Sin in the Wild Outdoors, June 1997
Years ago, in a book of advice for would-be journalists and writers (I've slothfully forgotten the title), someone suggested lethargy as a cure for writer's block. I've used it, and it works.
I sometimes recommend full-blown sloth in the writing seminars I teach. The technique is simple enough: Just sit in front of your computer or writing pad and do nothing. Nothing at all. My students report that this kind of inactivity is difficult. Most of them can't get through even an hour the first day. Well, I tell them, go back and stop doing stuff. Go into the place where you write and sit there and don't write. When the students have finally worked up to three full hours of remorseless indolence, it's time for them to let go of the iron discipline of sloth. And they find, almost without exception, that the dam has burst. They come in with page upon page upon page upon page. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but no one complains of writer's block.
Well, let me tell you, sloth outside the workplace doesn't get any easier. The central problem is guilt. Nothing ruins a nice leisurely bout of lethargy faster than various niggling pangs of remorse, those nasty little voices whacking away at the weakening walls of your apathy. Shame and compunction can absolutely ruin a good nap.
It's very difficult to settle into a nice session of sluggish apathy at home or in the city. The sloth-challenged individual will find that the city environment is, in fact, rife with guilt-inducing phenomena (people hurrying to work), while at home spouses often enter into the equation ("Is this where your socks live? Do they live on the floor?"). The bartender's admonition to people on the verge of fisticuffs — "Take it outside, guys" — applies equally to the would-be sluggard. Take it outside: A two- or three-day walk beyond the last human habitation should be about enough. Go alone.
You want to set up a perfectly luxurious campsite, fix your position, take note of the weather, and have all the requisite means of indolence on hand. For example, I bring along a giant full-size air mattress of the sort favored by fat middle-aged duck hunters. It weighs more than four pounds, but productive sloth must take place in comfort. Of course, you can pitch a sloppy, unconsidered camp, but then you may find yourself dealing with a flood or blizzard or avalanche or bears or stinging insects, with starvation, perdition, or angry moose. Suffering, injury, and death are not compatible with productive sloth.
Here's an exercise that I find pays spiritual benefits down the line: Lie on your back at dusk, wrapped in a good warm sleeping bag, and watch the stars come out. Don't name the constellations or get out your star map. Just lie there. On your back. (On that wickedly comfortable fat middle-aged duck-hunter brand air mattress.) If all goes well, you'll eventually begin to see the rotation of the earth: all the stars and planets whirling slowly through the sky in a fathomless fandango of the profound. In the morning, it will be Epiphany Central at your campsite. Guaranteed.
Why? Well, the technique is not, as yet, fully understood, and my inability to completely explain this rather abstruse process has been bothering me of late. I want to get it right.
Illustration by Mark Matcho