In a recent interview for the BBC podcast Spark & Fire, the novelist Ann Patchett discusses some of the difficulties that come along with finding success as a writer.
“It used to be a novel lived very nicely in my head as a constant companion,” she explains. “As time goes on and I now have this other thing which is my career, and all the things that people want me to do, that is very distracting to day dreaming and working in your head.”
As a result, Patchett finds herself needing to specifically put aside time just to think. As she elaborates:
“Sometimes I sit down in my office on my mediation cushion. Not to meditate, but just to sit as if meditating. I start the timer, I light a candle, I sit down on my little green poof and I say to myself: ‘Now you have twenty minutes to think about your novel. Namaste.’”
She goes on to say that she finds it “pathetic” that she has to “block out time for thinking.” Patchett is not alone in this dismay: many authors share a similar despair. (I remember my friend Ryan Holiday once putting it this way in an interview: “The better you become at writing, the more the world conspires to prevent you from writing.”)
It occurred to me, however, as I listened to this interview, that Patchett’s concerns provide a warning that applies well beyond the rarified world of professional authors. Creative insight of any type — be it business strategy, an ad campaign, or computer code — requires cognitive space to emerge. It doesn’t take much daily activity before original thought is starved of the neuronal nutriments required to grow.
Modern knowledge work, if anything, is a shallow distraction generation machine. A professional schedule riven with email, Slack, and calendar invites is one that cannot also support whatever form of inspired thought moves the needle in your particular field.
And yet, how many of us are serious about blocking off and protecting significant amounts of time to do nothing but think? To act, in other words, like Ann Patchett on her green meditation poof? It is perhaps pathetic that we’ve come to a point where something as natural as creativity requires artificial support, but it is where we are. We should start acknowledging this reality.
Speaking of podcasts, it was brought to my attention recently that I should provide more updates here about what I’m up to on my own podcast, Deep Questions with Cal Newport. On Monday’s episode (#225), I talked about my recent appearance on Sam Harris’s podcast, and then chat with a New York Times bestselling thriller writer about the reality of her profession.
Author photo credit: Heidi Ross