Throughout her creative life, Christian McEwen‘s (Playwriting Fellow ’11) encounters in art and literature have taught her a deceptively simple lesson: slow down. The writer, who has worked in poetry, prose, film, and theater, recently published a new book, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Bauhan Publishing, 2011), about how slowing the pace of life can lead to breakthroughs in learning, wellness, and – perhaps most pertinent to artists – creativity.
We asked Christian if we could share a section of her new book, as well as some of the tactics she suggests for expanding creativity through a more measured mode of living.
A TINY STONE, A FISH
When I spoke with Thomas Clark at his home in Pittenweem, I asked if there were any assignment, any special “homework” he might propose for an apprentice poet of today. His answer startled me.
“I would ask the young poet to choose some simple task, something very ordinary and non-utilitarian, and ask them to repeat it at regular intervals. For example, one might climb a hill, pick up a stone, carry it back down, and then take it back up the hill the following day.”
The task would be pointless in and of itself. But doing it would create what Clark called “a continuum,” a context in which small events could resonate: a counter-story to the larger, public one.
Clark’s response sounded a little crazy to me at first. But the more I considered it, the more I came to see it as a kind of koan, one of those wise, unsettling conundrums from which, with luck and diligence, a certain striking revelation may emerge. “To learn something new,” said the naturalist John Burroughs, “take the path today that you took yesterday.” All professions have need of such devoted practitioners, willing to push past their own boredom, their own comfortable familiarity, in order to arrive at something new. As Proust once said, “The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.”
One thinks of Goethe, who trained himself to watch leaves as they grew, remembering each stage with such clarity that he could actually “see” their metamorphosis. One thinks of Denise Levertov, in her last years, addressing poem after poem to the peak of Mount Rainier, just visible above the rooftops of Seattle. Above all, perhaps, one thinks of the Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz, and the extraordinary assignment he once gave a student.
In 1859, when Nathaniel Shaler applied to study at the Harvard laboratories, he was sent to Agassiz for an entrance exam. The first part of this had to do with languages and scientific classification, and Shaler passed with flying colors. He also trounced Agassiz in an impromptu fencing match. The second half of the exam was both simpler and more complicated. If focused on a certain preserved fish.
“I want you to examine this,” said Agassiz, presenting him with a fish in a tin pan. “I’d like you to find out everything you can, without damaging the specimen.”
Obediently, Shaler set to work. He expected Agassiz to return within a couple of hours. But Agassiz did not come back. Not that day, nor even that same week. Shaler kept on patiently, studying the fish, and on the seventh day, Agassiz finally put in an appearance.
“Well?” he asked.
Shaler pointed to all the details he had learned about the fish: its teeth, its jaws, its fins and scales and so on. Agassiz listened carefully. “That’s not right,” he said. And once again he vanished for an entire week.
Shaler returned, disconsolate, to his tin pan. Was Agassiz completely crazy? Perhaps he should have let him win that fencing match? But even while he puzzled over the professor’s methods, Shaler began to recognize how much he was benefiting from them. Each day he was learning more and more about that fish, a hundred times more than had originally seemed possible. And by the time he was accepted at Harvard (after a further two months of disentangling a box of mixed fish bones, and reassembling them into their different species) no one could have said that he was not truly qualified.
- Choose any routine activity and allow it to become an end in itself. Pay attention to how this feels.
- Make a list of slow activities: a long train ride, a hand-written letter, gardening, etc. If possible, do at least one such “slow thing” every week.
- Buy a small notebook and carry it about with you at all times. Look and listen, write down what people say.
Christian McEwen, reprinted with permission from
World Enough & Time (Bauhan Publishing, 2011)
Christian McEwen has upcoming readings on November 3, 6:30 PM, with Mark Statman at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York, NY; November 10, 6 PM, at Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls; November 13, 4 PM, at Grace Church in Amherst (short reading and presentation); November 17, 7 PM, at Sky Lake Lodge in Rosendale, NY.
Christian also runs workshops on writing, creativity, and “slowing down” (those interested in hosting a future workshop should contact the artist). Upcoming workshops: January 27-29, 2012, Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Rowe, MA; February 25, 2012, 10 AM-3 PM, Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center in Westfield, MA; March 1-11, 2012, Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, NY.