the woodpecker’s tongue of my and da vinci’s to-do list

I didn’t have to work today so I went to one coffee shop and sat there for four hours and did lots of reading and a good amount of writing and then, moving to another coffee shop across the street at 1 p.m., I did another four hours of pretty much solid writing, with a break in the middle to read a few articles, and at the end of the day, with my time running out, I cracked the Leonardo Da Vinci biography that Walter Isaacson published a couple years ago, from which I’d planned to read way more than I actually did, and marvelled, through the introduction, at Da Vinci’s to-do lists.

Yeah Leonardo Da Vinci wrote to-do lists.

Isaacson points out that, given the pretty meager availability of paper in the 1400s, Da Vinci couldn’t waste a page by leaving any whitespace left over. So he packed each sheet with ruminations, doodles, goals. On one day he tells himself to measure the streets, because he intends to draw them, and on another day he tells himself to fill a pig’s lung with air to see if it inflates horizontally and vertically, or just horizontally. On another day he tells himself to find a woodpecker’s tongue and observe it. 

Very little of these plans had anything to do with his work, whether in science or in art, and indeed they reflect a pretty wayward sensibility–the sort that, as Isaacson laments, left several major paintings and science projects unfinished because his mind wandered and he went off abruptly toward something else. 

Well during my own work week, whether I’m giving counsel in the tutoring center or bartending at the restaurant, I feel this perpetual anxiety about the creative work that I’m not getting done. The reading or the writing. And so today, when I’ve got so many hours to myself, I wake up and set what seems like a pretty reasonable list of goals, I drink a crazy amount of caffeine, and manage to sustain my own wayward focus for a solid eight hours.

Still: I didn’t get everything done that I’d hoped for. 

Not even close. 

A lot of the reading and writing I’d assigned myself got sidetracked cuz I’m working on a short story that ended up commanding more of my attention than I anticipated, and since this is the kinda task where the inspiration is either with you or it isn’t, I stayed there with the muse and gave it my focus. 

At 7 p.m., as the coffee shop was closing and my work was wrapping up, I looked over the dozen-odd college-ruled pages I’d written by hand and asked myself if it was worth it, if this creative digression amounted to something more valuable than whatever I might’ve gleaned if I’d done all the appointed reading. 

I’ll never know.

And I guess this is just life: spending time however you choose to spend it and wondering later on if you coulda spent it better.

“Pileated Woodpecker” by Martin Katon

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