How to forget balance and embrace the magic of rhythm

Writing is the perfect metaphor for life in so many ways and when it comes to finding our flow, especially so. Writing relies on rhythm rather than balance and that’s a good guideline for life too.

How often have you heard that your life needs balance? Particularly a ‘work-life balance’ (as though work is not part of life). A quick internet search will reveal hundreds of blogs devoted to the quest for balance, promising such things as:

how to establish the perfect work-life balance through setting healthy boundaries

while another urges employers to ensure that their employees have:

a satisfactory work-life balance

Intriguing that the first, aimed at those taking control, goes for ‘perfect’, while employees get ‘satisfactory’. But the message is consistent: balancing is an essential skill that you neglect at your peril. Is this the case? Is life a tightrope walk?

It doesn’t have to be. The idea of balance assumes that there are a lot of equal calls on us and we should be treating each to the same time and attention. But life is much messier and more interesting than this. And it can be much less stressful. Remember:

You can do anything, but not everything

Follow your quest

Life is too short for ‘to do’ lists. We need quests. And If you have purpose then work life and personal life begin to integrate as part of a whole, rather than being warring factions.

If you have work that energises you rather than drains you, the idea of striving for balance is unlikely to occur.

If you are a writer and have the luxury of writing for weeks or months as your main activity, you’ll be ecstatic, but you won’t have balance.

Great artists and musicians are rarely balanced — they put as much time as possible into their art.

Attend to where you are

In Your To Be List, James McMahon and Lauren Rosenfeld aim:

To be engaged at whatever I am doing, whenever I am doing it. What I do wholeheartedly energizes me, no matter what that is. It is only when I get into the pattern of getting through one thing in order to get to the next thing that I feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

When we live in the moment and pay attention to the project we’re working on, the food we’re eating, the book we’re reading, the person we are with … we’re more fulfilled and less stressed. But it isn’t balance: it’s savouring one thing at a time.

Get into flow

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about flow as that mindspace where we lose ourselves in an activity. We’re so immersed that time and space seem different. We’re so ‘in the zone’ that the world falls away. This is anything but balanced but who would want balance compared to flow?


Being in the flow is a peak experience that exposes the myth of balance but it does require extreme commitment and focus. And for most of us there isn’t only one project in life. You might want to write and write and write but you might also want to keep your relationships with family and friends intact. And even writers have to eat and do some life-maintenance.

This doesn’t mean you have to give equal weight to every distraction or demand that comes along but you do need to check in with yourself to keep a perspective on the things that matter.

Hopefully a limited number of areas have a call on you. The key is to prioritise. In the words of Henry David Thoreau:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.

Writing in the New York Times, Brad Stulberg says:

Maybe the good life is not about trying to achieve some sort of illusory balance. Instead, maybe it’s about pursuing your interests fully, but with enough internal self-awareness to regularly evaluate what you’re not pursuing as a result — and make changes if necessary. Living in this manner trumps balance any day.

That’s sound advice that brings me back to writing as a metaphor for life:

Find your rhythm

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: It is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.

Virginia Woolf

All writing has rhythm. (Poetry also has metre but rhythm is common to all writing.)

Think about the effect of short sentences. They set up a beat. They feel urgent. Or they halt. If they go on. And on. They drum in the head. They start to annoy.

Short sentences can be effective but they soon get monotonous and choppy, so we tend to vary the rhythm.

Long sentences, even complex ones with sub-clauses, as long as the sub-clauses don’t start to run away from you, can give a great deal of connectedness. Whilst too many long sentences can start to sound stuffy, nonetheless sentences that are both long and well-articulated give a measured pace. And short sub-clauses within the sentence can set up the rhythm of a piece.

In writing, we vary the rhythm. The form we use has an impact on the content and how it’s received by the reader. In writing, sometimes we go for equilibrium. Consider the device of parataxis which takes phrases that are all of equal weight and sets them side by side. This can involve linking phrases with co-ordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). The simplest definition of parataxis is ‘just one thing after another’. Like this quote from A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

Or this poignant passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

As in writing, so in life. Sometimes we are holding areas in equilibrium. Sometimes life comes at us in a rush. The device of asyndeton is a sub-set of parataxis. All the phrases are of equal weight but there are no conjunctions of any kind. Like Caesar’s:

veni, vidi, vici

It can be stoccato in rhythm or reflect stream of consciousness as in this from Samuel Beckett’s Not I:

out . . . into this world . . . this world . . . tiny little thing . . . before its time . . . in a god for — . . . what? . . girl? . . yes . . . tiny little girl . . . into this . . . out into this . . . before her time . . . godforsaken hole called . . . called . . . no matter . . . parents unknown . . . unheard of . . . he having vanished . . . thin air . . . no sooner buttoned up his breeches . . . she similarly . . . eight months later . . . almost to the tick . . . so no love . . . spared that . . . no love such as normally vented on the . . . speechless infant . . . in the home . . . no . . . nor indeed for that matter any of any kind . . . no love of any kind . . . at any subsequent stage

The thing about rhythm is that it changes. Rhythm, unlike balance, goes with the flow. Do you need short sentences or long? Do you need the equilibrium of phrases of equal weight slowed by conjunctions or the wild rush of stream of consciousness?

Do you need to hold two areas of your life side by side or is it time to dive deep into one immersive project?

The answer will change all the time and, while chasing balance is irreconcilable with that, finding rhythm isn’t.

Breathe in, breathe out

Everything that lives, breathes. The same is true of writing.

If we walk in beautiful places we’ll find that not only do we breathe in, breathe out, but our attention will follow the same rhythm. We’ll move between looking outward and inward musing. We’ll get caught up in the sights and smells and they in turn will evoke memories and emotions.

Good writing has the same kind of pulse, moving inwards to thoughts and emotions, outwards to dialogue and description. When writing has this rhythm, moving focus, inward and outward, it’s much more compelling. In this fragment of Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, the protagonist moves from a visual observation to the emotional impact it has on him:

After midnight Clara strolls behind her friend Alice, removes the shawl from her shoulders and ties it on as a headband. Patrick watches Clara intently — the bones, the planes of lamplight on her face, hair no longer in the way. Follow me, she could say, in her shawl headband, and he would be one of the Gadarene swine.

Endless descriptions of what a character is thinking or feeling soon alienate a reader. But page after page of description with no insight into the character’s inner world does the same . When there is a rhythm between the two, the story comes to life. When we get into this rhythmic flow, the writing falls into place. As William Stafford says in Crossing Unmarked Snow:

…the language that comes to you when you are truly available to immediate experience, can bring you surprises, can enrich experience, can reveal profound connections between the self and the exiting wilderness of emerging time.

The rhythm in writing varies. A long out-breathe of description or dialogue, a short gasp of emotion — or vice versa. At other times a steadier rhythm. Sometimes equilibrium. At other times an imbalance, an intense focus on the interior or exterior that is appropriate for the passage.

As in writing, so in life. Chasing the illusion of balance drives us in circles trying to do everything at once. Forget balance, instead:

  • Whatever your quest is, it’s going to require more of your attention than anything else, not balance.
  • Savour one thing at a time. If you’re working, be present. If you’re with family, don’t just physically show up, attend: be in the moment.
  • Let your affairs be two or three: there are so many distractions — make choices and prioritise.
  • Find your rhythm and keep finding it.
  • Breathe in, breathe out — flow, not balance.

Want to become a different story?

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