... let there be rest
I recently read a tweet by a person pondering how to start getting ready for National Novel Writing Month (the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days that happens in November).
I pondered the word ready, and I thought about all of the typical ways I might get ready myself — by conjuring story ideas, taking notes, making outlines, reading novels, and probing craft books.
I love getting ready to write a novel (even more than actually writing the novel), but then I thought about how I didn’t quite have the oomph to engage in anything new — how what I really needed in life was rest. And then I thought about how resting is often the best way to get ready for endeavors large and small.
But resting is damn difficult
It sounds simple, but it’s not. We all think we know how to rest, but I think we’re living in such a restless, busy age that most of us have lost the skills, the talent — the art — of rest.
Animals rest instinctively after exertion or when they are injured, but humans often drink an extra cup of coffee to get the next thing on their list done or work through illness and wounds (and the to-do list is never finished, right?).
Rest is different than relaxation because rest is a state of peace that inspires reflection, a deeper replenishment. So rest goes beyond an evening of binge-watching Netflix.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said that rest is a state of stepping away from what we’re doing in order to find calmness. He writes, “If we have wounds in our body and mind, we have to rest so that they can heal themselves.”
One might define life as a daily accumulation of wounds. We have to rest to not just heal those wounds, but to recognize them, because it’s in a state of rest where we can more truly feel ourselves in our community, our ecosystem, and our larger world. We need rest to attune ourselves to the strains of life and gather our resources to decide how to best live (or write a novel).
Without stopping to be calm, Thich Nhat Hahn writes, we’re more likely to lose ourselves, to not be able to accurately see the world.
I confess I have practically forgotten how to pause to rest. When I rest, it’s almost as if I’m impulsively lurching forward, wanting to do something. I trust in being busy. I trust my to-do lists. I trust my fatigue, my strain, my aspiration. I trust my restlessness, in short.
But here’s the irony: the best way to get ready might be not to get ready. Rest holds mysterious vagaries of being. It’s an inactive state that is active, just more subtle. So the question is how to rest? And then how to trust rest?
Difficult questions. I don’t have the time or money for a leisurely vacation. And, in the end, as much as I’d like to find a way to traipse through foreign lands in a state of blissed-out daydreaming, it’s more important to find a way where rest isn’t a single special occasion but part of the fabric of my life. A daily replenishment and release.
In the end, I want my rest to flow through my days much like the workers in Millet’s painting above, napping after their lunch, in touch with their need to rest and at ease with the breaks they take.
I’m not religious, but I want to find my version of the Sabbath. A weekly version and a daily version. And, what the heck, an annual version. Maybe that means daily meditation. Maybe that means blocking out time when my phone is locked up and I read. Maybe that means going away for a weekend to just read and reflect every year by myself.
Whatever I do, I think rest needs to be ritualized. That’s where the art of it lies. And then I’ll be more ready to write a novel in November.
Tell me your recipe for rest in the comments below.
Let’s go to “Rest School”
For those of us who have worked ourselves out of the ability to truly rest, I think we need to go to “Rest School.” We need to study rest, practice rest, and study our practice of rest.
This episode of The Happiness Lab podcast tells the story of how Sarah Hurwitz immersed herself in the “cult of hard coreness” at Harvard, and then worked 24/7 in DC writing speeches for Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. She even took her cell phone into the shower with her (fortunately, I haven’t done that … yet).
But as she explored the teachings of Judaism, she began to appreciate the vital importance of the commandment to observe a day of rest, and found that sometimes doing less made her happier.
If there’s one thing our society needs, it’s the practice of the Sabbath, whether it takes a religious or secular form. We need a ritualized break where rest becomes a hallowed and sacred time.
The Nap Ministry: Rest Is Resistance
I’m a big napper. When I worked in downtown San Francisco years ago, I joined the Mechanic’s Institute Library in part so that I could sneak away from work and take an afternoon nap in one of their sumptuous leather chairs.
Now, I nap daily with religious devotion (one 10-minute nap after lunch). And there’s no shame in taking more than one nap a day (I’ve been known to take three after nights of poor sleep).
So I was happy to discover the Nap Ministry, an organization dedicated to napping.
Here’s what they’re about:
The Nap Ministry was founded in 2016 by Tricia Hersey and is an organization that examines the liberating power of naps. Our “REST IS RESISTANCE” framework and practice engages with the power of performance art, site-specific installations, and community organizing to install sacred and safe spaces for the community to rest together. We facilitate immersive workshops and curate performance art that examines rest as a radical tool for community healing. We believe rest is a form of resistance and name sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue.1
Reflecting on rest
“The world is too brutal for me—I am glad there is such a thing as the grave—I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there.”
― John Keats
“Love turns work into rest.”
― Teresa of Avila
“If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.”
“I hate resting. I feel restless. My preference is to be working.”
— Khaled Hosseini
“He that can take rest is greater than he that can take cities.”
— Benjamin Franklin
Because you can rest with one of my books
I write for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.
Because more about me
I am the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, the co-founder of 100 Word Story, and an Executive Producer of the upcoming TV show America’s Next Great Author. I am also the author of a bunch of books and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded.
My essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.