Not Writing

Yesterday was sloppy, rainy and cold. A good day for working inside.  Cherie went with friends to see an exhibit in Charlotte and I spent nearly all day hunched over my computer, cite-checking, inserting footnotes (353 of them) and trying to clean up and finish my thesis. By the end of the day my eyes hurt and my shoulder ached. I’m sure I’d have felt better if I’d spent the day baling hay.

Something I had read by Nathaniel Perry recently about the value of “not writing” came to mind. I enjoyed it so much I’m sharing it below. Click HERE for the original.


I am a firm believer in not writing. For many, much thinking and planning goes into the time carved away for writing, the things pushed away for the time carved away for writing, or the shed or closet converted to a writing studio, or the yurt purchased for solitude, or the chair made from compressed book wrappers dredged from the Seine to go in the yurt purchased for solitude, etc. I have three young children, so even if I wanted to attempt some of those versions of writerly seclusion, it would be impossible without un-prioritizing actual priorites. And I don’t want to. So in recent years I’ve reconsidered the importance of not writing. After all, when you are a writer, not writing is the thing you do most.

So where do I not write? In our half-clover meadow where the birch fell last year and still lies accusingly across the mow-path; in my June rows of winter squash just testing the air for goodness; on the familiar road to pre-school; in drifts of wild blackberry so thick they stain through socks the chigger bites on my ankles and my children’s ankles; washing dishes; in the tough seams of the hickory I’ve been splitting two years now for warmth; sharing food with family; with friends. When I don’t write I feel most like a writer—someone who, as Emerson and Stevens sort of sidewise agree, orders and makes composite the world he finds around him.

Last week, my dogs, on leash, somehow treed a groundhog, who from thirty feet up nose-dived back to the ground once I dragged the dogs past. I watched the event with the rich pleasure of earth’s imagination. It felt creative just to see it. I may exploit it later in a poem, but it will be sort of like fracking—I’ll get some gas out, some small combustion, at the expense of the moment’s landscape. The not-writing writer in me gets the actual thing, the writing writer crushes it and wrings it out.

Which is, of course, with writing, all you can do; I know I’ve got to sit down some time. When I do write, it is anywhere in the house, usually at night once the kids have gone to bed. I’ll write for thirty or forty-five minutes on my old and unintentionally pink laptop, bedecked with torso-less princess stickers (gifts from my daughter), whose screen is half come off. But when the stove needs tending in the winter, or my chair gets too familiar, or a child wakes up sick, or my wife finishes sewing for the night, or a barred owl’s call marks the hour and a nearly full moon lays ghost snow down on the autumn ground, I’ll go back to the space and time for not writing I’m lucky enough to arrange my life around.

13 comments on “Not Writing

  1. DM says:

    Enjoyed this muse Bill. Mental work is definitely harder work for me than baling hay or digging a ditch. I hear the call for balance and priority loud and clear between the lines. DM


    • Bill says:

      Some days writing comes easy to me and other days it’s very difficult. One good thing about my life now is that there are never days when I have to write. I will admit that the detail work at the end of the project I’m working on now is tedious. But January is a great time to get it done.


  2. Beautifully expressed, thank you for sharing.


  3. He is one gifted writer. Thank you so much for sharing this … a beautiful reminder to stay present to what IS and then, as he says, find a way to write about it … if possible.


  4. Bill, some of my friends seem to think that I could be a writer but if I were to attempt to attain that status, writing would cease to be fun for me. My claim is that I am a blogger.

    What you describe about not writing for me is the time for information material gathering. It inspires my thoughts and gives me something to write about. In your case with a thesis, it’s purely academic for a goal. I struggled with that kind of writing in school and decided to stay away from it for practically 30 years. A short stab at trying to extend my Associated Degree into a four year degree found me in a creative writing class with a teacher that woke up those writing talents that lay dormant for so long. Still it wasn’t until about 10 years later that I could really explore and use those talents as blogging became popular. Real life as the quote so well describes has a way of stealing the quiet time needed to write.

    I don’t really intend to pursue a writing career but I just like to write at times. It just feels like there are times that I have to get something out in words on paper or digitally in today’s world.

    Have a great thesis writing day. May it be finished soon.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks Dave. I agree that there are days when it feels important to write. Other times, it doesn’t. As you say, it’s not fun if you don’t have the choice.

      Blogging scratches my itch most of the time.


  5. Planting Potatoes says:

    enlightening and true…I wonder how David must have felt when “pulled” away from what he loved dearly – worshiping God – in order to have to fight…seems to me he was a bit jealous of the time away from praising God and yet….the time spent in righteous battle was itself, inspiration for even more time spent in praising God! I am but a humble blogger…but I would rather be blogging than mowing the grass or shoveling snow any time! 🙂 God bless!


    • Bill says:

      I enjoy my blogging, but I enjoy being outside more. If only I could find a way to blog while doing chores. But I expect that after a little of that it would be pretty quiet around here.


      • Planting Potatoes says:

        just carry one of those miniature digital recorders with you while doing chores…then make notes of ideas…for later writing…truth be told…I feel kind of good being “needed” to do chores – like being useful! 🙂


  6. shoreacres says:

    I laughed aloud at those first lines, particularly about the “chair made from compressed book wrappers dredged from the Seine to go in the yurt purchased for solitude”. For years I’ve kept coming across people who are convinced that if they find the right pen, the perfect moleskin-covered journal, the right desk and lamp, the perfect schedule, the necessary solitude – then they will begin to write.

    Hemingway addressed the issue in a fairly colorful way when he asked, “What difference does it make if you live in a picturesque little outhouse surrounded by 300 feeble minded goats and your faithful dog? The question is: Can you write?”

    I understand the point he’s making, and think he makes it wonderfully well. Still, the times when I seem to be not-writing often are the times when I’m most engaged. The proportion of thinking-about-stuff to writing-down-stuff is about 80/20.

    Of course, that brings us right back to the wonderful nature of my work – utterly solitary, with plenty of quiet and repetitive tasks. People often ask me if I don’t get bored and I just laugh. How could I be bored? I’m thinking!


  7. EllaDee says:

    That fine balance to have and have not; to do and not do; to be and not be. It’s harder, and more valuable than it would seem if not considered well enough.


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