I’ve been thinking about the conditions conducive to writing recently, since I seemed to be experiencing a mild writer’s block.
I was finding myself a little too happy to read my emails—always a bad sign. I try not to open those until the afternoons, supposedly devoting myself to a “higher calling” in the mornings. But I was finding excuses: worries about a friend, responses from some queries I’d put out. It was a Monday morning, and I was restless. The sky flashed with lightening, thunder shook the house, and everything and anything seemed more interesting than what I might put down on paper.
Then the electricity went out. In the yellow-green light that remained, I found myself, out of boredom and lack of gadgetry, scribbling some images on a yellow legal pad, playing around with them. Relieved of the pressure to respond or interact, I suddenly had nothing but time. Time became a medium of space, a fullness, a restfulness.
Yesterday, I heard an “On Being” podcast interview of John O’Donohue talking about time. He said, “In America, you view time as the enemy. So there is not time to cultivate the inner life.” He then compared it to the west of Ireland, where he said, time seems endless, and the landscape is timeless. His comment rang true for me. I know that in order to write, I have to almost slam the door on time, to disregard it. But it is always there, panting heavily on the threshold, whining about all that needs to be done. There is an anxiety that I wake up with, which we all wake up with, that there is so much to be done and I will never be able to do it all. This anxiety is not conducive to works of the imagination.
For the imagination to have a chance, then, we need a sense of time that is unhurried. We need reverie. And for reverie, we need to feel safe. One of my favorite thinkers, Gaston Bachelard, wrote a wonderful book on reverie, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He wrote:
Reverie helps us inhabit the world; inhabit the happiness of the world. The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie.
Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.
So, I believe with Bachelard that reverie is one of the essential conditions for creative work. However, from my experience, I think that there is another component. That is engagement.
I have found that when I am not engaged with the world, that my work begins to dry up. By engagement, I don’t mean busyness. I mean meaningful contact, purposeful effort, or simply enjoying, being curious about the world of man/woman and nature. I can easily fall prey to neuroticism, and when that happens, I know that I am not as engaged as I should be, that my work, instead of reflecting the world as it is in all its complexity, can become a shadowy world of my projections. That’s when I know I need to get out, walk, talk with people, go someplace.
John O’Donohue also addressed this aspect of the creative life when he said, “Our gifts are given for the community, not for ourselves alone.” If that is true, we need to be engaged in community. That is something different from ego posturing or status consciousness. It is being interested in the mystery of otherness, in those we live with, in their “infinite variety.”
It might seem that these two conditions are opposed to each other, but I don’t think so. It is more that they are both necessary, in different degrees. Sometimes we balance them; often, we don’t. When we begin to feel played out, it may be time for reverie. When we begin to feel dull, it may be time for engagement. We live in a culture that is extroverted in the extreme, however, so my bet is that it is harder to find time for reverie.
I’ll leave you with this:
I arise to day… In the name of Silence / Womb of the Word, / In the name of Stillness / Home of Belonging, / In the name of the Solitude / of the Soul and the Earth