Take a 30-Minute Holiday

September 13, 2016

I’ve noticed that if my writing isn’t going as well as I’d like it to, even though I know that it’s part of the process to have rough patches, I tend to work more rather than less, as if by “worrying” the work I’ll have that breakthrough that I need to move the work along.

And that’s the worst thing I can do. If, instead, I step back from the work, take some time to myself to do something enjoyable, I return to the work refreshed, and I’ve sometimes figured out what needs doing without working at all.

I’ve often had a conference with a student writer lamenting the fact that her/his work had hit a rough patch. I’d always suggest that they leave the college and take a walk in Central Park before their next class, no matter how much work they had to do, no matter how it seemed that they didn’t have enough time for a half hour’s pleasure. (And have we come to this as a society, that a half hour’s pleasure during a day seems an impossible undertaking? If it is, as it seems to be, we are royally screwed. At times, during my teaching, gazing at my students, knowing how hard they were working, I’d give them the homework assignment of “doing something pleasurable that doesn’t cost anything that is enriching.” Some looked at me as if they couldn’t fathom what that would be.)

I’ve been reading Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (NY:
The Penguin Press, 2009), a magnificent and worthwhile book for writers, but important, too, for how we can create a deeply meaningful, satisfying, and enjoyable life. In Rapt, Gallagher cites the work of Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff whose book, Savoring (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), reported results from the following experiment.

Three groups were instructed to go for a walk a day for a week. The first were told to look for and focus on all the enjoyable things they witnessed: flowers, children playing, clouds in the sky and to savor them–to immerse themselves in how enriching these simple experiences were. The second were told to focus on negative things: graffiti, broken sidewalks. The third were told to simply walk.

After a week, they discovered that the first group reported being happier than they were before the exercise; the second group, less happy; the third, in between the first two. The conclusion: “you can train yourself to attend to the joy out there waiting to be had, instead of passively waiting for it to come to you.”

Bryant suggests this very simple activity to incorporate into our daily lives to enrich them immeasurably: taking a “daily vacation”; “spending twenty to thirty minutes focusing on something you enjoy or suspect you might but have never done.” Then, at the end of the day, you “revisit and relish this pleasurable interlude and plan the next.”

As writers, as people, we immerse ourselves in activity and work so much that we forget that doing creative work of any kind, including constructing a life lived well, necessitates that we nourish and enjoy ourselves.

When I think back on all the holidays I’ve had, and the most enjoyable moments I’ve had on them, I realize that, wherever I was, the pleasures I’d enjoyed most were simple ones that I can recreate right here, right now.

Sitting in a garden and knitting. Sitting in a park and reading. Savoring a pastry and a coffee at a cafe. Sitting in front of a single painting and looking at it for a long time. Listening to a magnificent piece of music. Cooking something with an ingredient I picked up at a local market. Walking and enjoying the local domestic architecture. Looking at a view. Wandering through a food market and buying one ingredient I’d never seen before. Going to a bakery and studying all the breads and pastries and buying a bread to enjoy. Browsing in a bookshop and finding a book to read that I wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Driving down a road that looked inviting. Studying an art book bought at a gallery.

All those hours I’ve spent traipsing through museums, through historic houses, through the “top ten” sights in a given city are not what I now recall as having given me great pleasure. Rather, it was those quiet, solitary moments of savoring small pleasures that I now remember.

I can’t travel afar now. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t have a daily holiday, as Bryant suggests. In fact, I’ve promised myself a daily 30-minute holiday. Bryant says that, at the end of a week, we’ll feel as if our lives are far more pleasurable and meaningful, no matter what the circumstances, than they were before we began this practice.

So today I will take my friend Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty: A Novel, which I am reading pre-publication, out into my garden, and I will spend thirty minutes reading it. It’s a gorgeous book, about Adele Bloch-Bauer’s relationship with the painter Gustav Klimt, and her niece, Maria Altman’s life during the Nazi invasion of Austria. It’s precisely what I’d be doing on holiday, so today that will be my thirty-minute holiday. And tomorrow?

Tomorrow I might go to the Montclair Art Museum to revisit Janet Taylor Pickett, The Matisse Series, an extraordinary exhibit of the artist’s collages inspired by the work of Matisse. I’ve been there once. But I’d like to go again and again and study just one piece for a half hour because they are so complex and evocative. I’ve even considered learning how to do collage because of Pickett’s exhibit.

And the day after that? Well, I’ll have to see what strikes me. So, what will you do when you take your 30-minute holiday? Let me know. Maybe we can encourage each other to enrich our lives by daily pleasurable acts of attention.



7 Responses to “Take a 30-Minute Holiday”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Louise, you always inspire me! Hope you’re in your garden at this very moment.

  2. Laurie Says:

    Reblogged this on My Big Walk and commented:
    My beautiful friend Louise deSalvo, always brilliant, always inspiring.

    • writingalife Says:

      Spent my 30-minute holiday in my garden reading Adele’s first sexual encounter with Klimt and his work on “Judith.” Wow! Perfect “holiday”. Then came inside and viewed painting on the Internet. Can’t wait till your book comes out and I can buy a bunch for presents!

  3. I just want you to know how very moving and wonderful this post was! I have copied it and am going to share it with some women friends in a writing group very soon. And it makes me think of the way I feel when I sit and watch birds fluttering around the bird feeders, or the way I felt today when I put some new mums in the ground for fall color! Just love this. THANK YOU!!!

  4. lindawis Says:

    You know, I’ve heard of this kind of experiment before, and I know it works, but I don’t do it often enough. Thanks for the eloquent encouragement. Today I’m going to read a mystery novel on my deck while I eat lunch. Tomorrow? Who knows. But planning to do something small that nourishes!

  5. I really enjoyed this. I’ve been studying my own writing process, and blogging about it as I write a memoir essay, and find that examination interesting. So your inquiry here is right up my alley. A friend told me about your blog and its focus on improving one’s process, so I look forward to browsing here.

  6. shirleyhs Says:

    Richard, above, included a link to this post in his response to my post on developing a Benedictine-inspired personal rule of life. Taking pleasure in nature and art and intentionally naming what one wants from a day makes a great difference in the level of inspiration we bring to our work. Loved the stories as well as the research.

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