Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

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All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a playwright, a poet— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

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“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, a compendium of conversations with leading literary lights as dazzling as Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard

Writing as Salvation & Sustenance: Anne Sexton on How Poetry Helped Her Exorcise Her Demons & Gave Her A Sense of Purpose

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What causes suffering?  Gaston Bachelard believed the source of our first suffering “lies in the fact that we hesitate to speak…it is born in the moments when we accumulate silent things within us.”  Maya Angelou agreed.  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you,” she once wrote.  To suppress the dark side of our psyches, to enshroud our childhood traumas in a thick cloud of denial, to hide from our heartbreaks and sorrows is to hinder our ability to heal.  Our stories, no matter how devastating or disturbing, demand to be told.  Unless they find a healthy outlet, a mode of expression such as art or painting or music, our demons will destroy us.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, poetry was a transformative way to process her trauma and transmute her pain into something useful.  In her altogether illuminating interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, she suggests writing can offer salvation to the seemingly irredeemable.  Creative expression, particularly writing, which requires we make sense of our experience and give voice to our innermost selves, is a release of pent-up emotions, what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”— a psychological discharge through which we can achieve liberation from turmoil and a state of moral and spiritual renewal.  To Sexton, one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, writing was quite literally a confession where she could make formal admission of her wrongs.  The page was a confessional booth, a sacred place she could enter to speak the unspeakable: the things she was most ashamed of, her childhood abuse.

When asked why she didn’t begin writing until she was almost thirty, Sexton explained she wrote as a way to cope with her demons after she had a mental breakdown:

“Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies.  I didn’t know I had any creative depths.  I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream.  All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.  I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down.  I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.  But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out.  The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight.  I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”

Sexton suffered from what pioneering feminist Betty Friedan befittingly called the “problem that had no name”— a despairing but difficult-to-place existential angst that afflicted countless women in 1950s suburbia.  Stifled by her bland Wonder Bread existence as subservient, self-sacrificing housewife, Sexton became more and more unstable.  The tedious duties of domesticity— changing diapers, washing dishes, doing laundry— offered no solace to the troubled yet-to-be poet, who needed a goal to challenge her intellect and imbue her directionless life with a sense of purpose (As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, groundbreaking positive psychologist behind the theory of flow, once said, “Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”)

After her harrowing descent into madness, Anne sought the advice of her psychiatrist, who recommended she find a “difficult, worthwhile activity” to occupy herself.  Her rich imagination and agile intellect, he believed, had no outlet in the home.  Writing soon became her salvation and sustenance, a reason to continue living despite her loathing of herself and the world:

“I said to my doctor at the beginning, ‘I’m no good; I can’t do anything; I’m dumb.’  He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston’s educational television station.  He said I had a perfectly good mind.  As a matter of fact, after he gave me a Rorschach test, he said I had creative talent that I wasn’t using.  I protested, but I followed his suggestion.  One night I saw A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form.  I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’  So I sat down and wrote a sonnet.  The next day I wrote another one, and so forth.  My doctor encouraged me to write more.  ‘Don’t kill yourself,’ he said.  ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’  That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”

A treasure chest of compelling interviews from Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya AngelouWomen Writers at Work supplies a rare behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of our era’s finest writers.  Whether you’re curious to learn how the most prolific writers seem to possess an inexhaustible spring of ideas or whether the most celebrated women of letters advocate keeping a journal, Women Writers at Work will inspire and engage you.

 

Joyce Carol Oates on the Myth of Mood

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“Write according to program and not according to mood!” Henry Miller advised in his 11 commandments of writing, a series of maxims he devised to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Jack London had a similar no-nonsense approach to the writing life: “You can’t wait for inspiration,” he insisted, “You have to go after it with a club.” 

Whether we’re rationalizing our decision to skip our regular morning run or our daily hour at the keyboard, we employ the same excuse.  “Ah, I’m just not in the mood!”  At some blissful juncture in the future (and it’s always the futurenever the present, this minute, this hour), we’ll finally be struck by that mythical lightning bolt and be able to articulate ourselves.  Until then, what’s the use?  Writing, we become convinced, depends on the “muse.”  When our muse calls on us, we’re inspired, a word literally meaning to be “breathed into.”  During these rare visitations, writing feels effortless; we’re not speaking so much as being spoken through.

