Writing the elusive self Part 1
Writers, unlike sculptors or artists whose bodies are integrally bound up with the creation, can sometimes feel as though we live a huge amount of time only in our heads, yet our minds don’t simply perceive the world in a disembodied way. Our brains and bodies are a continuity. Without the body there is no thinking, feeling or moving in the world.
Observing the elusive self
A walk with Cynthia © Adam Craig
And yet, whether we are cerebral or grounded, the self can be an elusiveness entity formed of a kaleidoscope of shifting parts and notoriously difficult to observe. The moment we attempt to step outside of ourselves to observe we are objectifying a version of self that is more likely to be someone else. Virginia Woolf puts it simply:
One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.
In another diary entry she talks about ‘the slipperiness of the soul’ and about its delicacy and complexity. This slippery soul, with its ever shifting and evolving elements is grounded in our bodily experience and in our experience of time. To quote Woolf again:
Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.
Our embodied entwining with time is at the heart of identity in so much literature. Kafka was certain that:
Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life.
And filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, says that we watch film because it gives us a sense of time:
time lost or spent or not yet had.
Life often feels like a constant dance with time. I have periods when I’m convinced that ‘there is no time’ and others when it appears that time is boundless and I can fit in enormous amounts of activity or being. Finding rhythm and balance is often a quest for T.S. Eliot’s ‘still point to the turning world’, but paradoxically, pursuing it can leave us feeling frazzled and overwhelmed. The still point often lies beyond letting go rather than chase. Gaston Bachelard puts it like this:
If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.
The contradictions of our experience of time is at the heart of Marc Wittmann’s book Felt Time. For Wittmann, how we individually perceive the passing of time moulds how we view ourselves. He concludes that our identity stems from the notion that time is not something that acts on us, but that is at the essence of us. We are time.
Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.
We construct time within ourselves, giving shape to it be our mere existence.
Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through … emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.
Wittmann’s thinking is preceded by philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who saw self and time as one and the same. Our perceptions of the self are inevitably bound up with being embodied and being in time.
Missing in productivity
If identity is our perception of a particular body in time then this sentence from Wittmann is particularly crucial:
Self and time … go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
As life speeds up and the more we feel we have no time, the less we have any sense of self. For writers, this is the loss of soul. How do we witness to humanity when we are too overwhelmed to feel fundamentally grounded in a sense of personhood, however dynamic that idea might be?
The notions that being so busy we hardly have time to breathe is heroic or that productivity is god are toxic and dehumanising. Almost two-hundred years ago, Kierkegaard noted that business and misery go hand in hand.
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.
As social media and technology speed up our lives and as work leaks into every waking hour for many people who are permanently accessible, our interior worlds, those spaces where we process what it is to be embodied in time, shrink. As Wittmann says:
If one has no time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we are no longer aware of ourselves. Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one’s own self. We also no longer feel “at home” with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.
How do we subvert this in our lives and as writers?
Becoming aware to slow down time
Sky over La Bastide © Adam Craig
I’ve written a lot about reclaiming time as a writer, both in blogs and writer’s resources, but the short answer was provided by Seneca two millennia ago. We have to concentrate on living, not forever, but with breadth and depth. We have to do things that confirm we are embodied and at one with all of nature , such as—
- experiencing important events with those we love
- eating slow cooked meals with consciousness
- listening to music or seeing art or reading a book
- stopping between tasks to pause, stretch and refocus
- setting ourselves challenges as writers who want to push at the boundaries of our craft
- and an endless list of other experiences that are more about being than doing.
We have to deliberately build a sense of our bodies in time, a sense that only comes from having some slow time and having moments, hours of depth; that comes from living courageously by being prepared to confront our tendencies to stay within certain comfort zone. Experiences that we are passionate about, that have emotional range and depth are those that we remember. And it’s our wealth in memories that gives us a sense of having experienced a great deal of time and self, whatever the length of our lives.
We are bodies in time and those bodies in time develop fuller perceptions of life the more we shape our lives as abundant in narrative and memory, but that’s the subject of the next blog in this series.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
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