[this article – or, at least, some version of it, originally appeared in WQ]
Every morning when I slide out of bed I put on coffee and open my notebooks, sit down at my desk, and write.
It seems simple enough and, to a disinterested observer – to the birds outside my window – perhaps it is; just a dishevelled woman at a keyboard, coffee at her elbow, notebooks open at her side and fingertips tapping at the keys. And yet, anyone who has tried to write knows that what cannot be seen is everything. Some mornings the distance from my bed to the desk is the Sahara – hot, empty, unforgiving, impossible. Some mornings it barely exists and I arrive at my destination – at the place of writing – without effort, write without effort. Those mornings I float through the day: anything seems possible.
Like most writers, I am perpetually curious about other writers: how do they do the conjuring trick? There are many elaborate theories about creativity – about what happens when writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, architects and scientists dream the world into being. Like you, perhaps, I read their accounts voraciously, greedily. Recently, I have been reading the writing of the quantum physicist David Bohm, and the occasional writings of some women medieval mystics. As far apart as these two sets of ideas might seem they hold a certain elegant similarity. In the new preface to Bohm’s On Creativity, Leroy Little Bear, Director of Native American Studies at Harvard, describes the mind as:
a repository of creativity because of the notion of constant flux. If one were to imagine this flux at a cosmic scale or at a mental level consisting of energy waves, once can imagine him- or herself as a surfer: a surfer of the flux. While surfing one goes with the flow of the waves, becoming one with the waves (On Creativity, x).
For Blackfoot, the mind is part of the great flux. The mind is a repository of necessary, perpetual, compulsive creativity because it relates to reality from within the chaos. In other words, the means by which we perceive and create the world is the world – immanent and equivalent. We are part of the flux of energy, light and mass – the fundamental chaos out of which creativity – natural, human and, perhaps, divine – spring.
All of this seems very far removed, some days, from my desk and chair, from the ordinary rhythms of my day. Where is the wondrousness of the great flux when I am tired, when the pen won’t work, and the day won’t start? David Bohm argues that creativity is dulled when we are trapped in reactive/reflective thought – in the archaic mental patterns that are fundamental to everyday living. Reactive/reflective thought is the bedrock equilibrium necessary to washing dishes, dressing in the morning, parsing a sentence, or boiling potatoes. This kind of thinking is necessarily conservative – it loves repetition and predictability – a writer might draw on it to sketch in the flat comfort of three-act structure, to pin a femme fatale to the page, or a gold-hearted prostitute. It takes more than this, however, to make something new – to truly create rather than reproduce. It takes a higher-order process.
Bohm calls this higher-order process intelligence, which, for him, has a very specific, perhaps unusual definition: for him, intelligence is a process during which a mind is opened up, in a deep structural sense, to a perceptual field freed of conditioning – a thoughtfulness free of reactive/reflective thinking. He says:
In the primary act of insight, which, for example, takes place in a flash of understanding, we see (though, evidently, not through the senses) a whole range of differences, similarities, connections, disconnections, totalities of universal and particular ratio or proportion, and so forth … it is a particular case of perception as a whole. This latter includes not only perception through the mind, but also sense perception, aesthetic perception, and emotional perception (On Creativity, 67)
This notion of the flash of insight is nothing new; it is fundamental to many of the more romantic notions about creativity – particularly that old – convenient – saw about needing to wait for inspiration to arrive. And yet Bohm articulates, I think, something importantly differentiated. This is not a description of passively-received, external inspiration or insight. In calling it intelligence and describing it as he does, Bohm confirms, for me, something I believe about the process of writing. It’s all very well to wait for inspiration; but while waiting it’s a good idea to write – mindfully, thoughtfully, with the kind of concentrated, intelligent, diligent thoughtfulness that seeks to eschew the easy comfort of reactive/reflective thinking. Trying, as hard as it is, not to slip into familiar forms – into the images, sentences, structures and scenes that are the bread and butter of weak writing. I think he’s writing to explicate in a more concrete, perhaps more rational way the impulse embedded in Rushdie’s invocation that we should:
Always try and do too much. Disperse with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be ruthless. Argue with the world.
For me, when Rushdie invites us – implores us – to argue with the world, it is the mechanical, staid world of reactive thinking that he rails against. The world of ordinary dreams. It is easier to chart neat novels on neat maps, to call up well-worn stereotypes and archetypes and place them here and there – to plot out ordinary wonders and approach writing as a kind of paint-by-numbers exercise. There are plenty of writers who find this satisfying, even revel in it. I suspect that the better of them use familiar forms merely as a foundation – a necessary foundation for their reactive thinking, while the real work takes place elsewhere. We are all, in some way, restricted by the demands of our form – even if it is only at the level of word choices and sentence structures. Musicians must use scales, painters paint, sculptors air and stone and steel.
