Work Book: Memos and Dispatches on Writing

Steven Heighton’s eagerly awaited Work Book: Memos and Dispatches on Writing arrived in the mail two weeks ago. It is a slim volume (74 pages) with lots of white space – I consumed it voraciously in about an hour with my  pencil in hand.

A key theme of Work Book is Heighton’s belief that boredom is desirable because it leads to periods of creativity. Instead many of us  spend our days as efficient functionaries crossing items off our to do list (sometimes as mundane as deleting email). That this act of  accomplishing something is like a narcotic that is deeply ingrained in  our psyche. Moreover what many of us do in a moment of boredom is check our email, or some other screen related application, which keeps our  minds in a state of hyperstimulation. Heighton contends that boredom is  the laboratory for creativity and the path to seeing the unseen fish, the “small, suggestive ripples” and suggests: “Don’t just do something,  sit there.” This resonated with me. I challenged myself to sit and read  the entire book with out checking my email once. I made it, but I was  twitching at certain points and it is good that the book was short. How  often do I spend a few hours at night mindlessly wandering around the  internet or check my Facebook account when my attention starts to  wander? Too often I suspect.

Heighton also speaks a lot about the notion of the daymind, the  calculating, busy ego, versus the nightmind, “the anonymous stenographer  transcribing words from some higher or deeper self.” The daymind, the  ego, is a control freak and determined that we be useful and occupied  with perfecting ourselves. The daymind does not tolerate boredom. How  often do I measure the success of my day with the number of things I  accomplished and checked off the to do list? The more things the better.  But as Heighton notes later on “when you are maniacally accomplishing  and crossing chores off your list there are no cracks, no openings in  your attention.” Heighton observes that in a wireless world, the daymind is never permitted to shut off.

The next sections provide thoughts and advice in the form of memos.  Many of the memos are sound and helpful and Heighton opens the window  wider into the experience of living as a writer. Fill your toolbox year after year, avoid earnestness, learn to savour cutting, hang around and observe people, and learn when to be appropriately irresponsible (i.e.   ignore your to do list, but make sure the electrical bill gets paid  before the lights go out) without guilt. Heighton advises successful writers to avoid becoming too accustomed to the respectability that comes with modest success because if you become too concerned with your social position, your writing suffers. He emphasizes that not all characters are good, or extol good behaviour – but they must be “intensely alive.”  He observes that in reading an excellent writer for the first time, writers are torn between the urge to go write and the urge to give up writing altogether, and stresses that while failure can make writers miserable, success does not necessarily make them happy.

All of his points are sage. I keep going back to the notion of the  daymind versus the nightmind and the relentless grind of my urge to  always 'do something.'

Work Book was the perfect start of holidays read. For me, Christmas always offers a time to reflect, and a brief opportunity let  the nightmind wrest back control from the functionary that guides my frenetic activity during the non-holidays. The white spaces in the book  provided a space for me to breathe and fill in my own thoughts. Work Book made me remember why I like writing poetry and reminded me that what I need to do this holiday is turn off my email (or at the very least  Facebook), sit here and do nothing (the chairlift is a great location  for least for 15 minutes...).