But the problem is we can’t depend on the muse.  She could feel like getting to the page once a year or once an hour.  She’s erratic, mercurial.  Like a diva superstar, she’ll refuse to go onstage unless certain needs are accommodated for.  First, her requests will be eccentric but easy enough— water sourced from tropical rain and purified by equatorial trade winds, dim lighting, essential oils— but her demands inevitably get more impossible as time goes on.  Soon she’ll refuse to work unless her dressing room is exactly 78 degrees and all the yellow M&M’s are removed from her candy bowl. 

Though we believe we can only write when we’re in the “mood,” time and time again distinguished authors assert writing requires one thing: a willingness to work.  “Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship,” Julia Cameron, creativity guru behind the perennial classic The Artist’s Way, once observed, “Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.”  If we wait to write until we feel the irrepressible urge, we’ll never write a word.  Rather than romanticize writing as a sacred act surrounded by superstition and requiring ritual, why not begin where we are?  In writing— as in life— success is 99% showing up.

The idea that we have to be in the “mood” to write is a myth Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, poet, playwright and one of the most prolific writers of our time, cogently debunks in her thought-provoking interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work.  Complied of wide-ranging conversations with our era’s finest women writers, including Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Women Writers at Work has been hailed as “invaluable to students of twentieth-century literature.”  Where do you get your ideas?  Do you read your reviews?  Do you keep a journal or follow a writing schedule?  Whether you’re an aspiring writer looking to crack the code of the creative process or simply fascinated by the mysterious inner workings of the mind of the artist, these compelling conversations will illuminate the path to the writing life, not to mention inspire and instruct you.

A slender, shy woman with pale skin and otherworldly eyes, Joyce Carol Oates gives the impression, her interviewer writes, that she “never speaks in anything but perfectly formed sentences.”  Indeed of all the interviewees, Oates is perhaps the most erudite and articulate.  When asked whether she has to be in the mood to write, the phenomenally productive Oates replied: 

“One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.  If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function— a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind— then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in.  Generally, I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been uttering exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for more than five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” 

Very few writers start the day wanting to write just as few runners start the day wanting to run.  But in much the same way that “life begets life,” writing begets writing.  Writing— like all creative endeavors— is self-generative and self-sustaining: once we begin writing, we want to write; we don’t wait till we have ideas, we get ideas once we put pen to paper.  The hardest part of writing is beginning: once we overcome our initial resistance and simply start, we gain momentum and become unstoppable.  Lesson?  We have to sit at our desks no matter what.  

How to Make a Book a Friend, Not a Passing Guest

I’ve always been a reader.  My love affair with books began when my grandmother read to me from a tattered first edition of Aesop’s Fables.  Sunlight pouring through the windows of her high-ceilinged bedroom, fan turning lazily overhead, she read with the poised delivery of a professionally-trained actress, enunciating every syllable, her elocution, flawless.  She knew how to pause for effect, how to perform different character’s voices, a skill she had perfected over decades as a school teacher.  As her wrinkled hands delicately turned the soft pages, I leaned forward, desperate to find out what happened next.

My love for books continued into my later childhood years.  When I was ten, paradise was perusing the bookshelves of my local Borders.  “Go look around.  You can get whatever you want,” my dad said.  As he roamed the history section for books on World War II and Mt. Everest, the rich smell of roasted coffee beans drifting from Seattle’s Finest, I strolled through the chapter books: My Side of the Mountain, The Boxcar Children, The Babysitter’s Club.  By the time we made our way to the cash register, I had a stack of books as tall and precarious as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Today I continue to devour books, fifty, sometimes one hundred a year.  But though I’m an avid reader, I sometimes worry I amass very little of what I read.  Yes, I have a voracious appetite for books; and yes, my conception of bliss is limitless hours in a library’s main stacks; and yes, I read widely but do I really absorb what I read?  Do the countless hours with a book and tea in hand actually enlarge my narrow mindmake me more empathetic?  Does reading enrich my life and mold me into a better person?  Or do I just consume books as mindlessly as others might gorge themselves on reality television?  Maybe, I shuddered, reading was simply an aimless way to pass the time, yet another form of superficial entertainment. 

