We need to rest, to read, to reconnect. It is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.
This summer I’m aspiring to be the grasshopper, not the ant.
Remember Aesop’s fable? The grasshopper fiddled away the summer months, while the ants toiled to ready their grain stores for winter. When autumn arrived, the ants refused to share food with the hungry grasshopper. The ostensible moral: There’s a time for work and a time for play.
But what if the grasshopper only looked like it wasn’t working? What if, as an artist, its play was critical to its work, only no one saw it? As summer begins, I’m going to argue for fallow time.
Fallow time is necessary to grow everything from actual crops to figurative ones, like books and children. To do the work, we need to rest, to read, to reconnect. It is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.
I’m not talking about boredom, though that is part of the broader picture of maintaining creativity. I’m talking about an active refueling that can seem at odds with our fetishization of productivity. Reading a book, visiting a museum, wandering out to people-watch at the park. Though we purport to value artists and romanticize their muses, the aforementioned activities aren’t often recognized as work.
And I’m not talking about vacation or weekends. I’m talking about a more regular practice, built into our understanding of what work is. Fallow time is part of the work cycle, not outside of it. In periodic intervals around the completion of a project, I have lately given myself permission to watch “Deadwood: The Movie,” to nap over the newspaper, to take a walk and restore the white space for complex thinking and writing. It can feel indulgent. It can feel … lazy. But the difference between lazing around and laissez-faire is that I’m actually going about the business of my business.
In taking this pause in production in favor of absorption, I admit that I’m fighting my innate impatience. This is me working hard against my antlike tendencies, ingrained in me by my immigrant parents, modern-day hustle culture and our pervasive, status-quo American busyness. This is me pushing aside the overwhelming in order to think real thoughts.
In a recent post on LinkedIn that went viral, Ian Sohn, president of the digital advertising and marketing agency Wunderman Chicago, wrote in defense of his vision of a healthy and humanistic workplace: “I never need to know that you’re working from home today because you simply need the silence. I deeply resent how we’ve infantilized the workplace. How we feel we have to apologize for having lives. How constant connectivity/availability (or even the perception of it) has become a valued skill.”
Protecting and practicing fallow time is an act of resistance; it can make us feel out of step with what the prevailing culture tells us. The 24/7 hamster wheel of work, the constant accessibility and the impatient press of social media all hasten the anxiety over someone else’s judgment. If you aren’t visibly producing, you aren’t worthy. In this context, taking time to lie dormant feels greedy, even wasteful. And of course there are often financial concerns. (Apparently, Mr. Sohn isn’t going to fire you if you don’t produce something on a Thursday, but someone else might.)
The chatter of everyday life lets us know exactly what the expectations of a workday are and the value placed on how we spend it. We are told to do the work, and then to broadcast it. But this “always-on work culture” is, as the Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told The Wall Street Journal, creating “broken” people. It’s a paralyzing and self-cannibalizing cycle.
There’s something to be said for the state of quiet dormancy, where little apparently happens. We might have periods of furious output; to get there, we require periods of faithful input. With input, there’s a restoration of fertile, vibrant thinking. You might need a monthlong fallow after a big project. Or maybe it’s two weeks. You might even do it in a minor way — a half-day mini-sabbatical, say, to achieve what the Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson has called the “absorb state.” This fallow time should apply whether you’re working in an office culture with corporate eyes on you or as a contract worker making your own hours.
I don’t mean for fallow time to be seen as just another life hack, the way that even meditation has been hijacked as something that will boost your productivity. The upside of this kind of downtime is more holistic than that — it’s working toward a larger ecology of workers who are recognized as human beings instead of automatons. Not everyone, of course, can leave the assembly line at will. But fallow time can take different forms for everyone, and finding a bit of it is surprisingly reachable in most working lives.
It’s no coincidence that we keep grappling with the language for how to cultivate a good and productive life (witness the successive manias for wellness in the form of hygge, Marie Kondo, tech, freedom from tech). We all struggle daily with the balance of work and play. Both are essential to a life full of meaning. Fallow time, when practiced the right way, can remind us why we chose our work in the first place.
A few months ago, I got the rare chance to spend a fellowship week away from the day-to-day. Before I left, anxiety about the whole venture bubbled up in me. It was time away from my family; it didn’t have a particular goal or necessary piece of writing to come out of it. It sounded like a dream, but I felt strangely at sea with the proposition.
A friend had excellent advice. Be open to the invitation to replenish yourself, he said. Say yes to the gift of no requirement.
It looks like I’m doing nothing. But it’s the hidden something I’m after.
Sometimes when I’m sitting still, seemingly idle in a cafe or a park during the weekday, I find myself tuning in to a certain kind of talk. “What are these people even doing here,” someone will say with a scolding air. “Don’t they have jobs?”
In these moments, I resist the urge to defend myself. I fight the rising tide of indignity and cultivate patience, the hardest crop of all. Just wait, I think. Someday you might just read the fruits of my invisible labor.
By Bonnie Tsui