Following up on Jon's beautiful and thoughtful post, I here offer some reflections on the role of free and undirected play in academic and non-academic creativity. Jon remarked that being focused on a narrow and highly specialized research field may contribute to a sense of unhappiness and lack of satisfaction for academics. We have increasing knowledge of how creativity works, for instance, cognitively: it is a stochastic process that does not thrive only on focused research efforts (although that has its place too), but also on the serendipitous coming together of ideas from different sources. It also thrives by having an overproduction of ideas, from which we can pick and select (this is why some regard creativity as a Darwinian procsess). Some degree of variation (deviation from one's specialized activity) helps the creative process, especially if the other activities are indirectly related to one's main tasks.
I am currently reading a book on the Inklings, an informal reading group of Oxford dons between the 1930s and the late 1940s. What struck me was that CS Lewis, Tolkien and other members of this group engaged in activities that we now would find completely unproductive, even for a graduate student, postdoc or someone on sabbatical. For instance, some members of the Inklings came together in a reading group where they would translate stories from old Icelandic into English. There were those who could already read Icelandic fairly well (like Tolkien, who had taught himself) - these members of the reading group translated several pages at the time. Others were absolute beginners, like CS Lewis. When he started the reading group, he couldn't read a word of Icelandic and had to use a dictionary for every word. He translated maybe 2 or 3 paragraphs at a time, with help and coaching from his peers who were better versed. The Inklings also wrote their own verse, based on Icelandic narratives, and their own stories, which would ultimately form the basis of the Lord of the Rings.
This form of free play would be unthinkable in the current UK climate of the REF and other assessment tools, which encourage academics to put their energy into getting their work in high-quality publishers. Would Tolkien be able to write the Lord of the Rings if he were an academic today? I don't think so.
As literary critics have noted, LOTR is an unusual book. Professional fantasy writers don't write the way Tolkien does: storylines aren't nicely interlaced (as GG Martin or Terry Pratchett do) - Tolkien 'forgets' storylines for sometimes over 100 pages, the vilain of the story (Sauron) is not worked out in detail, but remains a fairly abstract and distant eye, the beginning of the story is unnecessarily long, and the end is very brief etc. All those factors, however, give LOTR its distinct, organic, quality, and Tolkien's research on imaginary languages (another unproductive passtime!) gave LOTR a depth that is missing in many of its epigons.
So what I am suggesting is that academics should not only get enough time to do what they are good at, namely the research they specialize in. As Eric Schwitzgebel points out, being a world expert at X requires enough research time to do X. They should also get time to engage in work that is not directly to their specialization. In the current climate of research assessment, where one's existence needs to be justified in terms of measurable productivity, this seems like a very unlikely scenario, perhaps only attainable by the select few who are tenured at R1 universities. It is, however, something that we need to get across to evaluators, managers and others who aim to 'improve' our productivity by arguing that we should have higher teaching loads or publish more papers. If we want future JRR Tolkiens among our ranks, we need to defend our right to engage in utterly unproductive activities.