In my post Why I Write, I dealt with many of the problems I’ve faced over the years as I’ve struggled to “be a writer.” Many of the problems aren’t really specific to writing, or writing as a career; they’re problems with life in general. I’ve been reflecting on one of those problems again since that post, and I feel compelled to write about it (crazy idea, huh?) in a bit more depth.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, identifying oneself as a writer seems to be a sign to certain people that one is lazy, or at least “unproductive.” Again, it’s that stigma of writing not being a “real job.” I wonder if popular writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have family members who, even now, balk at their writing careers because it isn’t a “real job,” despite all their success. I hope not, but it wouldn’t really surprise me. It seems to be a common reaction to any kind of career in the arts, as evidenced by Amanda Palmer’s beautiful TED Talk The Art of Asking.

Part of that stigma, I suspect, is based on the fact that writers have to be dreamers. All writers find inspiration differently, I’m sure. I would bet that most get inspiration in many of the same ways I do. Sometimes a story will appear in my mind fully formed, spurred into existence by a chance phrase spoken by someone in conversation, or by a scent in the air, or by something I see going on across the street. At other times, these same things inspire me but only a fragment of a story comes to mind, and it takes many such instances of inspiration to develop the pieces into a full story.

In all these inspirational moments, however, I’m very rarely ever doing anything that looks like “real work” (though working as a janitor the past five years proved to be a memorable exception). Writing begins with dreaming. It’s no wonder, then, that in the eyes of many people, in my “busiest” moments I appear to be half-asleep.  One of my most consistent sources of inspiration, and one which has inspired some of my favorite ideas, has been simply riding as a passenger in a car and listening to music as I watch the scenery go by. It appears so passive, and even moochy (why doesn’t he do the driving? they wonder) and yet without it I’d lose one of my most loyal muses.

Are all “lazy times” really inspirational, though? Is saying that you’re a writer really a get-out-of-jail-free card, an excuse to slack off for the rest of your life?

Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life doing nothing. I don’t mean productive, daydreaming-for-inspiration nothing. I mean real nothing. I’ve played videogames mindlessly for hours (the shocking numbers are recorded on Steam). I’ve checked Facebook, email, email, email, Twitter, Facebook, Facebook, email, email, Twitter, TV Tropes, TV Tropes, Cracked, TV Tropes, random website, random website, etc. etc. in an seemingly endless cycle.  Was any of that anything but laziness, or, at best, a nasty habit of being unfocused?

I’d venture to say that yes, a large part of it was flat-out laziness. But laziness isn’t as simple as it sounds. Laziness isn’t necessarily just being a parasite, contributing nothing to humanity. Laziness can be a burden, just as overwork can. Laziness isn’t happiness; it’s not always making out like a bandit while everybody else slaves away. For me, anyway, laziness is often what fills the unhappiest of times.

I recently read a book by Ernie J. Zelinski called The Joy of Not Working. While I found the book delightful in general, one of my favorite parts of it dealt with what Ernie called “passive leisure.” Zelinski wrote of how, until recent decades, leisure time was almost always filled with active pastimes: sports, trips to the park, socializing, creative hobbies and more. Over the course of the 20th century, however, and after the Industrial Revolution, the popular choice for leisure shifted from active to passive: going to the movies, watching television, listening to the radio, surfing the internet, etc. Even those activities with some social or active elements in the past (driving or walking to a movie theater and watching a film as part of an audience, or even just traveling to the video store) have, thanks to the advance of technology, become even more passive. Now, movies are readily accessible at home on our televisions via things like On Demand service and Netflix, or on our computers. Too many of us socialize through Facebook and Twitter far more than in person.

These advancements are convenient, to be sure. I certainly appreciate them. Yet it does show an unfortunate trend. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the infamous “Protestant Work Ethic,” many people began to feel trapped in a 9 to 5 existence (not to mention overtime), and it has continued that way through the present. Their energy is sapped by work, and they come home, tired, relying on passive leisure to “decompress.”

I have, mercifully, avoided being stuck in the 9 to 5 world thus far, but there’s a reason Ernie Zelinski’s book resonated so strongly with me. My college years were spent quite miserably, in a constant stream of assignments I had no passion for, story ideas popping into my mind during idle moments. Then, when I got home at the end of each day, I’d be too burned out on writing stuff for professors and instructors, stuff I didn’t care about to begin with, to feel like writing anything else. Naturally, this kept me from writing anything I really wanted to most of the time, and my need to “decompress” and “unwind” inevitably led to mindless videogame playing and internet surfing. The lack of productivity would make me depressed, but the cycle continued. My schedule would keep me from eating right, my health became sub-par, I felt constantly tired and drained and, to sum it up, I just felt like crap. It’s a miserable way to live. The hilarious irony, of course, is that I was too burned out pursuing a creative writing degree to get hardly any actual creative writing done.

