’t need to be always on. Maybe you can enjoy a day at the park as a human. Maybe you're not actually writing your best work when you're trying to send something to every corner of the Internet?
Because work — real writing work — doesn't mean empty work, or keep-up-with-the-Jonses work or work for work's sake. Sometimes a writer works hardest when they're doing nothing at all.
We need time off — from art, from ourselves, from our own trappings. Morning pages and scheduled writing hours and writing groups and workshops all exist to stimulate the writer, but what if we didn’t subscribe to the notion of a solution? What if it wasn’t even known as hybernation? What if we just normalized the nothingness?
This past year, the wave broke and I began writing again. It wasn’t a chore nor was it an absolute pleasure. It wasn’t always fruitful nor was it a failure. It was just a thing. A doing.
Eventually, I began writing more and more, but not as a “writer,” just as myself. The knowledge that the writing was my own was freeing; I wasn’t stocking it away or adding to a manuscript. I was just in the art itself.
And there was a distinction, for me, between writing for joy and writing out of compulsory need — but I found myself somewhere right in the middle. It’s as if a sex drive came back. Naturally. Without guilt. Because I had given my mind and body the space it needed without the nagging little fuck me, write me, fuck me, write me voice haunting over me.
On that remarkable freedom of writing for the self, Anais Nin wrote, in On Writing:
That love of living in the moment brought me tremendous healing. It validated me more than any set of publication credits could have, as claptrap as it sounds.
What had I learned? Three things — 1) that the process was so much more authentic when I wrote for myself, 2) that the result — my work — was so much more thoughtful than the factory line poems I could have churned out because some journal happened to have an open reading period and 3) that writers must value their non-writing time.
To be satiated with — or to embrace — a state of downtime is, in some sense, an act of revolt. To quiet and listen, or to not listen at all, to refuse to play by the rules, to not be led by praise or artifice— and to instead be motivated by simpler means — is a radical act. It is not easy. It may not even be necessary for everyone. But for those who have trouble disconnecting from the rules, for those who can’t find a lit path back to sincere creative energy — it may be worth it to say, “Fuck it. It’ll happen when it happens.”
Lisa Marie Basile is the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and moderator of its digital community. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Bustle, Bust, Hello Giggles, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan and The Huffington Post, among other sites. She is the author of Apocryphal (Noctuary Press), war/lock (Hyacinth Girl Press), Andalucia (The Poetry Society of New York) and Triste (Dancing Girl Press). Her work can be found in PANK, the Tin House blog, Spork Press, Best American Poetry, PEN American Center, The Atlas Review, and the Ampersand Review, among others. She has taught or spoken at Brooklyn Brainery, Columbia University, New York University and Emerson College. Lisa Marie Basile holds an MFA from The New School. @lisamariebasile