How, I wondered, could I instill the act of reading with more significance?  how could I retain more of what I read? 

In her elegiac Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox offers a solution, “divine reading”— a way of engaging with books borrowed from the monasteries of medieval times.  Rather than read passively without thinking or asking questions or read hurriedly for the sake of checking another book off their to-read list, monks were masters of divine reading, what Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren termed “critical reading” in their seminal How to Read a Book.  Like Adler and Doren, who believed what we get from books is directly proportional to the effort we put in, medieval monks asserted books had much to teach us if we were willing to actively engage with them.

According to Brox, at the beginning of Lent, monks who could read were assigned a single text to study throughout the year.  After studying their text, they’d reflect on what they read throughout the day: while plowing the fields, while peeling potatoes, while kneading bread.  Reading wasn’t merely the act of deciphering symbols as their eyes moved left to right across the page, limited to the few hours when they buried their heads between covers— it was pondering and puzzling, musing and mulling over what they read long afterwards.

Because he spent such vast quantities of time with so few books, the medieval monk’s relationship with what he read— to paraphrase William of St. Thierry— was an intimate bond between life-long friends instead of frivolous small-talk with a passing guest.  In medieval monasteries, a book was a cherished companion, someone you came to know well after passing many hours together.  Unlike an acquaintance who you only knew superficially (“So how are things?” you’d ask politely, never crossing the boundaries into true intimacy”), a book— like a close friend— was someone you felt comfortable asking the tough questions, the one person with whom you could drop all charade and pretense.

Though we usually imagine reading as a one-sided lecture in which the writer is speaker and the reader is listener (“Many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive.  Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it,” Adler and Doren noted), reading is ideally a never-ending two-sided conversation.  Whether they challenge our long-held prejudices and preconceptions or inspire us to see a topic in a new way, books—as Franz Kafka once said— can be an axe for the frozen sea within.  But it is only when we read closely—deconstructing a text, analyzing a writer’s rhetorical, stylistic choices, reading between the lines, beneath what the text explicitly says to what it implies— that we can access the profound power of books to move us.  Otherwise, we’re just shifting our eyes left to right, ingesting information without digesting it, unquestioningly accepting an author’s ideas without formulating our own.  As Brox describes: 

“Several hours of each monastic day were given over to lectio divina— divine reading— but such reading wasn’t confined to the time spent bent to the pages.  It was expansive and ongoing, linked to all other activities of the monastery, to be contemplated while a monk or nun tended bees, hoed the garden…and then recalled again and again during the vast silence of the day.  Their reading worked its way into their prayers, their thoughts, their recollections.  ‘Some part of your daily reading should also each day be committed to memory,’ William of St. Thierry instructed the novices at Mont Dieu, ‘taken as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination.  He also counseled: ‘You will never enter into Paul’s meaning until by constant application you have imbibed his spirit.  You will never understand David until by experience you have made the very sentiments of the psalms your own.”

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If we want to amass more of what we read, Brox asserts, we must remember reading is an active, not a passive, enterprise.  Just as students learn better when teachers relay information through different access points— a lecture, a visual, a Socratic seminar, a hands-on activity— readers retain more of what they read when reading involves other cognitive skills such as speaking and thinking:

And surely the slow pace of reading, as well as reading aloud, helped with memory, as did the continual engagement with only a few books.  But, most essentially for monastics, as Jean Leclercq explained, ‘to speak, to think, to remember are three necessary phases of the same activity.  To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind…What results is a muscular memory of the words pronounced and an aural memory of the words heard…It is what inscribes, so to speak, the sacred text in the body and in the soul.'” 