Since I’ve been “semi-retired from school” (a story for another time) beginning in 2012, I initially found it difficult to readjust and spend my leisure time constructively. I was still stuck in the “desperately use every free moment to do as little as possible” mindset, playing far too many videogames, watching far too much TV, etc. During the first half of the year I was still enrolled in a very difficult online class and still feeling a very strong sense of meaninglessness in what I was doing. In the fall, I crashed and burned, faltering and eventually dropping out of the class.  I felt that my social circle, the people who I would turn to for support, were too few and far between, with most old friends having become too busy to collaborate on projects and such as we had in years past, and no new friends in sight.

I had always told myself that when I found free time again, I’d throw myself into writing. I’d quell the naysayers, especially people within my family, who worried about my life going nowhere, about me not making any money, about me being a bum. I would get my work out there, I’d construct the elaborate stories I’d plotted for years. I might, I thought, even make a few friends, by connecting with people who enjoyed my work. I didn’t believe I’d be a financial success with writing, but I always thought that I could fill my life with enough activity to at least shut up anyone who considered me lazy.

Yet when that free time was there, I just didn’t know what to do with it. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. I wondered if it ever had been. The elaborate stories seemed like daunting tasks, like the college assignments all over again. There was meaning for me in writing those stories, but I just couldn’t feel connected to it anymore. The fun was gone. What happened? Was I really, at heart, just a lazy bum? Was that it? Were the naysayers right?

I didn’t find my way out of it until I hit rock bottom, though I saw a few rays of light along the way. I attended a certain fan convention that inspired me, seeing all of those people sharing a common interest and a love of creativity was a huge boost (not to mention meeting one of my favorite voice actresses/singer-songwriters). An environment filled with creative, passionate people is, surprise surprise, quite conducive to feeling creative and passionate. I discovered the work of a late artist who shared my love of insane, surreal humor. Yet it wasn’t until I realized that my “passive leisure,” my intense droughts of meaningless inactivity, were making me feel sick that I began to see a way out.

I remember those moments when I really became conscious of it. I would “awaken” from a stupor, having played some videogame or other for far too many hours, or having spent virtually all day sitting at my computer doing nothing but obsessively check the same websites again and again. It occurred to me that I’d been lazy, idle. I’d spent all day doing nothing (at least nothing worthwhile). It occurred to me that I felt terrible.

But there was something else that I realized in those moments. I didn’t feel terrible because I let down society, or failed to live up the Protestant Work Ethic. I didn’t feel terrible because I’d failed to meet someone else’s expectations, or because people would think I was a bum. It wasn’t even because I’d failed to live up to my own expectations, my own plans to write this or that, create this or that. Unlike all the brow-beating I’d been giving myself for years, I suddenly realized that guilt wasn’t the real source of my misery.

I felt terrible because doing a whole lot of nothing just feels terrible.

Playing videogames is fun. Playing videogames all day is not fun. Playing videogames for more than an hour or two isn’t fun.

Watching TV is fun. Watching TV all day is not fun. You get the idea.

All my life, all the criticisms I’d ever heard for being lazy, or idle, or unproductive were always founded on guilt. “You’re wrong to be doing nothing and enjoying yourself while those in the ‘real world’ slave away,” they’d say. Anytime anyone gave me any crap for not working enough, or not socializing enough, or whatever, all of it was based on this ethereal, flimsy idea that I somehow owed a debt to…someone, or something. Society, perhaps. Not once can I recall someone saying to me “you ought to be more productive because it’s good for you. You’ll feel better.” I can remember so many occasions in which someone would berate me for not getting out enough, but I can’t recall nearly as many times that someone asked me to get out more because it would make me happy, or that they appreciated having me around. It was always this guilt-trip of “don’t be a hermit, don’t be anti-social.”

