Writing is the perfect metaphor for life in so many ways and when it comes to finding our flow, especially so. Writing is so reliant on rhythm and this rhythm can often be very different from the commonly touted need for balance in our lives.
The rhythm of savouring
We hear a great deal about the ‘work-life balance’ (as though work is not part of life). It’s true that none of us want to allow work, however fulfilling to take over life to the exclusion of all else. But neither should we relish seeing life a tightrope walk. Seeing life as a balancing can often lead to overwhelm as we try to juggle everything that seems to have a call on our time and attention. But life is much messier and more interesting than this and very often things calling the loudest are distractions or need to have some boundaries around how much of us they consume.
In Your To Be List, James McMahon and Lauren Rosenfeld write:
To be engaged at whatever I am doing, whenever I am doing it. What I do wholeheartedly energizes me, no matter what that is. It is only when I get into the pattern of getting through one thing in order to get to the next thing that I feel exhausted and overwhelmed.
When we live in the moment and pay attention to the project we’re working on, the food we’re eating, the book we’re reading, the person we are with … we’re more fulfilled and less stressed. But it isn’t balance: it’s savouring one thing at a time. And when we look at the writers and artists whose lives we admire how they live is rarely ‘balanced’—after all, they put as much time as possible into their art.
The rhythm of flow
And we know this in our own writing—when we are deep in flow, in that mind-space where we lose ourselves in creating, we seem to enter a different kind of time. We’re so immersed that the world falls away. This is anything but balanced, but it does allow us to produce work we love.
Of course, few of us can spend our lives in this rarefied state. We might also have livings to make, relationships to maintain, meals to cook, shopping to do… But the beauty of thinking in terms of rhythm rather than balance is that we can give real attention to whatever it is we are doing—the mundane daily tasks and the deep flow of creativity alike.
Thinking in terms of rhythm also helps us to make choices. So many calls on our time are distractions and we don’t have to acquiesce to every demand that presents itself. As Henry David Thoreau puts it:
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.
Writing in the New York Times, Brad Stulberg says:
Maybe the good life is not about trying to achieve some sort of illusory balance. Instead, maybe it’s about pursuing your interests fully, but with enough internal self-awareness to regularly evaluate what you’re not pursuing as a result — and make changes if necessary. Living in this manner trumps balance any day.
The rhythm of writing
Living in this manner involves finding rhythms that work, whether they are daily, seasonal or have longer arcs, and writing provides the metaphor as well as needing its iternal rhythms. I come back again and again to this quote from Virginia Woolf’s dairy:
As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: It is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.
All writing has rhythm. Short sentences can set up a beat or feeling of urgency. They can call a halt, or if they persist, can create a . drum beat in the head that gets monotonous. Long sentences, even complex ones with subclauses, as long as the sub-clauses don’t start to run away from you, can give a great deal of connectedness. And short sub-clauses within the sentence can establish the rhythm of a piece.
In writing, we vary the rhythm. The form we use has an impact on the content and how it’s received by the reader. In writing, sometimes we go for equilibrium. Consider the device of parataxis which takes phrases that are all of equal weight and sets them side by side. This can involve linking phrases with co-ordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). The simplest definition of parataxis is—just one thing after another. Like this quote from A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway:
In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.
Or this poignant passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:
Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
As in writing, so in life. Sometimes we are holding areas in equilibrium. Sometimes life comes at us in a rush. Sometimes the rhythm of life is staccato or gushes out in a stream like the rhythm of Samuel Beckett’s Not I:
out . . . into this world . . . this world . . . tiny little thing . . . before its time . . . in a god for— . . . what? . . girl? . . yes . . . tiny little girl . . . into this . . . out into this . . . before her time . . . godforsaken hole called . . . called . . . no matter . . . parents unknown . . . unheard of . . . he having vanished . . . thin air . . . no sooner buttoned up his breeches . . . she similarly . . . eight months later . . . almost to the tick . . . so no love . . . spared that . . . no love such as normally vented on the . . . speechless infant . . . in the home . . . no . . . nor indeed for that matter any of any kind . . . no love of any kind . . . at any subsequent stage
The rhythm of change
What is always true is that rhythm is that it changes. Rhythm, unlike balance, goes with the flow. Do you need short sentences or long? Do you need the equilibrium of phrases of equal weight slowed by conjunctions or the wild rush of stream of consciousness? Do you need to hold two areas of your life side by side or is it time to dive deep into one immersive project?
The answer will change all the time and, while chasing balance is irreconcilable with that, finding the rhythm isn’t. Writing and living to rhythm is more like breathing. It moves in, it moves out—the focus shifts, but what matters is savouring the moment.
I’m writing this from a friend’s beautiful cottage in rural Ireland. Walking in the gardens, by the stream or through the extraordinary maze in the garden, I notice how my attention emulates breath—it moves into inward musing, then outward to the sights and sounds of the environment. I’ll get caught up in the smells of the foliage and in turn this evokes a memory and emotion which will in turn lead me back to the garden.
Good writing has the same kind of pulse, moving inwards to thoughts and emotions, outwards to dialogue and description. When writing has this rhythm, moving focus, inward and outward, it’s much more compelling. When there is a rhythm between the two, the story comes to life. As William Stafford says in Crossing Unmarked Snow:
…the language that comes to you when you are truly available to immediate experience, can bring you surprises, can enrich experience, can reveal profound connections between the self and the exiting wilderness of emerging time.
The rhythm of attention
The rhythm in writing varies and, as in writing, so in life. Chasing the illusion of balance can drive us in circles trying to do everything at once, but living in rhythm—with our bodies, with the seasons, with the changes that come at different ages, with shifting priorities…. allows us to savour life in all its diversity, including our writing life. Rhythm asks us to simply show up and attend in the moment. And, as Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace,
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.