It’s funny how much the concept of thought is entering my conversations of late (well, hello there! Yes, I have dragged myself out of the bathroom and informed my gastro-intestinal tract that there’ll be no more of this nonsense. I’ve got things to do, I tell you, things to do! I’ve figured out that hamburgers work pretty much like plug holes, and they taste great too!). Thinking about thought – that could get curly. But that is what I mean. The Darklings and I refer to it as “mulling,” one of the most undervalued of all the essential practices in a writer’s life.
Why is it that people regard thinking as a waste of time? I mean, if you’re George W. Bush, I can understand there’s not a lot to be gained even when you’re trying really, really hard, and look, let’s face it, that’s time that could be better spent on the golf course, chasing down a heap of little white balls (hey look, Congress is in session!), but for most of us, thinking can be an incredibly fruitful act. And it is active; there’s nothing passive about it. Watching TV is passive and can’t in all honesty be considered an ‘activity,’ but thinking requires mental action and make no mistake.
I’ve had a similar conversation with several friends over the past few days. Brain matter is in the air, much like, er, pollen. And I have come to the conclusion that our society doesn’t adequately value the act of thinking, of mulling things over, of taking time to decide. Everyone wants everything sorted pronto, stat, yesterday. And this obsession with beating the clock gets in the way of some pretty serious business, like thinking. Who’s got time to think?! In this regard as in so many others, I live an incredibly privileged life. First, I went off and enrolled in a full-time PhD program. You want your brain to actually hurt like calf muscles after a half-marathon? Go sign up to make an original contribution to the Academy. My brain hurt. And so it should. But I was in an environment – and it’s rare, I’m realising – where original human thought was not only highly valued but indeed sacred. It was the reason for being, as well as the half-time entertainment. It was everything. And being in that environment afforded me what I now understand to be the extraordinary opportunity to take the time to figure out my thesis. This took eighteen months of full-time research and full-time mulling. After which, there was another three years of full-time research, mulling, writing, and rewriting to take my early thoughts through to any kind of conclusion of enough merit to warrant the degree that now hangs behind me on the wall of this office. There must have been so many times when I looked like I was doing nothing so much as wasting precious time (not, I hasten to add, tax payers’ money – though not for want of trying; I just couldn’t get my hands on any), when in fact I was thinking. Thinking so hard my brain hurt.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t tune out. I did. Tim, my officemate at UNSW, and I used to zone out with all sorts of fine diversions like talking about favourite childhood iced confections that are no longer around. We even emailed Streets one afternoon to lobby the return of a couple of particularly choice items. Mine was called a Raspberry Cream. Vanilla Icecream coated in raspberries before they were worth $4,000 a kilo. Does ANYONE ELSE remember this icecream? I thought it was the business, and I had no qualms whatsoever spending an afternoon talking about the Raspberry Cream’s virtues with Tim instead of wondering how I was going to deal with the intellectually rather taxing challenge of applying Derrida to DeLillo. As far as I was concerned, that was time well-spent too, because it was down time, and my brain didn’t hurt so much by the end of it.
When I file a travel or other story for publication, or finish a draft of my manuscript, or enter yet another ill-fated short story competition, there are people in my life who can’t ask me a single question that doesn’t involve ‘What next?’ – it’s a permanent setting: what next, what now, what’s on, what on earth are you doing with every waking second of your day, week, LIFE, goddamnit??!! I find it unsettling, to say the least. Sometimes I’m still thinking it through. And I know how lucky I am, because I kind of claim that time, and I’m not giving it up for or justifying it to anyone. Thinking is an essential part of what I do. And, you know, I wish we as a society would be a lot kinder to people who are trying to give themselves time that I frankly demand. I make no apologies for it, and I’m past caring that some people seem to think I’m a “lady of leisure” (I can categorically assure you that writing 96,000 words and then redrafting them five times and counting is not leisurely), because I know the truth, and so does Llew, and we’re the only two people I ultimately have to answer to. But when I see my friends timid to even talk about needing some time to decide, like it’s shameful somehow, like they’re wasting time, I think, hang on. You take as much time as you need. Thinking requires effort. Effort requires mental resources. Mental resources require time. It is not a waste of time to give yourself the opportunity to hear yourself think – I’d go so far as to say it’s only a waste of time if you never do.
(p.s. you might remember that I was hoping to hit 10,000 views by this site’s 2nd birthday on 29 September. Well, today we passed the 11,000 mark instead – hooray!)