This November has taught me a lot about productivity—not that this blog has much to show for it; the productivity has manifested elsewhere. Among other things, I have been reminded yet again that deadlines and (still more) competition are excellent ways to make myself write more and better than I otherwise would. And writing, like workouts and daily prayer, is beginning to share more and more of the characteristics of a habit: one of those things that grows easier with frequency, with the ease fading as the exercise of the habit lapses.
Most of all, however, I have gained a greater appreciation for the fact that writing is one of those activities that are difficult for the first five, ten, or even fifteen minutes. It is unlike movie watching or eating good food—activities that appeal immediately to the appetites, require little effort, and are almost universally described by human beings as “fun.” Many people, indeed, would express outright disbelief that the word “fun” could possibly apply to so laborious a pastime.
And writing isn’t fun, in the sense that watching a movie is fun. Perhaps “rewarding” would be a better word; but that too is inadequate. There is a writer’s high, just as there is a runner’s high and a musician’s: a place you reach when the words come fluently and without difficulty, and the end product is none the worse for all that. And nothing is more “fun” than reaching that state of “work.” The effortless activities that we usually call fun cannot even compare. We become sated and stuffed; we feel we have over-somethinged when we conclude them, and turn in disgust away from the screen or the plate, disgruntled by the thought of how much time we have wasted. There are no such regrets, and no such feeling of overindulgence, from scaling a peak with writing or making music or exercise. But of course, to be the sort of runner or writer or pianist who finds this wonderful and perilous place, once needs to be pretty good already: one needs to have achieved a state of fluency, rather than mere competency.
I don’t mean that one needs to be playing late Beethoven sonatas
or writing War and Peace to enjoy this high. One may achieve it
with Clementi and Nancy Drew fan fics. But even in that case,
one needs to be fluent with the idioms concerned:
fluent in the twists and turns of Clementi and Carolyn Keene.
Even once one has achieved fluency in a certain idiom, however, there is still a dragon at the gate. There are still the first five, or ten, or fifteen minutes. The fifteen minutes, when the most fascinating project, if it requires but the slightest bit of effort, is dull. The fifteen minutes when the internet, the couch, and even the dishes have more appeal. The fifteen minutes when the only word for the thing you love is boring.
Children, it seems, don’t have this problem. Because they are just discovering the world around them, they are endlessly fascinated by it.
Or are they? I can certainly remember plenty of late mornings and afternoons growing up when I felt bored. I’ve seen one-year-olds, having exhausted what Mrs. Elton would call their “resources,” wandering about rooms and whining plaintively in search of something to entertain them. No, the wonder with children is not that they don’t get bored. The only wonder is that the things that catch their interest are mostly simpler than those that tantalize adults.
If anything, children are more in danger of being bored than adults are. When you live in a state of wonder which is partly due to incomprehension, it is easy to grow used to being entertained by things that catch the eye. Instant gratification oftentimes works, and with the simplest of objects; and so instant gratification becomes the rule, the constant desideratum. Once a thing’s been handled a minute, dropped, licked, and stuffed into the available containers, it’s aged. It’s become boring, and the incipient toddler is bored. He hasn’t yet learned—nor could he comprehend an explanation—that with a little effort the boring block could become interesting again: could become part of a tower, a wall, a path, even (heaven help us) a projectile. In other words, he hasn’t learned to play. He needs an adult or an older child to teach him how to get past the first fifteen minutes (or, given the length of his attention span, the first two) to find that place where imagination and joy take over.
The terribly sad thing about modern life, of course, is that most adults have never learned not to be toddlers, or else have regressed to the toddler state. (If you doubt me, consider briefly America’s two great addictions, one manifested in obesity and the other in private, usually solitary, vices. The plate and the screen.) We could blame the fact that schools don’t let children play, speak of “the hurried child,” suggest more Tiger Parenting, find fault with Baby Boomers or Millennials, and of course declare that Apple is to blame.
I don’t think any of those explanations are necessarily false, but they are negative—being mere diagnoses of the disease by which we reached our present state—rather than constructive. The only real constructive solution, I think, begins with a personal dedication licking those first fifteen minutes in the interest of something worthwhile. In other words, it would behoove each of us to learn again to play.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and see about those Thanksgiving leftovers, and maybe hit up a Black Friday sale or ten.