As a creative professional, I’m constantly faced with new challenges and decisions: what’s the best way to tell this brand story? What will resonate most with the audience? What will make them laugh, cry, comment on Facebook or order the product I am helping to market? What’s the best way to get all the different people on the project engaged and aligned? But the toughest challenge by far for any project I work on is this: where do I start?
This is where the power of doing nothing is absolutely critical. Everyone has a process that they use to get things done. I’m no exception. Doing nothing is a big part of my process, especially when I am faced with what seems to be an overwhelming task. I find that this has been helpful in even in my regular life. When I am most overwhelmed and uncertain where to begin, I start by doing…nothing.
I sit in my screened-in porch. I take in the swaying oak trees taller and older than I will ever be. I let the whoosh of the wind in the leaves wash over me. I watch the flash of the red cardinal darting in and out of the bushes. I listen for squirrels’ feet padding along the top of my neighbor’s falling-down wooden fence in desperate need of paint, then watch them chase each other in circles around my yard and up a tree. I watch my dopey 110-pound dog try to catch them, climbing damn near two feet up the tree with her huge claws dug into the bark as she strains every muscle in her neck to reach the squirrel chattering, taunting her from a branch one dog nostril out of her reach. I listen to music that moves me and baptizes my brain of everything but the rhythm and the pattern of the harmonies. As the lyrics wash over me, I feel the worry and the fear – Will I be able to do this? Will I find the right words? Will I ever find my way in to this story? Maybe I don’t have it anymore. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe this is too much. Maybe I should give up. – all of that recedes as my brain powers down, forgets, feels, senses its way to…
…the answer I have been toiling to reach for hours or days to reach. It is murky and mysterious at first, I can’t make out what it is. So I make a grilled cheese sandwich, go sit down in the family room and stare out the bay window at the trees trying to see it until I smell something burning and remember I was making a grilled cheese sandwich. I toss it in the trash and walk the dopey dog around the pond. As I watch the ducks take flight from the water, tiny droplets falling from their webbed feet as they rise into the air in perfect unison, I feel the idea growing in me as sure as I felt my first-born flutter in my belly for the first time as I sat in a poetry reading 12 years ago. (He was stirred by the words, of this I am certain.) The idea is there. But it’s not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.
At six o’clock I make dinner and as I stir a pot of rice, my idea simmers as I wait for the water to boil. I sit at the dinner table and listen to tales of best friend sacrileges, Minecraft dramas, and remind everyone to keep their elbows off the table and put their napkins in their laps. I make sure homework is done, permission slips are signed, teeth are brushed, allergy medicine is consumed, and everyone is tucked in happy with all technology devices powered off and out of reach.
At midnight when the house is quiet and dark and no one needs me anymore, I drive to the grocery store and buy a case of Stella for me and a carton of Oreo Cookie Ice Cream for the kids and as I’m paying, the old, bored cashier with her spiky hairdo and bubblegum-pink lipstick and more gold bracelets than any human should be allowed to wear at one time surveys me in my sweats, t-shirt and converse sneakers with my beer and ice cream purchase and I know what she is thinking. This girl has just been dumped by the love of her life and is now off to drown and eat her sorrows away. I grin and shrug my shoulders in a sheepish “sorry no, these are my writing clothes” kind of way that writers learn to master over the years. And as I swipe my credit card – then dutifully swipe it again because I did it upside down the first time, the flicker of the idea flaps its tiny wings, becoming more clear, more recognizable as it slowly takes shape and floats to the surface, creating ripples of recognition.
I am ready to start. Ready to write. Ready to tackle that overwhelming challenge. I have found my way in.
I once attended a reading by David Sedaris, humorist, essayist, NPR speaker and one of my favorite authors (“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” among others). Afterwards, my friend and I waited in line for him to sign our books. After he scribbled a lewd drawing on my friend’s book for her twelve-year-old son and made a wisecrack I can’t repeat, I handed him my book and asked him what the toughest part was about writing funny. He told me about having to write a Thanksgiving dinner story for the New Yorker and how many times and ways he tried to start it. People behind me were impatient and muttering, but he took his time telling his story. I hung on every word. Finally he said, “The hardest part? Finding my way in.”
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, unsure of where to start, try doing nothing. I hope you find your way in. Let me know how it goes.