by Cheryl Wilder, with Suzanne Farrell Smith
ed. Claire Guyton
Sloth, real Sloth, is easy to recognize. Greasy hair, potato chip crumbles down the shirt, dirty dishes stacked at the sink and on the coffee table. The sun rises and sets while one lies on the couch with eyes transfixed on a TV screen. A writer can be Slothful exactly like this, but Sloth in the writing life is a kaleidoscope of images: I click through random articles on the internet, rationalizing that I need to know the most current events; I run more errands than I need to in a vain attempt to “get ahead”; or I cook a new recipe that takes hours to prepare because I feel as though my family needs this from me. My most destructive Sloth is convincing myself that I can let the afternoon or evening go by without writing because tomorrow will be more productive than today. Then the morning comes and I’ve slept in, so I promise to write that night—a promise I easily break.
When we asked what Sloth looks like in the lives of our surveyed writers, we heard a lot about the vortex of social media. “I worry about how many times I stop in the middle of writing to play Words with Friends™ or Draw Something™, or to make the rounds of Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.” Risa Nye admits. “It certainly doesn’t help me work with greater focus, and I find it really exhausting.” Jason Mott confesses: “Facebook is a terrible time sink. Probably the worst. Five minutes can turn into an hour on there so fast your head will spin. I’m very guilty of falling victim to Facebook’s charms.”
As I researched Sloth for this essay, the soft, arboreal leaf-eater asleep in the trees morphed into a snarling, snorting beast pacing in front of my desk, ready to charge. I always recognized Sloth as “sluggishness, laziness, and physical or mental inactivity”—behavior I do not want to give in to, but at the same time not the worst sin I could commit. There are days so full of activity in my house and in my family’s lives, it feels as though the sluggishness toward writing is justified. Earned, even.
It never occurred to me that Sloth is an active deadly sin: “failing to utilize one’s talents and gifts.” The inaction that is failing to write leads to some nasty, active verbs: Sloth cheats the world of art, Sloth silences voices. How did I miss this?
I’m appalled that Sloth is not simply having a lazy day. By ignoring our writing we cut ourselves off from the rewards that stem from this deep thinking and creativity, and we fail a community that needs the respite of a compelling story after a long, hard day, an essay that helps them feel less alone, or a poem that provides courage during a tough time. By not honoring the writing life we are not honoring our thread in history, our connection to the great writers before us, the ones in our midst, and the ones yet to come. It took these words—failing to utilize one’s talents and gifts—to strike a chord with my inner Sloth, to stop the beast from running wild and free in my writing life. Now to tame it.
It’s not as if no one ever talked with me about how to identify Sloth or showed me, through action, that it doesn’t have to be a negative force in my life. For two years I worked for architect Ligon Flynn. My job consisted of writing about his design philosophy and weaving it into the pattern of architectural history. Given the breadth of the work he produced during a career that lasted more than five decades, Ligon could be described as anything but Slothful.
In a building designed by Ligon, tucked in a nook behind a stairwell where the window was a floor-to-ceiling sliding door, my writing space looked onto a courtyard oasis. A soothing trickle from the water garden; climbing vines that carpeted one-hundred-year-old red brick walls; and lush foliage from dwarf pittosporum and fatsia to Japanese maples and seasonal flowers providing splashes of eye-catching color. But being paid to sit at that desk—this dream job that I had not yet earned as a writer so early in my career—made me feel like enjoying the view was an act of laziness. I kept my head down and concentrated on putting words on the page. I pushed myself through the work day until my eyes grew hazy and my mind threatened to explode from information-overload. To alleviate the pressure, I often went to the restroom when it wasn’t necessary or poured one more cup of coffee when I’d already had plenty—two valid reasons for leaving my desk.
Throughout the day Ligon would visit my nook. Sometimes he sat across from me in his comfortable leather chair and stared into the courtyard, saying nothing. Usually he wanted to read something I had written, or he thumbed through pictures in one of his many architecture books. At first I wasn’t sure how to respond to his sitting across from me in thoughtful silence. This was my job, after all, and I assumed something was expected of me. But I learned that the routine of leaving his desk to stare out the window or peruse inspiring images was integral to his creative process.
When Ligon left his desk, he didn’t leave his work. Quite the opposite; his work was allowed time to mature in his mind. Though he had walked away, he remained active and engaged in his creative process. Ligon had trained his Sloth-beast as a companion; something he tended to without being deterred from his work. When I realized this, I understood that I needed to figure out what the creative process should look like in my life. Soon enough, when I needed a break from the mountain of architecture books and my writing on the computer screen, I simply sat back and watched water fall into the fountain or bamboo grass sweeping in the breeze.
