Essay: Sam van Zwedenon creativity and rest

Learning to come back: On creativity and rest

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

There’s an ache that comes from somewhere in my middle-lower back and which feels emotional at its root. Like whatever it is that keeps me standing and breathing and conscious is giving up. I live with depression, and I know the feeling of low mood descending, and this ache is not quite it. The ache isn’t only mine, either; it goes beyond my edges and is shared by people around me. It feels widespread, not just within my local community, but perhaps distributed generationally.

The immediate and personal cause of my own ache could be a number of things. One of those things is that I have finished drafting a book-length project after four years of work on it, and right now I’m in the pause of waiting to see whether it will find a place in the world. The book is part memoir, burrowing deeply into personal and family experience, as well as body politics. To have it be read sometimes feels more like a need than a desire.

Having worked on one thing for a very long time is exhausting, and I’m scared by the creative pause that’s fallen over my writing. I have been writing copy for money, and picking up extra days at my office job, hoping to get ahead financially so that I can focus on creative work again when I feel ready. Beyond this, I feel unable to do the usual things I do with words (essays, poems). This creative gap seems to be my brain telling me that I need to rest, but I am incapable of listening, and it scares the shit out of me.

Unable to carve out the time in a day for balance (feeling all or nothing to be my only options), I turn rest into a collaborative project: a holiday is a good answer. It will allow me to rest, to reset, to be present again. I will put my body in a different place and see if that helps. It’s funny how often small changes to the body make all the difference: making it a different temperature, or applying something that smells nice, or touching it gently and with compassion, or putting it next to a sympathetic body. Sometimes simply acknowledging that it is tired is enough. If these small changes help, I hope that taking my body to another country affects the kind of crucial resetting I long for. Besides, it’s spring in Melbourne and the tension created by the relentless wind gets unbearable at this time of year – the feeling is of being constantly propelled through the world by some invisible force (except on high-pollen days, when the force becomes quite visible).

I’ve travelled before with my partner, to both large cities and unassuming towns, always with the goal of ‘seeing the world’. Travel is meant to be transformative, and we went out looking for our transformations. In the lead-up to each holiday I’d craft an elaborate to-do list. I would source recommendations from everyone I knew who’d previously visited the place, and organise an itinerary that allowed us to fit in as many ‘sights’ and recommendations as possible. I have the privilege of being exhausted by seeing new and exciting things in the world.

Last year we took our first ‘do nothing’ holiday, with the goal to do the things that came along, to see the things we heard about organically, and to leave home without a long to-do list and itinerary. I packed books, and anticipated slow cocktails by the pool. This mode of travel was a shock to my system, and it slowed the trip down. I felt myself swimming in time. Like learning to float, this was difficult. It required surrender.

Physical rest is emotional, whether you want it to be or not. Slowing down physically means the insides follow sometime after, though they cannot be rushed.

In her collection of fragmented lyric essays, Insomnia, Marina Benjamin writes: ‘The matter of what to do with an overactive brain determined to forge ideas and connections in conditions of sensory blackout troubles me.’ In other words, she lays awake thinking, and this in itself is a problem she cannot solve. I’m reading Insomnia alongside this viral article about how burnout is the condition and defining experience of millennials. The article talks about the inability to switch off, and the overarching insistence on ‘optimising’ – that is, how we’ve been taught we should be working, always. Time exists, after all, as an essential element within capitalism. Time is money – it can be saved or borrowed or spent. The classic time-is-money model of clocking in and out has dissolved as the hard-won line between work and leisure time has become increasingly porous in late capitalism. So maybe it’s a common millennial experience that has intensified in the ultra-flexible, ultra-precarious gig economy, and as we’ve learned how to sell more and more parts of ourselves. But maybe it’s not only common to millennials. Benjamin feels the constant pressure to be ‘on’ too, despite the generational gap between us. The world has become so much.

Optimisation appears even at opportune moments of wakefulness in the weird dark. This haunted way of being in the world leaves me feeling hollow on bad days, but Benjamin manages to find poetry in the teeming darkness, if nothing else. It’s a useful reframing.

The flow state that happens on good days, when I’m waist-deep in a project, leaves me wired. Of course, there are usually more bad days than good, to the point that part-way through most projects (and I certainly felt this in the process of writing my book) I come to wonder why I have chosen to do this strange thing at all. But when a good day comes along, I can feel focus pulling, and all of a sudden the work becomes clear: the how and what, and even the why of it.

I routinely wake during the night needing to scribble a note, or save something in the memo section of my phone. This seems somewhat common: writers often share among themselves the bizarre notes they find in their phones. What seemed like a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, makes little or no sense at all when morning comes. Brevity, vagueness, or downright ridiculousness undo the previous night’s brilliance, and the idea is lost.

