Life and writing have rhythms. Along the way, some of those rhythms will lift you to the heavens or enable you to dive so deeply into yourself and your process that you eventually emerge breathless and ecstatic. But rhythm implies flux. There will be days when you are overwhelmed and the energy eludes you, days when even writing rubbish feels too much or your routines fall apart. There are days when all we want to do is curl up in bed and pretend the world doesn’t exist.
Writing in Art as Experience, John Dewey notes:
Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment… The live being recurrently loses and reestablishes equilibrium with his [/her] surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life. In a finished world, sleep and waking could not be distinguished. In one wholly perturbed, conditions could not even be struggled with. In a world made after the pattern of ours, moments of fulfillment punctuate experience with rhythmically enjoyed intervals.
Ebbs and flows
It can’t all be dizzy peaks and intense, ecstatic deeps. If it were, even these would become mundane as we grew increasingly desensitised. Life has ebbs and flows, the wonders and lows, equilibrium and disturbances, fertile outpourings and slow (or even invisible) germinations and the rhythms are affected by so many things in our environments, from our bodies to major life events, from the food we eat to the seasons.
To decorate one’s inner house demands space and time and some of that time has to be spent simply dreaming
We need to be alive to the times when we are waning as well as waxing and not be unkind to ourselves. In a world insanely focussed on ‘productivity’ and ‘outcomes’, it can be so tempting to berate ourselves for not being endlessly in flow. But we are not machines calibrated to produce endless content. Any rhythm that will deliver extraordinary moments of epiphany will inevitably, and thankfully, be one that is humane, that sometimes has dips.
In the biography of Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee, a letter to Mary Berenson puts it like this:
I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.
To decorate one’s inner house demands space and time and some of that time has to be spent simply dreaming, pondering, doing not very much or apparently nothing at all. We only have rhythm if there are spaces, and they have to be real spaces.
The need to pause
Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash
There’s an increasing amount of writing on how important recovery, pausing and rest are, but all too often most books and articles see pausing and the empty space as ways of refuelling so that we can get back on the treadmill and run twice as fast.
The god of our times is ‘productivity’, with quantity and ‘measurement’ most often trumping quality and depth. I often read about how taking time to play, walk or rest is essential so that I can 10x or 100x my productivity as a result of being refreshed. This is not rhythm. This is a blunt utilitarian view of humanity as a machine of production and is to be resisted.
Space is extraordinarily creative and it is creative in its own right, not as a servant of productivity
I wrote this section of the course on Easter Saturday. In theological terms it is the day of space sine qua non. In retrospect, we know the story of Easter, whether taken as fact or metaphor, ends with new life and joy, but the first disciples were brought to a grinding halt by grief and loss. They needed to stop and regroup, not knowing what might come next.
Space is always liminal, it is where there is both possibility and terror, opportunity and not knowing. Space is extraordinarily creative and it is creative in its own right, not as a servant of productivity or pre-defined outcomes. This is how the Tao Te Ching puts it in Chapter 11:
Thirty spokes unite at the single hub;
it is the empty space that makes the wheel function.
Fashion clay to form a bowl;
It is the empty space that makes the bowl useful.
Cut out a window and doors;
it is the empty space that makes the room practical.
So gain comes from what is there;
benefit from what is not there.
Resting is not a foil to work, at the service of productivity. It is not a mechanism ensuring that we resume work harder and faster. Rather it is integral to rhythm. It is as integral to being human as work and creativity.
Ingredients of rhythm
Photo by Viviane Okubo on Unsplash
When rest, work and creativity are each ingredients of our rhythm, then each impacts on the others, as will other areas of our life like relationships, but none of these areas is there as a subordinate to the others, each has its own vitality and importance, with sometimes one and sometimes another being foregrounded and all areas of our life constantly interacting, sending out ripples of influence on other areas.
How we craft the empty space is vital to the story we want to live.
There will be times when taking space needs to be our total focus and occupation. We take spaces after giving birth, after an illness, after major life events , especially loss that requires space for grief. These spaces are not so that we can return to work as improved machines now able to work better, harder and faster. Rather these spaces are essential parts of being human that exist for themselves, and for the whole person in that moment, just as at other times the whole person will be in creative flow or fully immersed in cooking or gardening or…
Adding space and pauses into our rhythm, as writers and in how we live, is much more than utilitarian; it is about how we give meaning to our lives. How we craft the empty space is vital to the story we want to live. Taking space, being in silence and doing nothing, are crucial to a deeply humane and conscious life, the kind of life a writer needs.
How will you use your bowl?
What will be the view from your window?
Deep listening and keeping quiet
Photo by Ostap Senyuk on Unsplash
In Negotiations Gilles Deleuze puts it like this:
…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.
