MFA Nugget: Creativity and Wasting Time

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: The title of the New Year’s Eve lecture here at my Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA residency was “The Importance of Wasting Time,” but for this attendee it could have been titled “Everything The Artist’s Road Blog is About.” VCFA instructors Connie May Fowler and Patrick Madden engaged both a physical audience and one on Facebook in an extended exploration of honoring one’s muse, allowing one to embrace idle moments, and engaging one’s subconscious.

The captivating Connie May Fowler

I’m going to depart in format from my previous MFA Nugget posts and adopt bullet points to pass on the session’s highlights, and I encourage you to visit the Facebook event established for this lecture:

  • Idleness breeds creativity: “It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top,” Virginia Woolf tells us. Connie–an accomplished novelist (I loved How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly) and memoirist (When Katie Wakes is stunning)–quoted Woolf and other creatives to emphasize that creative sparks need space to breathe. We simply can’t chain ourselves to our keyboard or camera or easel and expect greatness.
  • Those creative sparks can be further ignited: Connie said she loved Einstein, for having done great things and for having great hair, but also for allowing his subconscious to work out problems. The great physicist would listen to Mozart, she said, posing the question and awaiting the answer. “The solutions often come to you if you’re open to them,” Connie said. Regular readers of this blog will no doubt know that I smiled at this, because while I didn’t realize I was modeling the developer of the Theory of Relativity, I have written here about a technique for allowing the subconscious to solve your writing problems while you sleep.
  • The not-so-quotidian Patrick Madden

    Embrace idle moments: Those moments can come in the shower or while driving to work, Patrick said. Patrick–an accomplished personal essayist who in his collection Quotidiana won me over when expressing the creative spark he received from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”–said Gabriel Garcia Marquez conceived of the method he would use in writing One Hundred Years of Solitude while trapped behind the wheel of his Opel on a family vacation. (I love that Patrick is into Rush but disappointed when he shared that he didn’t know Opel was a make of car; I wonder if he knows that my favorite Rush song, “Red Barchetta,” details a specific model of car, a sexy Fiat?)

  • Let the idea grow: “Creativity really does need an incubation time,” Connie said, noting that while Edward P. Jones wrote The Known World in thirty days, the novel had been simmering in the back of his mind for a decade. That matches with one of the first Artist’s Road blog posts–“Allowing Ideas to Percolate“–which features a video interview from my cross-country U.S. road trip of Vermont printmaker Sabra Field discussing her series “Cosmic Geometry” as resulting from more than fifty years of observation of nature and manufactured forms.

The lecture was entertaining and informative, and the Facebook chat surprisingly engaging, considering all of us participating in it were also trying to listen to Connie and Patrick. I particularly liked it when one of the students on the event wall asked if he would be wasting time if he used the lecture session to write poetry, Patrick (in the midst of the lecture, mind you) posted the response: “You’d be too productive for our purposes!”

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story” and “A Window on Your Narrator.”

23 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Creativity and Wasting Time

  1. So wonderful! I was sorry I couldn’t hear what was being said, but delighted beyond measure I could participate from Paris in the Facebook event. I had just sat down to write a blog post about how my only new year’s resolution was to play more when I stumbled into this lecture. Serendipity strikes! I knew if so many of my favorite writerly people were talking about the importance of wasting time, I’m right on track with my play theory. Thanks for these nuggets, Patrick! And here’s my own version of play:


  2. Glad to know Einstein used what I call “seed questions” too. But of course he did.

    Also like the validation of the idea that percolation time can be quite extended. Our culture is very production-oriented, but some products need time to age, ferment, bake, percolate, etc. We don’t expect wine to be ready the next day, but often we expect ourselves to take an idea from conception to publication in a very short time. Bah humbug to that idea!

    Thanks for sharing all this great stuff from your residency!


    1. Hi Sue! You know, your wine got me thinking to a conversation I had with some fellow students last night about scotch and how great a single malt is when its aged for 12-18 years. (I won’t give any more details about a late night in a college dorm and alcohol!) We can each find a symbol to represent that idea in our minds; scotch works for me.


  3. Patrick… great stuff. This is “internetting” at its best. Re wasting time, I would bring poet John Keats into the discussion. He saw in the best artists a quality that he called “Negative Capability”. It’s the ability to remain in uncertainty without clamouring after reason and logic. Easier said than done! And I need a dose of that myself in my current project. Keep the nuggets coming, Patrick.. we’re scooping them up.


    1. Hi PJ, glad you’re enjoying these bits and bytes! (I went computer-lingo, inspired by your “internetting” phrase.) I am not familiar with Keats and “negative capability.” I’m going to explore that some more. Thanks!


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  5. Suzanne

    I visited a busy magazine office when I was just out of college where the writers commented that they had an editor who understood the value of staring out the window. I think that was the only boss I’ve heard of since who has the insight and grace to allow that. I need to remember to stare out the window more (even if I have to close the door and do it while the boss is at lunch). Thanks for the reminder!


    1. I know a writer whose husband has learned not to interrupt her while she’s staring out the window. More often than not she’s “working,” although she confessed to me that sometimes, when it’s morning, she just isn’t ready to talk! 🙂


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