The insomnia that creeps up on me is called ‘middle insomnia’ – it means that I have little or no trouble getting to sleep. Staying asleep is my challenge. It’s also known as ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’, which makes it sounds like I’m doing my job incorrectly. If I’d been vigilant about maintaining sleep, perhaps the night would go better for me. If I do sleep through the night, my sleep includes process dreams: typing, plotting, editing. Moving index cards. In my sleep I continue doing the thing I’ve been doing in my waking hours. Right now, though, the night yawns in front of me with nothing but emptiness, which might be comforting or terrifying, depending on the night.

This exhaustion manifests as an inability to work creatively. Like blinkers are shielding my eyes, I can no longer see the world in a way that feels worth expressing: it doesn’t interest me enough; the various parts of it don’t seem compelling enough; the things I want to say don’t seem like they’d add anything to the conversation. I sit at my desk sometimes and try to tap out something creative, but I can’t focus on anything.

A friend calls it ‘sharking’ – the inability to focus on a single task for an extended amount of time, changing direction quickly and unpredictably. This happens to me from the moment I wake, and flick between the social media feeds and my email. At work, I start responding to an email but end up on the ABC News page, reading about how to dig yourself out of a debt hole, even though I can’t figure out whether what I’m in really counts as a debt hole, or just a heightened awareness of financial insecurity. I’m proofreading something, and ten minutes later I find myself two weeks down someone’s Twitter feed. This is ordinary modern distractibility, but it feels like something else, too. Writing this essay, I’m also planning a dinner with friends in a month, chasing up an unpaid invoice, and patting my dog – whose persistence for pats is commendable. I wish I could focus for so long on something that I want.

The seasons in Bali are defined in binary terms: wet and dry. These are different to the four seasons (however increasingly permeable) at home. Closer to the equator, the seasons are compressed and reduced. They’re either one or the other. On or off. Wet or dry. Oppressive humidity is new to me, but soon the feeling of paddling through the air shifts from suffocating to dreamlike.

At the Elephant Cave temple Goa Gajah, our guide took us to pools sunken into the ground. At their ends were statues – figures holding pots, from which water poured. Our guide, Tery, told us that if we washed our faces twice with this water, we’d rid ourselves of bad energy, bad luck, bad karma, and bad dreams. I felt uncomfortable performing a ritual that isn’t mine to perform. Tery was so enthusiastic that I clambered down the uneven stonework to wash my face, overlooking the tangled power dynamic where his performance contributed to my ‘authentic’ tourist experience. Even with the patched-over discomfort, afterwards, I held some hope. I had most likely paid Tery for the hope, along with his fantastic daily driving rate. I held onto it anyway.

Bad dreams. Like the one I’ve been having for months about reaching the end of some kind of academic course – university, I think – and finding out on the day of graduation that there’s a unit I missed and I’ll be unable to graduate with my cohort because of it.

In Insomnia, Benjamin says that ‘my dreams show up the seams of my reality, and sometimes they split open its skin like a burst fruit’.

The seams of reality. Like the place where processes from my daytime life show up when my brain and body are meant to be recovering and preparing for the day that follows.

I wash my face twice – leaning precariously across the water to reach the stream, and pulling a small cupped handful of it toward my face. It drips from my chin, down my dress, onto the sarong I’ve been wrapped in to visit the temple. I lean forward and repeat the action.

After returning from Bali, I have the dream again. After a slump in my mood and an inability to properly appraise my workload, and the feeling of all the ‘stuff on your plate’ piling back on top of me, I have the dream again. When I wake from the dream, I still can’t write. Benjamin continues:

I also take comfort from the knowledge that our most important dreams and perhaps, especially, nightmares tend to recur, for as Gertrude Stein famously said: ‘there is no such thing as repetition, only insistence’. Sometimes the unconscious just has to be heard.

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is on while I’m in Bali – it’s part of the reason for the visit. My partner and I plan to fit our resting around the festival, and the plan seems to work well. Perhaps, also, doing something that looks a bit like ‘work’ while on holiday appeases my optimisation guilt.

A panel called ‘In Praise of Slow’ features Australian journalist and nonfiction writer Jill Stark, whose books are concerned with mental health. High Sobriety looked at drinking culture in Australia, and Stark’s own relationship to alcohol. Her more recent book, Happy Never After considers the appearance of success most people try to project to the world (most often through social media), and the impact this story can have on mental health. Stark’s own story includes a breakdown right when she was at the peak of her career, and broadcasting to the world her most successful story yet. Much of Happy Never After is about external validation being tied to self-worth and how not-useful that can be.