Brox’s Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives makes an elegant case for the preservation of silence in a chatty world.  Not only are silence, stillness and solitude prerequisites to a contemplative life, they make it possible for books to become the marrow in our bones.  Only then can books transform us and how we view the world.

Time Freed From Time: The Importance of Silence, Stillness & Solitude to the Contemplative Life

jane brox“Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor,” German poet and novelist Herman Hesse once wrote, “Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight…I believe what we lack is joy.  The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival…But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”  And yet in our cutthroat capitalist culture where minutes equal money, we’re always hurrying in a never-ending battle against time.  Unlike our ancestors, whose sense of time was inseparable from the natural world— the unhurried passing from day to night, from winter’s dark days of hibernation to spring’s giddy exuberance and renewed life— our notion of time is bound to a human invention: the clock.  Its hands measure our lives, shaping formless eternity into definite, discrete blocks.  The standardization of time made us unrelentingly conscious of the clock.  The punch of our time stamp, the shriek of the factory whistle, the shrill ring of our six-thirty alarm: no matter where we were, we couldn’t escape its ceaseless tick-tock.  Our every hour suddenly demanded we accomplish something productive, something useful.

In her exquisitely written and intensively researched Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox worries we in the modern era no longer have “time freed from time”— those blissful moments unburdened by duty, what great philosopher Bertrand Russell termed “fruitful monotony.”  For Brox, when man is freed from the bondage of strict schedules and endless responsibilities, his imagination can finally wander.  If we’re constantly scrambling to cross obligations off our to-do lists, we can never sustain the deep thought needed to compose a poem, discover a scientific truth, or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem. 

At the beginning of “Chapter 8: Measures of Time,” Brox examines our culture’s pathological accomplishment-mania.  Rather than cherish silence and stillness, we exalt busyness as if a person’s worth was equal to the number of commitments on their calendar: 

“Today, the small, cut-up things of time have become inextricably mixed with our idea of participation in society.  A full calendar and list of obligations stand as marks of our usefulness, and attunement to time keeps us believing we are part of the world.  The old have moved beyond time, to the margins of society, for they have nothing calling them urgently in the day.  But they are in a double bind— they are conscious of the hours and they are waiting for events.  ‘What’s your rush?’ the old inevitably ask the young.” 

Citing ethicist Andrew Skotnicki, Brox suggests our preoccupation with productivity began not with the emergence of the capitalist economy, but with the rise of Christianity.  Though Christian theology insisted social status wasn’t an accurate index of moral worth (after all, Christ, the most moral of men, the son of God himself, had only been a carpenter), it did attach moral significance to productivity.  Proverbs 14:23, for example, states, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”  If you squandered your days on Earth, it was believed, you would be condemned either to everlasting damnation in hell or purification in purgatory.  For the medieval monk, the gong of the bell tower represented not only another hour passed, but another hour closer to inevitable judgement day:

“Ethicist Andrew Skotnicki has suggested that this sense of urgency tied to the mechanical clock— all the hurry and consciousness of time— isn’t just the result of the advent of industrialization: ‘Punctuality is the sense of time that we have internalized that is tied directly to productivity and performance.  It has been secularized to meet the demands of the capitalist workplace, but the clock entered Western social history not with the modern business enterprise, but with the notion of Purgatory…Productivity in the Christian West is first measured in moral and spiritual terms…The ticking of the clock is a reminder of the eventual judgment for what one does with one’s time.” 

clock tower painting

Like Mary Oliver, who contemplated the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life (“Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions…A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again,” she so elegantly expressed in her lovely essay “Of Power and Time”), Brox asserts that to create, the artist must have “time freed from time” and devote his full— not fragmented— attention to his artistry:

“To defeat the clock, even for a short time, is often to feel that you’ve defeated the anxieties and constrictions of modern society.  Time freed from time, time unconscious of the passing of hours.  Marshall McLuhan would say that to the extent you are lost in your task, the less it resembles work, and this escape from a sense of time is often tied to the creative life.  Poet Adrienne Rich who, in her early years as a writer lived day in and day out with the pressures of motherhood, understands that a creative life cannot thrive on fragmented attention.  ‘For a poem to coalesce, for a character or action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive,’ she has written, ‘And a certain freedom of the mind is needed— freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away.  Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment.'”

