Six Days You Shall Labor: The Artist and the Importance of Rest

"There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want."
~Bill Watterson

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
~Exodus 20: 9-11

I feel like rest is an under-appreciated and under-pursued essential in the artistic life; in any life really.... I think of Tolstoy, lost in the distractions of his brilliance and passion; of eerie, miserable Virginia Woolf; of Joyce’s desire to be someone other than who he was and I’m thankful to be un-encumbered by genius, to be full of a restfulness and a love of simple opulence. I have no intention of letting my life slide by. But rest is a part of life, isn’t it?

I can't claim to belong to the guild of restless genii, but I'm certainly encumbered by difficulty in relaxation. I dislike most games, tend to get bored if forced to go very long without a book or my computer or a notebook and pen, and generally avoid public gatherings like bars (too noisy) and parks (too crowded). Novel-reading is usually restful only if I've already read the book; otherwise, the suspense is exhausting. Movies work most of the time, but if my mind is busy enough with a story of my own, I'll tune out the movie and focus on my story. That's an uncomfortable experience, but I can do it.

The fact is, some of us artist-types thrill to work—our work, anyway. We're not necessarily bigger fans of mindless drudgery than the rest of humankind. Sometimes, one form of creativity is all the rest that is needed from another; Masha exemplifies this when she says that she writes better after throwing pottery and throws better after writing. At other times, plain relaxation is needed, and Masha describes a day of hers thusly:
My feet are up, Yarrow is sleeping and I’m alone with my thoughts. I’m not talking to anyone, and I’m listening as Tori Amos rocks me back to the nineties. I spent most of the day resting, at a cafe while my mother wandered with Yarrow. I didn’t write anything, or post any blogs, I got into an argument on Facebook about the nature of sin and bought my husband a random gift on Amazon. Now it’s dark and I’m drinking coffee in candle-light.
For the work-loving artist, rest must often be actively sought. Various places to find it include:
  • Nurture
  • Another form of art
  • Prayer
  • Nature
  • Contemplation of beauty
  • Alone time
  • Family and/or friends time
The hardest thing, though—the one that stands in the way of many a relaxing Sunday afternoon or stress-free get-together—is letting go of the constant fretting over projects, over the passage of time, over the quantity and weight of the items on a to-do list. Masha is right that "rest is an under-appreciated and under-pursued essential... We like to be busy." I've not read the entirety of the book in which this is contained, but author Annie Payson Call has a vital point:
"A large amount of nervous energy is expended unnecessarily while waiting. If we are obliged to wait for any length of time, it does not hurry the minutes or bring that for which we wait to keep nervously strained with impatience; and it does use vital force, and so helps greatly toward "Americanitis." The strain which comes from an hour's nervous waiting, when simply to let yourself alone and keep still would answer much better, is often equal to a day's labor."
Rest, desired or not, is part of life. The challenge is to surrender to it when it's offered. I am not the only artist, let alone the only person, who becomes chronically insomniac in the throes of big projects. Nor am I the only one who gets irritated in the back of the DMV with my number on a paper slip. There may not be many people who try to outline the last half of their current novel-in-progress during a movie, but there are some of us, and I'm far from being alone in my inability to make it through a single Eucharistic prayer without getting distracted by the impulse to plan or create.

Call charges her readers with "disobedience... of the laws of rest." She is, however, optimistic: "...fortunately, if we are nervous and short-sighted, we have a good share of brain and commonsense when it is once appealed to, and a few examples will open our eyes and set us thinking, to real and practical results."

It seems the height of wisdom that a day sacred to rest and worship sits among the Ten Commandments. It's also the one I break most often. I'm not Jewish and it might not be sinful by my creed to do a little story-writing in the afternoon of my holy day, but it might not be wise, either. There are consequences to slaving over unnecessary work at the expense of silence and rest: burnout, an increase of selfish tendencies, the overlooking of needs close to us, wasted energy, relational breakdown, temperamental decay, superficiality... the list could surely go on.

This week, perhaps I'll take a little exercise in the resting of the mind. Prune my tomatoes without plotting blog-posts. Give over those last-minute checks of Facebook at 11:30 PM, and pray the rosary before sleep instead of imagining out the rest of A.D.'s storyline. Read and sing instead of double-checking Google Reader. Worry just a little less about what I might not be accomplishing.

What might you do to find rest in your own life?


  1. Lovely! And you got to pick huckleberries! That's restful, right??

    1. It definitely is... at least, when the sun is shining and I'm not being chased by mosquitoes. :)


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