The Art of Doing Nothing

Part 1

14th of July 2016, Jerusalem

I am sitting on a bench, in the park in Jerusalem, watching mothers pushing children on swings while eating Cornetto ice cream, alone.

This is too extravagant for me.  I don’t remember the last time I just sat like that in the park, alone, slowly leaking the cream from the top of the cone. Eating ice cream at home, yes; watching cream leak over children’s arms as they try to eat their cold sticks in a hurry, yes. Sitting alone and doing nothing but leaking ice-cream, no.

I can’t do nothing. It is an art I have not conquered. As long as I remember, I always kept myself busy, always had things to do. As children, when my sisters and I complained to our father of boredom, he would reply: “Should I order you a brass band?” which would imply “go and find something to do”. As an adult, I never get bored. My notebooks are filled with lists upon lists upon lists, with numerous tasks, duties & chores. My mind was taught to be so busy, a few years ago I took a course in medication to learn to relax.

I had just arrived in Israel the previous night. It is afternoon, hot. I met with my son earlier at breakfast and afterwards had the whole day to myself with no specific agenda until the evening. It is one of those rare occasions when I don’t have to rush to perform tasks I set myself. In fact, I have not much to do except spontaneous things that come to mind at a particular moment. I had a leisurely drink in the dining room with my notebook. Painted nails with the gel nail polish I brought with me. Made phone calls, getting in touch with all the people on my list to speak to. Connected to some strangers also staying at the hotel. Still with plenty of time till the evening, I went out into the heat. The park was just around the corner from the hotel, very handy. I bought myself an ice-cream from the kiosk at the entrance. A Middle-Eastern-looking salesman, who spoke decent English, enquired whether I spoke Russian. Indeed! I made my way down the garden path and settled on the bench not too close to the kids’ playground and not near the trash bins, conveniently placed next to some benches. I took out my notebook and a pen, sat comfortably with my back against the seat, crossed leg over leg, slowly unwrapped the Cornetto and began the process of indulging. The little kids passing by were openly staring at me. Perhaps, they also wanted an ice-cream.


Part 2

Melbourne2016/ Reflections

My creative writing teacher, Claire Gaskin, tells her students to allocate time every day to do nothing. Does she suggest that we be lazy or idle? Of course not. It is just that to become a good writer, one need to learn to be still, to learn to observe and take in. In a constant need to do things we turn into robots with our feelings and experiences buttons switched off, mechanically performing tasks and chores. One day in class we were studying ‘Ardea’, a novella by Freya Matthews. In the words of the main heroine she feels full of life to just “sit on the porch and just gaze and gaze. At the sky. At the clouds. At the birds that come to the birdbaths……  to look at the trees, at which ones are flowering, who’s pollinating the flowers, who’s eating the pollinators”. However, “it’s not enough just to observe the world. One also has to sing it. To sing back, to answer the song (Freya Mathews, Ardea, p.38).

The art of doing nothing is about listening. To yourself mostly and to the world. Some would call it meditation. Mindfulness has become a fashionable word over the last few years, a technique taught to focus one’s attention on a specific thought, or a feeling, or a process. In our hectic contemporary world, we forget how to experience life rather than keeping it in perpetual motion. We forget how to listen. Too many sounds surround us. Not easy to distinguish that one special sound that speaks to you only.


The art of doing nothing is about silencing your body, holding the breath, quieting the brain cells. That opens up ears. Breathing in and breathing out. Focusing on breath only. That is hard, because little parts in the brain keep doing their running. They don’t know how to stop. This process reminds me of a squirrel placed on a wheel. It wants to stop, it is exhausted, but the moment its paws make the slightest move, the wheel starts turning and the squirrel’s feet are running on their own.


It is difficult to stop the movement in our heads and, perhaps, we should not. While the wheels in the brain are turning we are alive. But maybe, we can slow down to a soft, gentle walk among the trees, enjoying the scenery, the smells, and the warmth of sun. Listening to the trees. What are they saying? Or feeling? Hugging a tree. How old is it? What is it trying to tell you? Was it here before you were born? And flowers. Wild. Is there a specific order of them growing in the grass or do they randomly appear in different places? A little dog is walking in front of its owner on a leash. It comes close to smell your friendliness. You don’t mind even though you are afraid of dogs. And then you are left alone on the park’s bicycle path. Here is a bench. Have a seat. Settle comfortably with your back rested, close your eyes and smell life.


ellina zipman

On a point of inspiration

I wrote a poem in five minutes. In the car. While waiting to pick up my daughter from school. Then, at home, I entered ten poems into a poetry competition.  The judges chose the five minute one. I was surprised. I didn’t consider it that good.  I thought the others, that were worked on for weeks, edited and polished, were much better choices.
This begs a question. Should I have not worked so hard on the poems that were rejected?  Should I have waited for that perfect poem to come to my mind and illuminate me with its brilliance?
Yet, it is not as simple as that.
That perfect poem was brewing in my head for years before it was ready to come to the surface; a baby growing in the womb for months and shooting out fast when its time has come.

