Christian McEwen On Creativity and Slowing Down

As part of the background reading for my “time novel,” I recently read World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwen (Bauhan Publishing, 2011).  I am going to experiment here with a kind of reflective writing that I probably haven’t done since elementary or middle school; the “book report.”  Partly this is to serve my own “research” needs — to ask myself, “what have I gleaned from this book that is important for my larger project?” It is also a way to share the wealth of what I am learning and experiencing as I go, and to stay connected with my blog readers as I work towards the larger project. (Full disclosure: I first encountered this idea in a book called Your First 1000 Copies, by Tim Grahl, about how to prepare as you are writing so that when your book comes out, you already have 1000 people who are ready to buy it!!) Also, it is good practice in exactly the kind of slowing down that McEwen herself recommends; rather than just checking this and other books off my to-do list, I want to savor and cherish the insights from them.

As I read this wonderful book, I did find myself slowing down. The work is full of wonderful quotes, examples, stories, and facts McEwen has gleaned from her life and her readings (and she has read widely). The whole book is an ode to slowness, a “here’s why” and “how to” manual for slowing down. She has collected quotes from painters, writers, naturalists, and scientists. She has sections on walking (sauntering, daundering), on looking, on reading (and re-reading), on storytelling, on listening, on silence. On meditation, prayer, sabbath, sleeping (and dreaming), letter-writing, and gratitude.

I’m struggling a little with how to do this “book report” because McEwen uses so many delicious quotes that it is tempting to have my gleanings be simply quoting a whole lot of her quotations!! For example: “‘Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?’ asks the writer Milan Kundera,” or “’Art,’ said the novelist Saul Bellow, ‘has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos . . . an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.’” And then there are McEwen’s own lovely, poetic and important ideas that I could quote extensively. For instance, she describes her own and others’ difficulties with slowing down or observing Sabbath — apparently music teachers report that even otherwise proficient students have difficulty with rests!  She says a pause like a sabbath day or a vacation “can open up a Pandora’s box of complicated feelings, all of them clamoring for our attention. Faced with that internal ruckus, it can seem easier to abandon any pretense of rest, and retreat to our familiar patterns of busyness and addiction, including so-called ‘therapeutic’ shopping. It is poignant, in this context, that ‘buys’ should be an anagram of ‘busy.'” (Sorry I can’t give you page numbers on the quotes, since I read the Kindle edition!).

I learned early on in my writing career that just stringing together quotes from the book isn’t a book report. You have to talk about what the author said, the “so what,” and use quotes sparingly, to give examples, of the “what” that you’re telling the “so what” about. I also was trained in academic settings like sociology that required me to be forwarding a thesis, an argument, in my writing. At the very least, a book review (the adult version of the book report) should recommend and /or critique the book! For my book I’m definitely working to weave together ideas from multiple sources, including from my own experience, to form new ideas — an “argument” of sorts. For now, though I think it will be enough to try to capture some more basic forms of “so what.” What am I gleaning that seems important?

Some of McEwen’s book is a lament about the problems with the increased pace of life in modern, especially urban, society. Her multitude of quotes on the matter is a testament to the fact that lots of people have been lamenting this increasing pace for many decades. McEwen also offers evidence that this increased pace is real, not just perceived. For instance, she reports that “pedestrians worldwide now walk 10 percent faster than we did in 1995; in China and Singapore, the percentage has increased by as much as 20 to 30 percent.” Some of my other reading about time supports this idea (and that the pace of life is indeed faster in larger cities).  There are related tidbits about our relationship to time, such as the factoids that the average person “sleeps between sixty and ninety minutes less a night than he or she did a century ago” (!) and that “offered a choice between more free time and higher pay, most Americans now claim they’d choose free time.”  So, the heroine of my sci-fi novel has ample reason to feel that time could actually be speeding up!

McEwen herself is a writing teacher, and the work is full of wisdom I can use to develop as a writer. Writing and other art, in her view, are ways of noticing, of cherishing something through intimate description of it. Like savoring the taste of our food. She makes a connection between this kind of noticing and the practice of gratitude:  “Gratitude creates a space in which nothing is not welcome: the fog, the hummingbirds, the blue sea and the sails. And when this is true for the writer or the artist him-or herself, it can also become true for those who read or see or otherwise appreciate their work.” She has a whole delicious section on how and why dreams are important, which has reinforced my practice of beginning my “Morning Pages” with writing about any dreams I remember.  I have been finding this very helpful, at times, in sorting out things about my life, and in developing scenes and ideas for the novel. She also helps me understand the importance of writing in general in my life, when she says “You write what you don’t know about what you know.”

McEwen says “The struggle to find time is so pervasive that it is easy to feel daunted,” but, she suggests, “The solution has less to do with ‘fighting back’ against a culture of hyper speed and its attendant screens, than with turning the other cheek: choosing again and again ‘to take the slow way home.’” At the end of each chapter she offers “Tactics,” a few tips and exercises, ways to actually practice slowing down, including choosing to take the “slow way home.” Allowing time for an unlimited conversation with someone you care about, where you agree to allow each other enough time to follow the talk wherever it wants to go. Going for a walk at the pace of a small child. Remembering to take time for 3 or 4 or 5 slow, conscious breaths in the middle of a busy day. Not only are these useful tips for me in life, and in writing, but they might also factor into my storyline for the book… stay tuned to find out how.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes that McEwen shares, which she attributes to her friend Mariel’s grandmother, and which I find immensely hopeful:  “A little can be a lot if it’s enough.” Dipping into a little of this book at a time could itself be a practice for  slowing down.


3 thoughts on “Christian McEwen On Creativity and Slowing Down”

  1. Jean McElhaney

    What a juicy topic — time. With regard to speeding up of life — I wonder if you have thought about the relationship between a sense of scarcity of time and scarcity of money? The relationship between capitalism and feeling frantic about time? I think also there is a sense of not-enoughness related to having lost our innate sense of value as a unique part of an interconnected, interdependent whole. So we end up constantly trying to earn or prove our worth, without any clear end in sight. There is always more to do, and when it comes from that sense of “have to” (as if we “have to” or we will die unfulfilled, or unworthy, or somehow without having done what we came here to do) it all feels frantic. When it comes from that more slow, “enough” place, even a moment of savoring the sunset can feel more than enough. And the “more” is more like — ooh, more life to enjoy! Rather than ooh, more that I have to get done today! Wondering if this musing makes any sense or resonates at all? Delighted to follow your musings and will be among those eagerly anticipating the book!

  2. Hi, Jean, thanks for your thoughts, so resonant with me as usual! Yes, I think and feel that “not enough” and shame and scarcity of money and capitalism all interrelate closely with time pressure!

  3. I was struck by the Saul Bellow quote, “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos . . . an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” This is an apt description of my meditation practice at the moment, where I simply rest my mind, and allow all the confused chaos to simply arise and subside within the open, pure, spaciousness. As my meditation poem says, “simply rest and let things free themselves upon arising.”

    Just a random resonance.

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