But time freed from time is under attack.  In our fast-paced modern world, we’ve seen a sharp decline in leisure.  Today Americans take fewer vacations and work longer hours.  But why should this be a matter of concern?  Isn’t leisure merely a fruitless frittering away of our precious hours?

Though we in the productivity-obsessed West count idleness as one of the most unforgivable transgressions, throughout time, leisure has been the seedbed of all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland proclaimed in If You Want to Write, her timeless treatise on art, independence and creativity.  Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit agreed: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” 

For the seed of a groundbreaking idea to germinate, it must have silence, stillness and solitude, the fertilizers of creativity.  Unlike loneliness, which is an estrangement from self and has— according to brilliant philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt— offered the “common ground for terror” throughout history, solitude is an affirmation of self, a restorative state where the individual can converse with his innermost being and reconnect with his true identity.  Solitude, Arendt argues, is essential to the life of the mind: only when we’re alone at our desks or in the undisturbed quiet of the main stacks of a library can we focus enough to study and probe, to observe and think, to dissect and analyze.  Far from the cacophony of other people’s opinions, we can finally make out the murmurs of our own thoughts, our own voice. 

Sadly in our noisy age, it’s getting harder and harder to hear ourselves think.  Whether it’s the empty-headed chatter of the 24-hour news cycle or the megaphone of opinions on message boards and Youtube comments, it seems there’s something clamoring for our attention and drowning out our inner voice at all times.  Today millions of people carry a source of near perpetual distraction in their pockets: a smartphone.  The notifications on our phones are seductive siren calls, enticing us to check their glowing screens 80 times a day, or once every 12 minutes.  Because we have non-stop access to the never-ending spectacle of the internet, we continually have something to divert our attention and very rarely have to suffer tedium.  The result?  Our generation has a very low tolerance for boredom.  The second we have nothing to occupy us, we desperately seek out distraction.  After all, why sit listless in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when we can play Candy Crush?

Though the smartphone dazzles and delights with an irresistible theme park of amusements, it severely limits our capacity to stand the stillness and silence so essential to sustained attention.  Because it conditions us to expect entertainment every hour, every minute, an idle moment— a welcome respite to the artists and philosophers of antiquity— is to the modern man an insufferable form of torture.  Trained as we are to seek instant gratification, we want to be captivated by page one of a book, not page one hundred.  We abandon anything that doesn’t immediately engross our interest.  But all critical and free thought, all expressions of creativity, all revolutionary, history-making ideas require we endure occasional periods of monotony.  To lead a contemplative life, a life defined by thought, imagination and creativity, Brox concludes, we have to resist the urge to always be occupied:

“…the release from chronological time is essential for the contemplative life.  Michael Casey, writing in the time-stressed twenty-first century, holds that leisure time makes contemplation possible.  He is not speaking of leisure as we have come to know it, as downtime or recreation, but as a ‘time and space of freedom in which the deep self can find fuller expression.’  Casey has argued that leisure is ‘above all being attentive to the present moment, open to all its implications, living it to the full.  This implies a certain looseness of lifestyle that allows the heart and mind to drift away from time to time…It is the opposite of being enslaved by the past or living in some hazy anticipation of a desirable future…Leisure is a very serious matter because it is the product of an attentive and listening attitude to life.’  It is, he asserts, citing German philosopher Josef Pieper, a form of silence.”

Rebecca Solnit’s Serenade to the City & the Solitary Stroller

“What is the great attraction in cities?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1845, “It is universally admitted that human beings invariably degenerate there and do not propagate their kind.”  As the Industrial Revolution alienated laborers from their labor and gobbled up countrysides, transcendentalists lamented we lost a deep connection both with ourselves and with nature.  For Thoreau, it was only amid the autumn quietude of the New England woods, the soothing sounds of a tranquil brook, the idyllic charm of a French countryside that man could finally be free of the corrupting influence of civilization.  To him, the modern metropolis was a Dante’s inferno of debauchery and decadence, a netherworld where— as James Shergold Boone so poetically said— “the appetites, the passions, the carnal corruptions of man are forced, as in a hotbed, into a rank and foul luxuriance.”  