Little wonder, then, that writing is never as simple as washing the dishes, weeding the garden or writing a cliché. It requires us to move outside of our familiar, functional reactive/reflective thinking to wholeness of perception. And yet, I don’t think we need to exercise that monumental, transformative insight every day. There is an apocryphal story about the philosopher, mathematician and scientist, Rene Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes writes that on the night of November 10-11, 1619, he had three dreams: one of ghosts and storms, another in which he woke as though from a clap of thunder with suddenly sparkling eyesight and the third – the most famous – in which he wrote that he “discovered the foundations of a marvellous science” based on a connection between nature and mathematics. He went on to spend his whole life articulating the ideas that came to him in that dream – including analytical geometry.
Year after year he sat in his bed each morning, blanketed against the cold, teasing out the implications of that one flash of insight. I imagine it was hard work, that it pained him to eke out what had come to him in an easy moment of (what he believed to be) divine Spiritual communication. Descartes was physically frail, prone to chest illnesses, unable – most days – to rise from his bed until the middle of the day. (His death, at an early age, in Sweden, is sometimes said to be caused because his patron – Queen Christina – insisted he rise in the early Winter cold to tutor her.) And yet that one vision sustained him, that one crack in the reactive/reflective mould of his thinking – of Western European philosophy and science’s collective thinking – about the world, that moment of intelligence. After that, all it took was discipline, hard work, dedication and faith.
I spend a lot of time with people who aspire to write. People who, like me, have heard the call in one form or another. Some of them, I think, have not yet found the means to access Bohm’s creative intelligence in themselves – they are still searching for rules, regulations, forms. It is hard to wait, hard to nurture something so abstruse and unreliable. These kinds of writers seek reactive/reflective guidelines for writing. And it is, I think, necessary to acquire familiarity with the ‘rules’ – whatever they are – in order to move beyond them, in order to see outside them. You cannot compose symphonies without knowing your scales.
It is hard to understand – to accept – that writing requires more than this of you. It requires dedication, education, understanding and creativity. It is easy, I suspect, to be temporarily comforted by the reactive/reflective thinking that goes into writing a story – perhaps to believe, as many writers do, that it should be enough. Personally, I think it isn’t. I think it takes Bohm’s creative intelligence to break free of the restrictive vision of the forms that make up the world-as-it-is and see the world-as-it-might-be – to imagine and create. The hardest part, I think, is to have faith that this intelligence can be nurtured – that insight will come only once the body, mind and perhaps soul are tempered in the forge of dedication. The hardest part is to maintain hope that the flux will resolve, at some point, into a beautiful form that you can bring back to the world and press onto the page.
The mystics write about faith a lot. And yet, their faith is not the whimsical, easy faith of many contemporary people. Theirs is a faith based on dedication, commitment and hard work. For the mystics, God can be apprehended, if not known, but it requires a daily exercise of the body and soul – a faithful commitment to the idea of achieving the impossible – of seeing God.
Many writers, I have come to recognise, feel a similar way. We do the hard work of writing – and it has its many and varied pleasures – not because the slog of it is the point, but because the slog is the daily exercise out of which we prepare our minds for the wicked flash of insight – for an experience of pure literary – writerly – ecstasy.
It takes discipline to show up at the desk every day – occasionally I fail. Some days I struggle to believe that it will happen – this odd, ordinary miracle. Some days I know it won’t and I struggle to maintain faithfulness – discipline. Some days the children wake early, or the day is too fast, or I am hungover, or work – my other work – intrudes. Not often, anymore, since I have learned to write with children at my knees, deadlines looming over me, with a blaring headache, in the grip of nausea, or in the black horror of despair. I have learned to ignore email and fine weather and even, sometimes, love. I can write when the dishes aren’t done and the garden blooms with weeds, when my lover is sleeping or working or waiting. For a while I lost my hold on this urge – this necessity – at the centre of my life. I lost faith in myself, in writing. As the great poet (almost) said, however, the centre could not hold and things fell apart. It didn’t take much to regain hope, to remember that while Descartes – perhaps unsurprisingly – proposed that being was a state of thought (cogito ergo sum) for me – for a writer – the simple truth of my existence is that I write. The verb ‘to write’ is the very stuff of my soul.
Scribo ergo sum. I am a writer; I write. It is as necessary to me as breathing.