January 16, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On the Creative Value of Unproductive Time

There’s a scene in the fifth episode of the third season of Mad Men in which Lane Pryce, one of the new managers in charge of the company’s finances, complains to Don Draper about his department’s inefficient spending habits. Don responds with a now-classic Mad Man line, telling Lane that their company’s success has come from “letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” It’s one of the show’s many moments in which creativity and commerce struggle against each other, Lane’s penny-pinching reserve versus Don’s whiskey-swilling swagger. And while Don Draper and his “creatives” may only be working in advertising, his argument about productivity can easily apply to art more generally—after all, Mad Men is in many ways a show about an artist struggling to make “art” (or, at least his idea of it) within the confines of a corporate world. In the end, the corporate world wins, but oh what an admirable fight the artist puts up!

The irony, though, is that today the idea of the businessperson-as-artist who brings artistic values to their corporate job has given way to the inverse—the artist-as-businessperson, who brings corporate values to their artistic job. Millennial “hustle” culture has thoroughly replaced the wasteful extravagance of the Don Draper era, and writers in particular are essentially now entrepreneurs, encouraged to promote their individual “brands” on social media. This shift is, of course, necessary given the grim realities of the literary publishing and the more general neoliberal turn our culture has made, in which everyone is now a capitalist and the world a great big marketplace, but it also comes with a new and unhealthy insistence on productivity, in which writers are expected to always be working. In particular the popular “#amwriting” hashtag seems to insist upon this idea that to be a good writer you have to be “#amwriting” all the time. It may have begun as something encouraging, but I can’t help see the implicit condemnation in the phrase, the idea that if you’re not #amwriting, then you’re not really a writer.

A recent BuzzFeed News article by Anne Helen Petersen about burnout among millennials addresses many of these broader cultural issues, and in particular the nefarious expectation of “optimization”:

“Branding” is a fitting word for this work, as it underlines what the millennial self becomes: a product. And as in childhood, the work of optimizing that brand blurs whatever boundaries remained between work and play. There is no “off the clock” when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations.

The article was widely shared, especially among people my age, perhaps because so many of us felt exactly what it described. I was specifically interested in how its analysis could apply to writers. Lately I’d been feeling a lot of the “burnout” Petersen describes. My first novel was coming out at the end of March, and I’d been doing quite a bit of marketing and promotion for it, so I hadn’t really had time or energy to write—and in our neoliberal world where writers are always expected to be #amwriting, this made me feel both guilty and frustrated. I’d set an unreasonable expectation for myself that I would finish my second novel, which I’d been working on for about four years, by the time my first one came out. I’d already finished a collection of linked short stories back in 2018, and so logically I should have been happy with my productivity, having written a second book amidst the publication process of my first. I was also writing regularly for this blog and posting the occasional piece on Medium, not to mention trying to hit my goal of reading 100 books by the end of the year, and also working a day job to make enough money to live. But for some reason, the lack of progress on my second novel, the fact that I’d been mired in the same chapter for four months, the fact I was still only a third of the way through the whole thing while my self-imposed deadline loomed nearer, made me feel like I was failing.

But of course, it was only our absurd culture of constant productivity that made me think this way—and luckily, I was able to step back and realize that. As Don Draper would have put it, I’d had a good stretch of productive months, and so now I needed some unproductive ones. If our bodies require sleep to regenerate and heal, then our creative minds require something analogous—a month of never opening your novel’s word document, a week where you don’t send a single email with a pitch or query, maybe even a whole day spent not thinking about literature even once. Some of my favorite “creatives” (to use Mr. Draper’s term) had long periods of inactivity before returning with new masterpieces: writer-director Whit Stillman took a thirteen-years hiatus between his third and fourth films; Donna Tartt publishes a new novel only once every ten years; and my favorite writer, Thomas Pynchon, after writing Gravity’s Rainbow, took seventeen years before publishing his fourth novel. I like to imagine that each of these writers spent at least a few of their years off being blissfully unproductive.