Literary Insights: Learning To Be Still

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The Art Of Slowing Down

In our hurried and often harried world, thank goodness there are writers reminding us that faster is not always better. In this column I discuss books by two authors—Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow (HarperCollins, 2004) and Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books, 2014)—who write in praise of slowing down and looking inward. I then explain the importance of and offer a few suggestions for unhurried writing.

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Joining the Slow Movement

While acknowledging that acceleration has changed our world in many positive ways—“Who wants to live without the Internet or jet travel?” Honore asks—our love of speed has become “an addiction, an idolatry” that constantly propels us forward at a faster and faster pace. “Every moment of the day feels like a race against the clock,” writes Honore, “a dash to a finish line that we never seem to reach. This roadrunner culture is taking a toll on everything from our health, diet and work to our communities, relationships and the environment.” He writes:

“In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts.”

For those of us who do not want to become “rushaholics,” Carl Honore extends an invitation to decelerate and join the Slow movement. The Slow movement, he explains, isn’t about “doing everything at a snail’s pace.” It’s about learning to live better in our fast-paced world. It’s about finding a balance in our everyday choices: “Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for” (p. 15). In other words, learn to live at the right speed.

“There is no one-size-fits-all formula for slowing down,” Honore writes, “no universal guide to the right speed.” (p. 175). But the initial step is to simply relax—“put aside impatience, stop struggling and learn to accept uncertainty and inaction. Wait for ideas to incubate below the radar, rather than striving to brainstorm them to the surface. Let the mind be quiet and still” (p. 122). And remember, “Evolution works on the principle of survival of the fittest, not the fastest” (p. 4).

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The Adventure of Going Nowhere

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer confirms the obvious: that information is bombarding us at a much faster pace than we can possibly process it. Anyone reading his 96-page book, he proclaims, will absorb more information than Shakespeare did during his entire lifetime. Iyer writes:

“It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.” (p. 42)

Iyer maintains that “contemplating internal landscapes can be just as rich an experience as traveling through external ones.” A travel writer, Iyer advocates an occasional trip to “nowhere”—any place of quiet retreat—where solitude can allow us to unwind, catch up with our lives, regain perspective, nourish creativity, and search for solutions to our problems from within. “In an age of speed,” Iyer writes, “nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.” Similarly, “in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still” (p. 66).

Writers’ Notes:

Although going faster is often an option for performing everyday tasks (cooking food in a fast microwave versus the slower oven, for example), Honore maintains some things “cannot, should not, be sped up. They take time; they need slowness” (p. 4). Writing is one of those “things.” It is a slow and thoughtful process that necessitates quiet, unhurried time to allow our minds to wander and explore the depths of our thoughts.

“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.” ― Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Like most short story writers, Flannery O’Connor never planned her stories before she began writing; instead, she let them evolve, and it was often a slow process. In Odd Type Writers (Perigree Books, 2013), Celia Blue Johnson describes how O’Connor followed a daily ritual of sitting down to write in her small bedroom after attending mass. That way, O’Connor could be certain, she said, “if anything comes, I am there waiting to receive it.” (p. 161) She didn’t make outlines, take notes, or write character sketches. She waited. And waited. And when an idea came her way, she began to write some of the best short stories ever written.

Stillness is the workplace of writers, Iyer asserts. By profession, he writes, “writers spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, fathering impressions but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.” (p. 19)

Although most writers compose at the computer these days, some writers prefer writing by hand because it puts them in slow mode. Joshua Ferris explains:

“Writing longhand allows me to sit and think without a screen blinking at me. I need that. The long blank page reminds me that I’m not likely to write an entire novel in a day, so why not just calm down and concentrate on the sentences. Why not try to make the sentences—a few of which I can finish in a day—as good as they can be? The only drawback to writing longhand is its secret strength. It slows me down.”

Steve  Brezenoff offers these insights into writing on paper:

“I found quickly that writing longhand slowed me down—it let my hand and my brain breathe a little easier as I worked, detached me from a frantic electronic pace. Also, with my pen scratching lightly across a surface, I felt immediately connected to the words I was writing, more ‘inside them,’ more present in every sense: I had an easier time envisioning setting and action.”

We all dream of that cozy cabin deep in the woods where we can write, undisturbed. But most of us can’t afford such luxuries. We write, even as we raise kids, walk dogs, wash dishes, pay bills, weed the flower bed, go to movies, and attend to the tasks of everyday life. But while we need these family and friends in our lives—and recognize that many of our writing ideas come from social interactions with them—we also need the quiet distance of solitude in order to rediscover ourselves, find our own voices, and appreciate what Leo Babauta describes as “the smaller things that get lost in the roar.”

How can we nourish creativity by making slowness and stillness a part of our writing routine? Although we all have to individually discover what works best for us and our circumstances, here are some ideas to consider:

  1. As Flannery O’Connor did, carve out a particular time each day to write—to wait quietly and patiently. Staring at a blank page can be scary, but trust that eventually the words will come.
  1. Find a protected place and time to write—“a room of one’s own”—that is as peaceful and distraction free as possible. Try to carve time to write there every day until it becomes an ingrained habit.
  1. Develop a quiet inner space in your mind as well as your physical surroundings. Try to cleanse your mind of everyday concerns and listen to what the stillness is telling you. Allow yourself to leave your everyday sphere and discover what Mary Balogh describes as another world that you are creating in your mind.
  1. Establish a comfortable routine. Raymond Carver smoked and drank while he wrote short stories. Ernest Hemingway never drank while he wrote. Truman Capote wrote lying down with coffee and a cigarette. Ray Bradbury ate ice cream while he wrote. Philip Roth writes while standing up and pacing. Do what works best for you!
  1. Forget about daily word counts that emphasize quantity of output over thoughtfulness and creativity. Try to focus on process instead of results and not judge yourself by word totals.
  1. Learn to accept “bad writing” as a necessary and inevitable step. Realize that most of what you write will eventually be revised. It doesn’t have to be great prose the first time around.
  1. Take pleasure in the fact that “the ideas you have preserved on paper today,” as written by Andrew McAleer, “will help bring tomorrow’s ideas to the fore.”

 

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2019-02-22T21:09:01-04:00

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  1. Slow Down | Interpreter of Inspiration March 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    […] quote above comes from a review of The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. I’ve not read this book. Not yet, anyway. In fact, […]

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