I suspect that many people berate others in this way with the best of intentions. Maybe they really are trying to help, they’re just not expressing themselves very well, or considering the psychological ramifications of what they’re saying. Yet it is my experience that such attempts at negative reinforcement are almost always failures. I never wanted to get out more when the people inviting me to hang out with them were acting like I’d be a loser if I didn’t go. Who wants to hang out with such negative people? I would procrastinate and accomplish nothing the more people would guilt-trip me about being unproductive. The same goes for all the times I’d tell myself I was a failure for not working on some writing project or other. I berated myself for not doing something rather than focusing on why it was worthwhile to do it.

The focus was on obligation, not on creating for the sake of creating, for the fun of it.

How can we ignore that, though? How can we ignore our own passions and expect to live a fulfilling life? How do we find the fun of things again, the passions that make productivity worthwhile, its own reward? Why exactly do so many people seem to want others to be miserable drones?

I’m still learning that. In the months since I came to realize that I was pressuring myself to write, treating it like an urgent school or job assignment, I’ve been experimenting, taking things slow. I’ve found this is the best way (with some of my biggest inspirations coming from Leo Babuta at his blog Zen Habits and, of all people, my childhood “television neighbor” Fred “Mister” Rogers). You can’t rush happiness, you can’t achieve happiness with a checklist (well, maybe you can, but I certainly can’t).

In the past few months I’ve tried different things. I’ve started strumming a ukulele without any prior musical knowledge or skill, and enjoying the feel of strumming the strings. Even something as simple as that can be invigorating. I’ve decided not to fight my urge to be lazy sometimes, but to always be mindful of it. As I began writing this very post, I felt a strong urge to go lay on the couch, curl-up with the quilt made by my great-grandmother, turn on Netflix and watch some Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

I went ahead and did just that, and I have no regrets. I watched two episodes, resisting the pull to watch more out of a desire to stretch out the experience past the point where it’s fulfilling.  I took time to appreciate how nice it was to sit in the dark, just for an hour and a half, nice and warm, and enjoy some television. I enjoyed it mindfully, thoroughly, without over-doing it and without guilt.

Then, later, I returned to my writing, and here I am. Everything in moderation. I’m enjoying the sensation of writing this post, right here, right now.

Do things in moderation, and do what is fun. If you want to watch TV, ask yourself if you really want to watch TV or if you’re only doing it to avoid something else. If you are, ask yourself why you’re avoiding whatever it is you want to avoid. Ask yourself if it’s really worth it. If you do, in fact, really want to watch TV, then go ahead. Watch some TV. Enjoy the heck out of it. Enjoy the sensation of relaxing, watching it, getting lost in the story or the learning experience. Be aware of how you feel. When you feel like you’ve had enough, stop watching TV and do something else. It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to over-indulge in everything, especially if we indulge as a form of escape from something else.

Maybe you are under stressful deadlines in your life. I am, thankfully, for now, free of such concerns. I can’t presume to tell you to magically learn to enjoy all of the burdens you might be facing. Perhaps those deadlines are things you really can’t change. But here’s what you can change: you can change the way you view your circumstances. You can experiment with your methods for getting things done, and your way of living, within the confines of your obligations. You can look for the joy in tasks both mundane and overbearing, you can try to focus on each, tiny step, and see if there’s any joy to be found in it.

If nothing else, you can free your own mind from the guilt. You can realize that, while you may have real obligations to loved ones, you don’t, in the strictest sense, owe anything to anyone. You can focus on acting out of love rather than compulsion. If you fail at some obligation, that’s not an occasion to berate yourself or feel guilty. If you don’t feel like working, that doesn’t mean you’re a lazy bum, but even if you are, why should you care what anyone else thinks? Just make sure that your “laziness” (perhaps use Ernie Zelinski’s term, “creative loafing” instead?) isn’t just as much of a drain on your happiness as the guilt others try to foist on you for it.  In the end, the only one you ought to answer to is yourself, and you should consider what things really make you happy.

In conclusion: work when you find the joy in it. Give yourself a chance to find the joy in work, and what work you enjoy; keep experimenting.  Give yourself the chance to find the joy in laziness, in doing nothing, too; know how much laziness is too much to really enjoy yourself, know how much turns you into a joyless zombie. Know how much work is too much work to enjoy yourself, and know how much turns you into a joyless zombie. Everything in moderation. Free yourself from baseless guilt, from the expectations of others, and learn what is best for you, what makes you happiest and most fulfilled.

And whenever you do choose to do nothing, I hope you that you enjoy it completely, and that you see that it can be just as valuable as “productivity.” I’ve found that it can certainly live up to my expectations.

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