In a world of selfies, grandstanding our lives on Facebook, tweeting and trending, we sometimes need to quiet, take time out and simply listen, observe, think and breathe. The musician Pauline Oliveros developed the practise of Deep Listening as an alternative to the chaos and violence of our political contexts. Listening in this way is much more than merely hearing:
To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.
You don’t need anything special or particular to listen to, routine sounds of nature, your kitchen, your street, your inner voice, suffice.
Writing in the essay, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ in Styles of Radical Will, Susan Sontag notes:
Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.
Sometimes we have to pause and these pauses are essential to a healthy rhythm. The musician, John Cage, takes this even further, building on the power of silence not as an absence or nihilistic abnegation of connection, but as a way of deep attention, contemplation and connection in which self and ego are forgotten. In Kay Larson’s biography of Cage, Where the Heart Beats, he puts it like this:
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
Of course, not all resting and pause or taking time to do nothing is about silence, but silence certainly has an important role in pausing, in giving life, which is so often noisy, respite and rhythm. In Speaking and Language, Paul Goodman notes:
Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
Rhythm is fluid and flexible, it allows for constant changes of direction, but it requires attention. When life is nothing but frenetic rush and to do lists, rhythm collapses into overwhelm. Silence, stillness, simply being, is at the heart of disrupting this frenetic dash, as so many writers agree. This, for example is Wendell Berry in How to Be a Poet:
Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet…
And this is Adrienne Rich:
The impulse to create begins… in a tunnel of silence.
And this is Pablo Neruda’s ‘Keeping Quiet’:
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Rhythm as refusal to live in bad faith
We need to pause because it is humane and integral to life and rhythm. We need to pause because the insane cult of always being busy is a way of living in bad faith.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out that the urge to over-identify with roles, from mother to priest, from teacher to waiter, is a way of hiding, of pretending that we have no control over life because we ‘have to’ complete the next and the next and the next task of our ‘assigned’ role.
But we are never co-terminus with the roles we play, they are processes, not fixed identities. I play, and value, roles such as mother, editor, writer, mentor, but they are better viewed as verbs than nouns; they are things I do, that I love to do, but they are neither definitions nor excuses.
it’s rhythm rather than a precarious balancing act in which something is likely to fall.
Remembering this prevents me from falsely seeing myself as a victim of the roles. This is bad faith: ‘Poor me, I’m a mother so I have to cook and clean and sacrifice myself … it’s beyond my control.’ When we pause to contemplate, listen and connect, when we see the roles in our lives as choices we’ve made, our perspective shifts: ‘Mothering is something I do and sometimes I need to get some help with that or take time for other things so that mothering remains a positive choice.’ Once again, it’s rhythm rather than a precarious balancing act in which something is likely to fall.
When we write there is white space that makes the words flow and feel accessible, there is punctuation to introduce breath and enable the reader to phrase and understand the marks on the page. As in writing, so in life.
The pauses, the silences, the spaces are not add-ons or optional, they are not there to make us more efficient, productive machines, they are part of who we are; humans connecting to life and the world through rhythm. When we allow for spaces our unconscious is often able to solve problems that anxiety and worrying away digging up answers simply fails at. The things that matter to us: love, beauty, joy, connection, creativity… are not susceptible to being harassed into being nor to being weighed and measured; they are qualities of life, not bankable quantities.
To live in kairos time, not linear chronos, but the right moment; to live by qualities and values, not to-do lists and measurements, you have to stop sometimes — pause, take time in silence, do nothing, go for a walk, rest, listen, let the unconscious breath, have a really slow meal with people you love.
Sometimes, or even often, we have to forget the ego and the onslaught of productivity and outcomes in favour of being in the moment and relishing the process. And then, with your rhythm harmonious and humane, you will find deep flow.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re there, download my free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story
marina sanchez says
Thanks Jan, for another thoughtful and inspiring blog. Really look forward to Sunday afternoon when I get to read it.
While I totally agree with you that we live in a society that totally distorts being alive for the sake of producing and consuming more and more, it is exhausting to work in such an environment.
My way around it, is to start interesting conversations with colleagues and students about myths we are told to accept: like the value of exam factories, grades, hierarchies, earning lots of money and buying lots of stuff, having at least two holidays a year otherwise ‘you haven’t made it’ and ‘work hard and you can be whatever you want’……
It is profoundly satisfying to be subversive in this way, but working in such an environment also demands a lot of self-restraint and it can feel very isolated.
As the term goes on I’m just too tired and then I can’t wait to go home/ for the year to end…
Here’s to living the summer at our own pace and resourcing the earth, ourselves, our creativity and our communities.
Mega thanks again, Jan, and kind regards
Heather Prendergast says
Thanks for this Jan. Very timely for me and Pablo Neruda’s ‘Keeping Quiet’ was deeply moving.