‘Social media feeds are filled with people humblebragging about their demanding schedules and hectic social commitments,’ Stark writes. ‘It often makes me wonder if by ‘crazy busy’ they actually mean ‘completely overwhelmed and heading for a nervous breakdown’.’

Soon after, I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a wildly popular novel in which surprisingly little happens. In the novel, a woman who does seem to be heading for (or in the middle of) a nervous breakdown obliterates herself with prescription drugs to avoid grieving her dead parents and a general malaise that permeates her life. Rather than facing the world and its hopelessness, she decides to ‘hibernate’ her way to emotional clarity.

I knew in my heart – this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then – that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.

Obliteration is tempting. It provides a potential escape from an approaching burnout, but burnout itself is a form of obliteration, too.

At the same time, I’m so scared of obliteration. For me, this surrender of self travels alongside my depression. Unlike Moshfegh’s narrator, I don’t choose it. It’s just another line I struggle to maintain. I think of times in the past where I’ve fallen into a little rest mode and just kept falling to the bottom of that hole, until I emerge months later having lost a chunk of the year to an inability to function fully. I cannot risk resting.

As the months after the holiday grind on, rejections start to arrive. I keep a list and work my way down it – agents who might be interested in my work; publishers whose lists and editors would be a good fit. Realising that the project is not what I thought (complete, done, ready) is a fall that sends me into grief. I know that these are business decisions, and I know that the work can be revisited when I have the emotional energy. But at the same time, I don’t know if I ever will summon the energy for it again. Fear starts to cast a long shadow over the act of writing.

I haven’t written anything meaningful in months, and my anxiety about this leaves me all ragged at the edges. Have I forgotten how? Will I ever write anything good again? I feel somewhat comforted by the proliferation of books, articles, and discussions of burnout. I’m not alone in my exhaustion; this feeling is everywhere, and it’s felt by writers but also by people who sell things or fix things or study or serve people. And there are so many reasons why: impending climate disaster, financial hardship, intergenerational warfare, the abandonment of compassion among humans.

While I wait to bounce back – holding tightly to the belief that I will, because I must, and because I have before – I walk my dog. In the morning, or the evening, and sometimes both. I walk the squares and triangles of my neighbourhood until I notice things again; doing this etch-a-sketch routine with my feet, coaxing her to stay by my side rather than wandering off or bolting away. We practise coming back.

At the festival, Christine Bader – ex-corporate social responsibility worker and now ‘idealist’ writer, and ‘In Praise of Slow’ panellist – observed that everything in nature has a period of dormancy, but that humans are the only species who fight it so hard. I think of the wet season that’s expected to hit Bali any day now. The impending dormancy of both the tourist economy and the seasonal affect of constant wet.

In Bali, praising slow feels easier. And, of course, it’s easy for me to say this as a white woman with a powerful tourist dollar and paid leave from my part-time job. I take the time to read, and when I’ve had enough of it all I float on my back in the bluestone pool at the villa, listening to the jungle rustling around me. Yes, I think, and I do my best to trap the feeling inside my ribcage in the hope of maintaining this slowness for just a moment outside of this place.

When I get home from Bali the figs on the tree outside my study window are forming, small globes at the end of branches. In the coming months they’ll become heavier, darker, tugging the branches toward the ground. It’s a glorious time of year, and I make jam with the abundance, bottling away the hopefulness and life for the darker, shorter part of the year. Before long the leaves fall from the tree again, and it comes a spindly, twiggy nightmare until the seasons flip once more. I can accept this cycle in the tree; its slide into the necessary period of dormancy. My own spindly, twiggy nightmare is harder to embrace.

The first thing I notice is how many houses in the area are suddenly empty – not just of people, but of everything. Of people and their possessions, then of interior fittings, and on until they become so see-through that I can see straight into the yards behind them. Renovations in the beautiful older houses around me seem to be having a moment. I keep walking, and lines of poetry fall together in my mind during these walks.

This is how the life comes back to me – through my body, and through poetry. My body, with all its aches and breath and sleeplessness, is the tool that allows me to do my job. It’s the thing that has fallow periods and productive ones. The rhythmic shuffle of myself and my dog, as she pulls me down the streets near my home.

Poetry feels more corporeal than other things I write. Rhythm inhabits my body and it inhabits the poetic line. Breath-length ideas creep into both, and both feel most comfortable with fleeting thoughts. I have been walking and thinking; putting my body at rest, and then at the desk or in the chair to read. The beat of feet against pavement makes just one line an achievable, even accidental, outcome. Finding the way back to writing after this fallow period has been a bodily process, so of course the creative impulse returns to me first as poetry.

I wake part-way through the night again, to put a handful of words in my phone notes, and it’s okay, because I am back.

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.