As I reinvent myself one more time, and at last begin to fulfill my lifelong passion to write fiction, I must finally learn how to practice the “cultivation of leisure.”
This phrase: “cultivation of leisure,” which I know I got right, has lived in my right brain since I heard it probably 20 years ago—but I do not recall the writer who said it. Even Google has failed me here. (And it’s not Oscar Wilde, though I suppose it could have been. But my memory says no, so I will trust that.)
It was said in reference to fiction writing: if you want to write fiction there is no better teacher than the cultivation of leisure. Or something to that effect.
It must have been said by a 19th or early 20th century author because I remember thinking: that’s fine for you who does not need to work and make a living, for you who comes from money and has the luxury of time, for you who is a trust fund baby. So I moved on and put my dream of writing fiction on a shelf. (Here’s a recent NYTimes column worth reading about our 21st century ‘busy’ trap that many of us are buried in. So not the cultivation-of-leisure lifestyle that a writer, or anyone else who wants a meaningful existence, needs.)
But the dream and need to write fell off that shelf, so I wrote a few non-fiction books that called to me to write, that helped to pay the bills, that taught me the discipline of writing a book from beginning to middle to end. I learned how to live well with very little money. I did everything I wanted to do, helped many people in their spiritual practice, and never regretted a day of it.
So now, at the ripe young age of 60ish, I want to write fiction, I want to write good fiction, I want to write fiction that people will read, enjoy and perhaps learn something interesting from. I wrote a mystery novel several years ago that I recently self-published after it sat in a drawer for years, after it got rejected by legacy publishers, after I had once again given up my dream. And I have a second one that will be published in the fall.
So I must cultivate leisure. For my imagination to have space and air and freedom to roam.
The whole idea of cultivating leisure goes against my New-England-bred, Southern-Baptist-raised, Puritan-work-ethic self. But my heart tells me to heed this advice from my nameless forebear. What I do remember is that he (and I’m sure this mentor was a he, damn it) was a writer I read and admired—there are so, so many of them. And if I want to be any good at all I must slow down, listen to my imaginary machinations, and allow myself to take chances, to make mistakes, and as Natalie Goldberg—a contemporary mentor—once told me: allow yourself to write “the worst shit in the world.”
The cultivation of any garden, be it vegetable or literary, needs a huge pile of compost. So I will write some shit. I don’t have to, and won’t, publish the smelly stuff; I’ll wait for the fruit to bloom. That’s all part of cultivating leisure.
But I do not want to forget the shit—that’s what makes any good fiction worth reading.