In all the frenzy and busyness how do you keep the still centre of inspiration?
At this time of the year, the natural world is stripped back, the palette of the season is cooler, more limited. It’s not only certain animals that feel the need to hibernate, but often we feel it too — a pull to go within:
- to hunker down and reconnect with the source of our creativity
- to reflect on the year that is coming towards an end
- to look towards a new year with thoughts about where the quest goes next
- to slow down and be present — to ourselves and our writing, to the world and those we love — in ways that don’t exhaust and deplete us.
But while we sense this pull to slow down and be present, the world often has other ideas. If we keep Chanukah or Solstice or Christmas, if we also have Thanksgiving to throw into the mix, there might be a whirl of social demands, not to mention the present-buying, cooking, cards and associated frenzy of activities. In the midst of commercial flurry, family pressures and office parties, there is a persistent stillness to this time of year, but how do we tap into that?
Connecting with the season
I came to Budapest at the beginning of November with a long list of goals for my writing. I’ve written twice as much as I imagined, but not one word of it is on the project I’d thought to focus on.
The new novel, Saoirse’s Crossing, remains an amorphous swirl of ideas. I did dream a second character (only last night). He introduced himself briefly, but his name gives me a clue as to to how he will play a role in the book when it germinates and begins pushing shoots above ground. What I realised very soon after arriving in Budapest was that if this novel is going to be even half of what I hope for it, I have to back off and desist from trying to force-grow it. It’s a winter baby and it needs time, lots of time in the unconscious.
But this left me off-centre and in need of a project. I had blogs to write and a big creative nonfiction project that I could have dived into — it’s largely written and is at the awkward coming-of-age stage of not knowing quite how all its parts should work together — but I wasn’t settling to anything I did.
The seasons were definitely part of this. We arrived in Budapest ready for cold, cold weather to find ourselves in a warm snap. Apart from the fact that we’d packed the wrong clothes, it was lovely to move around this amazing city in spring-like air with beautiful blue skies, but also disconcerting.
And then the weather changed: cold, including the coldest rain (I’m used to rain in Wales, but this was ice breath in liquid form). And with the cold came a deep knowing that Winter had arrived and that this is what was calling me to write.
The rhythm and riches of winter
And so began a new course, Finding the Still Point of Your Story: a course exploring the winter rhythms of our writing lives and their emerging quests.
It was going to be 30, very short, lessons with thoughts and a prompt or two for deep journaling. But as I began to read and pull in material from amazing writers, artists, philosophers, scientists … the riches of this season presented themselves in abundance.
And then I began having conversations with writers who feel too busy in December to give themselves 20–30 minutes a day to re-connect with their inspiration, with the sources of their creativity. These are not weak excuses:
- a minister who is flat out with ministry and liturgy in December
- a poet who has taken on a large editing commission
- another poet who is caring full time for a beloved elder and fighting for the health care he needs
- a story writer with young children and a large family about to arrive for holidays, during which she’s always fallen into the role of serving everyone, and this will be expected again …
These are real demands, yet it is all the more important that writers whose time is being called on, with such unremitting insistence, give their writing the power and time it needs, even if it’s a few minutes each day.
And so the course took shape: 34 lessons, inspirational, nourishing writing from many thinkers and disciplines, prompts, journaling questions and a daily ‘ritual’, a simple action to stay centred and present through the winter season.
The winter is a season rich in recuperative potential and those who have a lot to give need its nourishment.
Helping writers develop their writing lives is my passion, because writing is powerful and I want to share the ways it transforms us into a different story. And particularly when the world is pressing in and threatening to cut us off from the transformative sustenance of writing.
Spinning and Centring
Recently I read an account of someone learning how to use a potter’s wheel. What is most difficult for new potters is centering the clay on the fast spinning wheel. The clay never lands on the centre of the wheel and it never lands in an even shape, yet both conditions are necessary if something of use and beauty, a bowl, a mug, a jar, is going to result.
The novice potter has to learn to nudge the lump with exactly the right pressure and direction, whilst keeping her hands and the clay moist and the speed just right. It often fails. The pressure isn’t right, the wheel spins too fast or slow, the clay is dry and cracks, or too wet and sags into a globby mess.
It’s a superb metaphor for finding our own centres. The potter, Patricia Pearce, notes:
If I’m really tuned in, I can sense the still point in the centre of the clay even before I begin.
When it works, it’s magical and tactile, and it’s like meditation.
Pearce goes on:
… it reminds me that the still point is always present, a calm centered axis I can move into, opening up a spacious calm in my core.
Imagine it for yourself and see if you can detect that still point that is already there, present, waiting for you at the centre of your being.
Writing about the contrast between the bustle of the entire universe and the stillness of reaching a spot as remote as the North Pole, which Arctic explorer Robert Edwin Peary described as ‘so simple and common place’, the physicist Alan Lightman writes in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine:
I try to imagine the “common place” experience of standing exactly at the pole of the earth (even if Peary was not quite there). I see myself perched on a glistening ball in space spinning about an imaginary axis through its center, and I am standing at the precise point where that axis emerges from the interior and punctures the ice. All other points on this ball, except at the opposite pole, are in motion. But I am still. You could say I am locally at rest. I am at rest relative to the center of the earth. But that center is itself in motion. As I stand here, that center hurtles around its central star at a speed of 65,000 miles per hour, and that central star, in turn, revolves around the center of the galaxy, the Milky Way, at a speed of 500,000 miles per hour. Do I know too much, or too little? I look up into space, as the cave dwellers did, and am transfixed by the infinite. Although I cannot touch it, I feel that I’m there. This resting yet unresting pole is quite a spot for viewing the universe.
‘Finding the Still Point of Your Story’ is a course to help all of us find a spot for viewing the universe and connect with our deepest wells of inspiration, no matter how busy the season.
Slow and be present
We give our attention to so many things, vital things and time-sucking distractions. And sometimes we have to give time to reflecting on how we will go on giving time — to others and to self — so that, in the words of Anna Quidlan in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, we:
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.
This is Simone Weil in First and Last Notebooks:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
We do well to take the advice of Hermann Hesse in My Belief, Essays on Life and Art:
My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.
‘Finding the Still Point of Your Story’ is about exactly this. It’s about:
- slowing down and being present
- discovering your ‘to-be’ list rather than wading through a never-ending ‘to-do’ list.
- finding the marks of compassion, humility, courage, vulnerability and generosity in your writing and life
- setting yourself up to have quests (not resolutions based on easily exhausted willpower) for 2019
It’s an opportunity to develop what Anne Lamott calls a ‘warm and generous heart’ in the depths of winter and still have time to write. I hope many of you will take it.
Call to find the still point of your story
Why such a huge reduction? Because I want transformational relationships in which we contribute different things and together become more than the sum of our parts. I want to give more value than a cost figure can conjure, not because it’s Purple Tuesday or Turquiose over-spending-on-stuff-that-doesn’t-sell day, but because the world needs writing and it needs generosity and abundance.