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“How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterwards.”

So says the Spanish proverb, loaded as it is with spiritual instruction on humility, the passing of time, the transience of footprints on the beach. Beautiful, perhaps, but difficult.

When I retired from the practice of big-firm law on Feb. 1, people said to me, “Now you’ll have lots of time for writing,” and I assured them that with launching my newest novel, “Saluting the Sun” (Ampersand April, 2015), working on a new manuscript and my other personal hobbies and service commitments, I would have no trouble entertaining myself.

As I write this April column, I count 32 “real” retirement days — we were on vacation before that, and I don’t count weekends. Even though one day blends into the other, I still have residual Sunday night anxiety that the weekend is “over” and I didn’t get enough “done.” I’ve not had trouble staying busy, but I’ve sometimes felt an acute lack of “productivity” and a resulting ding to my self-worth.

And there’s the rub. I’ve had some good writing days but never more than four hours in a row, and the writing is coming more slowly than when my time was more limited. Perhaps this is a good thing — many writing coaches encourage writing slowly and deliberately, although I’ve always been more of a bang-it-out-and-shape-it-later type. The idealized dream of doubling my output by doubling my writing time hasn’t happened (but my closets are cleaner than they’ve ever been!). I think it has something to do with how many of us live (lived, for those retired) our professional lives: Motivated by court or client-imposed deadlines and constrained by page limits and client fee caps, we are/were motivated by a sense of urgency to produce, and we are/were often required to settle for “good enough.”

It also has something to do with the productivity ethic and project focus engrained in lawyers. We are so used to measuring ourselves and our worth in billable tenths of an hour, the number of zeroes in a jury verdict and our win-loss records, we are often robbed of the sense of satisfaction that may come from doing less, writing less, resting more. Or valuing a clean closet as much as a paycheck, let alone a perfect paragraph on the page.

When you are a practicing lawyer and trying to do it all — lawyer, write and perhaps parent, be a care-taker or do service work — having a date with oneself for writing is a necessity, and the limitations on that time can be useful, the mother of invention. Everyone says a routine is vital in retirement as well, and I have always espoused the discipline of writing every day (like work), whether we feel like it or not.

I’m finding, though, that I need to have different expectations of my writing time, that I now spend more time mulling and less actually putting words on paper, more time imagining and acting out, more time polishing.

I don’t mean “mulling” in the busy, worrying, working-it-out sense but more in the “emptying-out” sense, the near-meditative state where our minds are resting, waiting for the unconscious to break through the clutter of the incessant monkeys chattering, screeching, jumping from one thought to another in our busy, busy minds. In that place of rest, the important can bubble to the top. We are graced with some small moment of clarity.

Some of this work feels like “doing nothing.” I know it’s not. It’s hard work to slow down, to smell the roses (and other springtime odors!) and to not print out a new page every day. This from the writer who has steadfastly argued throughout the many months of this column that if you write a page a day, you will finish the first draft of your novel in a year and will have to cut 65 pages. I now must revise this advice for the retired lawyer.

It is possible that the developmental and editing work we did after completing the first draft — digging for a deeper insight, a more complex character, the best word choice — we now front-load in the writing of the first draft. It is a different way of working for me, one that runs counter to my get-it-done practicality as a lawyer. But then, so does this whole process of retiring.

The Spanish proverb, often quoted to rookies in retirement like myself, is a good introduction to the new mindset I have been encouraged to adopt for this next chapter of my life: For perhaps the first time ever, staring into space counts.

1 Response
  1. So true, Mary. When I was teaching nursing, I ate, drank, slept, and read nursing. All the extra time I have now in retirement easily flies away unless I get back to my career-long scheduling behavior. And when I do, I feel nicely accomplished which you acknowledge too is a good feeling!