This strict dichotomy between city and country has almost always existed.  Since Shakespeare, artists have romanticized the rural as a paradise of purity and goodness and condemned the urban as an inescapable cesspit.  In transcendentalist thought, the city stomped out individuality, transforming human beings into an automated assembly line of soulless factory workers.  Displaced and alienated, the solitary city stroller was just another cog in the capitalist machine, another stranger in a sea of anonymity.

But for our era’s poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, whose prose is both lyrical and luminous, the city is neither a gutter of vice nor the slaughterer of the human spirit— it’s an inspirer of wonderment.  In her endlessly edifying Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Solnit contemplates cities as much as she contemplates transporting herself by two feet.  In the chapter “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” she recalls returning home to San Francisco and rediscovering her love for the city.  With exquisite elegance and understated poetry, she portrays urban life as a multitude of experience.  A leisurely stroll through Golden Gate Park, an hour of window-shopping along Haight Street: each person she passes is a potential friend, each doorway, a portal of possibility: 

“Every building, every storefront, seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all variety of human life into a jumble of possibilities made all the richer by the conjunctions.  Just as a bookshelf can jam together Japanese poetry, Mexican history, and Russian novels, so the buildings of my city contained Zen centers, Pentecostal churches, tattoo parlors, produce stores, burrito places, movie palaces, dim sum shops.  Even the most ordinary things struck me with wonder, and the people on the street offered a thousand glimpses of lives like and utterly unlike mine.”  

vintage san francisco

I’ve always been entranced by the excitement of the city: the art galleries, the plays, the museums, the concerts, the cafes, the exhilarating sense that there was always something going on no matter the time of day.  When I lived in Berkeley, the ordinary act of walking down the street to the corner store took on the grand dimensions of a Homeric odyssey.  Wandering down Telegraph Ave, past Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books, the exotic smells of Burmese food and incense mingling with the scent of salt water from the bay, I was a hero on a quest who had to navigate the many obstacles in my way (mostly one too many runaway hippie kids pestering me for a cigarette or spare change).  Strolling through the city was always eventful.  If I didn’t discover a delightful gem of a coffee shop hidden along a side street or a charming second-hand bookstore, I almost always witnessed something entertaining: a rapper free-styling on the corner of Telegraph and Channing, a dapper young man in horn-rimmed glasses and loafers charging 25 cents for a poem, an anarchist shouting his manifesto into a megaphone while standing on a milk crate.

For Solnit, the charm of urban life is this novelty and variety, the thrill of not knowing what’s going happen when you leave your apartment and step onto the street.  In a city, there’s still room for surprise and spontaneity— unlike in a suburb, where the rhythm of life is as predictable as a song playing on repeat.  To stroll through a city is to be enchanted by a sense of endless possibility: you never know what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet.  For my fellow Bay Area native Ms. Solnit, San Francisco remains the quintessential city.  Unlike in many modern metropolises, which have become larger-scale suburbs where residents are cordoned off in their own private vehicles and rarely interact in public space, in San Francisco, it’s still possible to socialize with strangers on the street:

“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in while walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or fortune-teller’s, only to know that one might.  A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.  San Francisco has long been called the most European of American cities, a comment more often made than explained.  What I think its speakers mean is that San Francisco, in its scale and street life, keeps alive the idea of the city as a place of unmediated encounters, while most American cities are becoming more and more like enlarged suburbs, scrupulously controlled and segregated, designed for non-interactions of motorists shuttling between private places rather than the interactions of pedestrians in public ones.” 

Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco, California

For more from Wanderlust: A History of Walking, delight in Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.  Or if you want to see Solnit bring her perceptive intellect to sauntering, cities and politics, visit walking as a political act and the streets as the realm of radical change, revolution & democracy.