Finding one’s process in the face of Sloth is not simple. The beast needs consistent discipline for proper training. “I wouldn’t call it a routine, but I do schedule breaks, promising myself I can watch a guilty pleasure show on Bravo if I finish a piece,” says Nye. “An old-school To Do list actually helps motivate me to get things done so I can cross them off. Not groundbreaking, but it keeps me on track and cuts down on my wanderings away from what I need to do.” Mott keeps his Sloth tethered to the desk: “I literally force myself to sit at my keyboard—while keeping the internet turned off on my computer—until I write or edit a certain quota for the day.”
Yet writing is not just…writing. Writing is reading, organizing, researching, editing, submitting, and staring out the window with a faraway gaze. Poet Nancy Eimers, one of my graduate school advisors, enlightened me after I apologized for staring out the window and sending her fewer poems than promised:
It’s funny about the relationship between intense reading, staring out the window, and writing. Anyone watching a writer work would think some real laziness was involved, but I find that that ‘empty space’ is integral to the process though perhaps just what exactly that vacancy is can’t be put into words. All I can say is that it is somehow meditative and that something is happening that has a profound connection both to what has just happened and what is about to.
The “empty space” Eimers speaks of, I believe, manifests in many forms. Sometimes it includes a mundane task that moves the body and lets the mind unwind, a task that might feel Slothful—Why am I not at my computer?—but that, as it turns out, serves the writing. It could be sweeping the porch or the slow folding of laundry, down to the meticulous creasing of underwear. For Nye it’s “Ironing! Great distraction, occupies the hands but not the mind, really—and after a couple of shirts or whatever, the respite allows me to carry on with renewed energy.” Suzanne, my co-author for this essay series, told me about what she calls her “and” space.
Most of my better ideas come after a period of silence on the page. I draft something and I come back to it to revise. The space between—that tiny little ‘and’—is just that. A bit of space that separates the two actions. What I ‘do’ inside that space changes, but it never looks anything like writing. It usually involves cooking. I chop a LOT of vegetables in my ‘and’ space.
Two years ago, no longer seated in my nook by the courtyard but in a new house in a new town, I found myself forgetting to engage in the “empty space” that had become important in my writing time. Trying to coordinate writing with the dynamics of my family’s new schedule, I felt the same pressure I did when I first began working for Ligon. I had to produce pages.
Similar to excessively visiting the bathroom, as I had done before I learned how to build an empty space at my desk when I worked with Ligon, I began leaving my writing to wash dishes. Unlike the bathroom and coffee breaks I had taken at work, washing dishes appeased something within me that I couldn’t immediately identify. When I first started, my body was tense and I questioned my motives, even put myself down for not being a dedicated writer. After a few weeks, my shoulders slackened and I stopped being so self-critical. Freed from negative thinking, my mind began to wander through my writing as I scraped the morning’s eggs from a skillet. Similar to Nye’s ironing respite and Suzanne’s “and” space, my ideas had time to mature—not unlike the mental engagement Ligon’s courtyard once gave me (though certainly not as aesthetically pleasing). Soon enough cleaning dishes became integral to my creative process. I purposefully left the dishes for when I needed to walk away from the desk—when I needed an active empty space.
Today, I’m working again and my schedule has changed; I no longer have the flexibility for late-morning dishwashing. Instead I’m trying a new approach to keep my Sloth-beast trained. With scissors and glue and markers, I trace, paste, write, and draw in a visual journal. Perhaps this new space in my creative process will be with me for life, or maybe I won’t finish the one journal I have started. Either way, I have to keep allowing time for my active “empty space” if I want the Slothful beast to be my companion and not my master.
Everything I’ve learned about Sloth tells me to be less focused on how much, how often, how many. Still, I feel incredibly Slothful when only a small number of words end up on the page after sitting at the computer for hours, and Nye agrees: “I’m ‘in the chair’ a lot of hours each day, and there are times I wish I had more to show for it.” Writing holds a small time-slot in my current schedule; it’s upsetting to feel like I’ve wasted time, given that it takes a lot of planning to arrive in the first place.
But Mott reminds me, “You can have episodes where solving some writing problem takes time, but that just means you spend that time writing on something else. One doesn’t bang their head against the vault door, they take their time and pick the lock.” And that’s it, I realize. A writer must learn the right finesse for their writing time: how to traverse the ebb and flow of production; when to walk away; what task encompasses the “empty space.” It takes tolerance and experimentation and dedication to do that. But if I can manage it, Sloth will rest nuzzled at my feet while I work into the wee hours of the morning.
The writer friends quoted here …
The questions we asked…
Do you distract yourself from writing? (e.g., Facebook, email, dishes, shopping)
Is Sloth a mental block that keeps you from writing?
Do you have a routine in which you have curbed Sloth behavior?
Image of abstract greys, brown, orange, and white soap bubbles by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.