by J. Kates

Richard Wilbur used to say that the hardest thing about being a poet is convincing your wife you were working when you are staring out the window. I’ve amended that to: the hardest part is convincing yourself you’re working when you’re staring out the window. Doing nothing is an essential element of the writer’s work. And there are three kinds of doing nothing that matter.

The first is that of staring out the window, emptying yourself as fully as possible so that something else can move in, making the internal space that Keats described as “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This is a primary distraction.

The second important doing nothing is the easiest and most practiced one: walking away. Walking away is especially useful when you feel most mired in your own mud. Leave the machine behind. To be distracted from distraction by distraction is to open up more undiscovered chambers in your brain. Sleep on it.

And the third doing nothing is engaging the services of the best editor in the world: Time. The elation you feel from writing a bad piece of work is exactly the same as the elation you feel from writing a good one, and you have to wait for that elation to subside before you can assess your own work properly. The Latin poet Horace advised waiting eight years before publishing. Most of us don’t have that patience (yet my own record is more than fifty years before publication) but a few months at least doesn’t hurt work that you hope is in itself timeless. (Those writings that depend on their timeliness march to a different drummer.)

Nothing will come of nothing, King Lear said. He was, as usual, wrong. Something will come of nothing. Speak again.