Among the tchachkes on my mother’s shelves was a tiny ceramic pitcher that she brought back from a trip to Italy in the 1930s. It was hand painted and hardly big enough for a dolls’ tea party. Written on it was an Italian proverb: Dolce far niente. “It is sweet to do nothing.” It was an inappropriate motto for my mother, who was always on the move and doing something new. Her response to the “empty nest” when her children went off to college was to go back to school herself and get a doctorate. At every dinner party, she bustled between dining room and kitchen, refusing help and ignoring her guests’ perennial chorus: “Judy, why don’t you sit down?”
Measured by this standard, I had a hard time believing I ever did enough. But somehow the message that doing nothing would be sweet if only I could get away with it burrowed into my soul. It took me many years to discover that not everybody thought doing nothing was a reprehensible, even shameful failure to act. For creative artists, including writers, far niente is not niente at all, but an essential element in the creative process: the incubation period necessary to produce art. And writers are not the only ones.
This topic first occurred to me when I read on Simon Wood’s blog that his father doesn’t get baseball. Simon is a transplanted Brit, and I gathered that the comment was in response to Americans saying that they don’t get cricket. I have always heard that cricket is the most boring spectator sport there is. It goes on for hours and hours, long enough for everybody to break for tea. But I can understand Simon’s dad’s reciprocal bewilderment. In baseball, the perfect game is one in which nothing whatsoever happens. They call it pitching a no-hitter. That must be boring not only for the spectators, but for the players—except the pitcher, I assume.
But swatting a ball with a bat is not the only sport that encourages and even cherishes idleness. Look at fishing. Yes, yes, there’s plenty of action in battling a giant tuna or a supple trout. There are dramatic stories of the one that got away and homely tasks like gutting and scaling the catch and cooking it for supper. But fishing also seems to be a meditational art. And that means it’s not always about catching the fish. The recent movie Crazy Heart caught the mood perfectly, in the scene in which Robert Duvall takes Jeff Bridges fishing. The lake is still, the small boat motionless, sky and water a brilliant blue bowl, and the desired catch not bass but serenity for the Bridges character, who needs to stop running and make peace with himself.
To get back to writers, what may look like doing nothing to the observer (especially when they want us to listen to their stories, cook dinner, or get a real job) is in fact a vital part of our work. Our bodies may be idle, but we’re thinking, stretching our imaginations, letting our characters roam free in our heads and talk to us at will. How could we write fiction if we didn’t dream? We need a spaciousness, a lack of clutter, however temporary, in order to bring our imaginary but vivid characters and their settings and adventures to life.