About Writers’ Block

I don’t believe in writers’ block. I did when I was younger. I went about my mundane business, waiting for an inspiration to arrive and hit me like lightning. I would write fast and brilliantly and create a masterpiece in an hour. After that, I would not write for weeks, waiting for the next strike of lightning. I believed inspiration worked like this: it hit me fast and was full of colours. It took me through orgasm and left me luxuriating in that post-state of satisfaction and pleasure. Then came depression, the time where there was nothing to write about. My mind was a mess of schedules, lists, tasks; my body overwhelmed with constant routine of work-shop-work, work-chemist-work, work-kids-pickup-work, work-bank-work, work-taxidriving-work, work –waitingforkidsactivitiestoend-work, work-housechores-work, work-clean-up-work, work-answer important call from school-work, work.

I did not believe in myself. That was the root of the problem. I considered it a basic fact that great artists didn’t go short of inspiration. They created so many masterpieces because they were always inspired. I did not realise that inspiration was work. One had to sweat at it, invest time and effort; to free the mind of garbage to allow the creation to come forth.

Joseph Haydn, one of the greatest classical composers of Western musical culture, affectionately known as Father Haydn, would compose every day. He got up early in the morning, said a prayer to God to grant him inspiration, and started working.

Johan Sebastian Bach’s input into the Western Art music has been at times described by biographers with the use of metaphor: a room, completely filled with manuscripts from floor to ceiling, from one corner to another. Bach composed over 1100 music works. Given that he died at the age of 65, he would have had to produce on average 16-20 compositions per year, provided that he had started to record his music when he was five.  For Bach, writing music was his job. He was doing it on a regular basis. If he had difficulties being inspired, which we will never know, he overcame them with his persistence and diligence.

Thomas Edison, the great inventor, considered invention as 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

Mark Twain believed “if the writer does not sweat, than the reader will.”

“If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all,” Anne Tyler argued.

Writing is work. It is fun for those passionate about it, but it is still work. I learnt this simple truth when I met Claire Gaskin, my creative writing mentor at Sandybeach Centre. By the time the road brought me to Claire, I already realised that writing was something I could not live without. For me, it was a need, like drinking and breathing. I carried notebooks in my bag. I scribbled on envelopes and tissue boxes. I had a diary that I would enter sometimes. And I would still create on inspiration, not really searching for it or being proactive.

Claire taught me, that as writers, we have to take responsibility for inspiring ourselves: taking on a project, researching a theme, trying a new form, using an automatic pilot and doing free writing exercises.

Writers are recording artists. We write what we hear and what we see through the prism of our own feelings and personalities. If we have nothing to write about at the moment, then it is time for gathering, hibernating information in our minds, allowing it to settle until the time when it is ready to become a creative production.

There is always something to write about. As life continues, so do the words come. If there are thoughts in your mind – there are words. Experiencing block means a writer has nothing to say, nothing to share with others. Then just wait, gather, collect, harvest the stories.

Writing is a discipline. Those who have developed a habit of regular writing, cannot complain of creative blockage. They, probably, have a number of projects going on at once. If writers’ block is a “condition” or type of illness, I would describe it as the condition of being lazy, not putting in enough effort. Don’t complain of the writer’s block if you have not invested time and effort.

If you call yourself a writer, then write. Write. Write. Write. Have a notebook and a pen with you at all times. Scribble on paper. Jot down whatever comes to your mind. Stop at the curb of the road and shorthand those thoughts or the words people say.

ellina zipman

30 May 2015/Melbourne

Writing about writing

This is a blog about writing. Plenty has been said about this matter by others. Still, I have something more to say. Maybe the same. Maybe different. I can’t keep the words to myself, guarding them like treasures. I want to share my thoughts and my passion. You have your own passion, I am sure. Perhaps, we can blend them together, changing the taste and the spice.