Lazy imaginations: why creativity and idleness go hand-in-hand

By Andrew Boulton

April 30, 2020 | 5 min read

Creative Advertising lecturer Andrew Boulton thinks we need to find time to be lazy in lockdown.

Image by Sylvie Tittel via Unsplash

Image by Sylvie Tittel via Unsplash

The Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and I do not agree.

Perhaps there are some things on which we would agree, but the only thing I know him to have said is, to me, entirely disagreeable. He is somewhere, no doubt, fuming.

What Tchaikovsky had to say was this: “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.”

What bothers me (aside from it being appropriated as one of those pithy, inspirational posts favoured by all gurus of the non-spiritual variety) is that I believe it to be demonstrably, and dangerously, false.

Ordinarily, I would feel somewhat apprehensive about taking on such a prominent figure from the creative past – but I too have big guns on my side. The French philosopher Montaigne, for example, makes the argument for idleness as an imaginative force.

Montaigne’s views on the matter are best expressed through a wonderful book by Sarah Bakewell called ‘How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’. In particular, I was interested in a chapter entitled ‘Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted’.

In that chapter Bakewell explains that, for Montaigne: "Slowness opened the way to wisdom, and to a spirit of moderation that offset the excess and zealotry dominating the France of his time".

And this slothful approach to life would, according to Bakewell:

“Free him to think wisely, rather than glibly... avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led – which was all he really wanted to do.”

Here the argument takes form. Creativity does not, or at least should not, subscribe to doctrine. It should not follow recipes or replicate formulas. And it should absolutely not submit to anyone else’s expectation of how to be creative.

It’s an important myth to debunk, if only to stop creativity from being swallowed into what Bertrand Russell called ‘the cult of efficiency’ – a cult that is propping up a thriving industry of ‘improvement’ manuals that tend to improve our work-life balance by silently eroding the ‘life’ part.

There is no greater living opponent to this fallacy than Andrew Smart, author of the superb Auto Pilot: the art and science of doing nothing.

Smart could beat any skeptic to death with a barrage of arguments, while barely expending half a chapter’s worth of evidence. We are, he says ‘too purposeful, too directed’. We fixate, he says, on ‘wasted time’ while refusing to acknowledge that:

‘You can only waste time relative to some context or goal… from some perspective, you are always wasting time’.

In fact, reading a book that can dramatically transform your creative working habits, is a waste of time if your goal was to unload the dishwasher or tentatively cut your partner’s hair.

Tchaikovsky, of course, is not the only one propagating the myth that inspiration must be chased through the fields like a hare. During lockdown you’ve probably heard many times about the numerous remarkable things people have achieved before their Coco Pops got soggy, purely because they have motivation.

If, like me, you are not one of these people who insist on dragging achievements out of every drooping pocket of the day, take solace in the theory that such people perpetually miss out on inspirational thoughts simply because they were too busy with their busyness to hear the doorbell.

Iris Murdoch wrote in The Severed Head that:

‘The trouble with people nowadays is that they don’t know how to do nothing’.

I would say that the real trouble comes when people who do know how to do nothing are made to feel like they are achieving nothing. Creativity, I believe, comes frequently from stillness. It rarely comes from frenzy.

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on the University of Lincoln Creative Advertising course.


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