Moving to Write: A writer’s journey

When I was in grad school, one of my teachers told me that swimming (I was doing 3000-4000 yards, 3 times a week) benefited my writing. I understood why. Putting one’s head down and churning away for an hour compares well with writing. You pile up the painful laps the same way you pile up the words, and there is no immediate end. You just have to do it every (other) day.

Pool at the University of Iowa

Sometime in my thirties, I decided that I had worked out enough for the rest of my life, that all those miles had inoculated me against the exigencies of time. After all, I was averaging 24,000 meters a day at my peak. You might wonder, “What is 24,000 meters, really?” The fastest runner ran a mile in a bit under four minutes, and the fastest swimmer swam four hundred meters in just under four minutes, so 24,000 meters in the pool is a rough equivalent of sixty miles. 6-0. Six days a week. Even the piddling 3000-4000 yard workouts I managed later in life amounted to five to eight mile runs. All those miles earned me something besides shoulder and knee injuries. Whether this is what I learned from swimming or if something already inside me made all those laps possible, I cannot be sure. All I know was that afterward, I knuckled down to a world of tasks, whether unpacking a truckload of books, driving all night to a funeral in Maine, or doing the daily work of marriage.

But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much thinking or interacting I did, eventually, my body let me know that the actual workouts had to start again. By my middle forties, I was back in the pool, gobbling down yards. After one knee surgery, another looming on the horizon, and rotator cuffs that kept me up at night, I decided to stick to dry land training (weights, elliptical). I’m still at it.

Maybe it’s no surprise that I struggled with writing when I stopped working out. There were a dozen other reasons for my hiatus, but the lack of steady physical movement played a part. When I furiously wrote and read in grad school, I swam, then ran, and always took long walks in the middle of the night. I never taught sitting at a desk but prowled in the classroom, even, at one point, doing the backstroke across the length of several tables to demonstrate the power of metaphor.

Writing requires resilience. You have to be able to face down the blank page and the open ended-ness of your project. Most of us do not write with a guarantee of publication (or adoration). We write, compelled to add word to word, stringing together sentences, scenes, and scraps of dialogue, until something like a novel accrues. Some writers don’t need the physical analog to bear them forward in their pursuit of words on the page. Their minds take flight and find their ways through the canyons of words without having to ride the rapids through them.

We think of the imagination as free of physical constraint, even when we write scenes replete with physical—sensed—detail. It’s pretty to think that this works. I can write a depiction of flight even if I can’t fly because I can imagine it. My mind is not bound by what I cannot do.

Yoda pinches the “crude matter”

I am reminded of a movie I saw ages ago. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda castigates Luke about the force. He grabs Luke’s arm with his claw-like hand and insists, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” And that’s the whole point: what’s inside you matters. Of course, this appealed to me when I was a sophomore in college. What does imagination—the expression of the soul—have to do with “crude matter”?

My belief in an inner self separate from bodily suffering—or ecstasy—was fundamental to my worldview. I wasn’t alone. Whether in theology or philosophy, the notion of something like a soul runs deep. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (the first principle of his philosophy) locates being in the process of thinking—rigorous and effortful thinking, but thinking and certainly not feeling, and definitely not tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing, or touching. There is a longstanding division between the spiritual (the imagination included) and the physical. The mind is that “luminous being” within or around us. I learned to ignore the crude matter while I swam—playing songs in my mind while lactic acid built up in my muscles and my body cried out for oxygen. I was happy to engage in the separation of body and mind.

 Except they are not separated.

While neurobiologists distinguish between the brain—a profoundly physical, almost mechanical thing—and the mind, which arises (or descends) from the machinery, they see the connections between the brain/body and the mind. Caroline Williams’ recent book Move tracks current science about movement—whether dancing or walking or crawling about—and how it impacts our mind. Reading her book alongside Anil Seth’s Being You, Mark Solms’ The Hidden Spring, and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, I find it hard not to see our minds as a product of evolution—much in the same way that our brains and bodies evolved. We got opposable thumbs, eyes, and consciousness. Our thoughts—even the most abstract thoughts—are grounded in the dynamic range of physical existence. This thing we imagine as a brain-based entity is formed in concert with sensory signals from our bodies. We are made up of our smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing. Our minds did not blossom while we sat at a desk and contemplated, but as we moved through and sensed the world.

Whatever else we are, we are sensory data collectors. Maybe the dog does a better job of sniffing or the bat of hearing. Our brains are tuned to the sensual world—it seeks and expects constant sensory stimuli. Mark Solms argues that our consciousness results from the perpetual influx of information coming into the brain. Our consciousness checks that flood of information against our brains’ equally endless sets of predictions. Whether we are regulating the temperature of our bodies or the emotional tenor of our workplaces, our brains and minds (I am using “mind” almost interchangeably with “consciousness”) govern unconscious and unspoken expectations. Stimuli that occur outside the narrow predictions trigger error messages, and our minds leap into action—defending the status quo with alacrity.

However, what happens when our minds expect smells, sounds, and sights (and the occasional taste and touch), and there are none? What happens when we remove the wealth of stimulation? I hypothesize that the lack of signals about the world creates an error message in our brains akin to the kinds of error messages about our temperature. Our body-brain-mind system adjusts for too much heat or too much cold, but it adjusts because it constantly surveying for information; the system expects information. Without that information, it must (I surmise) recalibrate the sensory array and how the information is processed. Our brains don’t atrophy—that’s what you would guess, yes?—but reach out in new overexaggerated ways.

However, I do not suggest stimulating children in expanded versions of Skinner boxes. Our body-brain-mind systems develop through self-directed use. We are designed to move through a world of sensation—to process on the fly and on foot. We learn to think, read, and imagine—we write—by moving through the world. Williams cites the work of Kyung Hee Kim on the value of movement. Kim states that “[c]reative thinking is stimulated by physical activity, whether walking, running or active playing”—all of which run counter to the dictum of “writing=ass in chair.”

And creative thinking does not contribute to just writing or sculpting; it’s a matter of finding solutions that don’t plop themselves down in front of your nose. Or just behind your nose in your prefrontal cortex—although this too is vital. Creative thinking must veer from the straight-ahead planning that our prefrontal cortices make so fabulously possible. Planning in a straight line—our preferred method—bound by the powerful predicting mechanisms in our minds does not always lead to the best outcomes. We discover solutions by getting lost, encountering (and embracing) the unexpected, then adapting. We have to trigger error messages in our brains and become comfortable with the inevitable mistakes. I think of my students who more and more routinely fight against reading because they “do not relate” to a particular text. What is “do not relate” other than a self-reflective (“It’s not me”; “It’s not something I already know”; “It’s not something I can easily predict”) error message?

Every Sunday, I rely on long walks through museums to help reset and reinvigorate my mind. I walk through space (about five miles) and time. I proceed on a well-worn route: garden to museum to garden to museum to lunch to museum, and within the museums, I travel from Neolithic China to Philadelphia in 1984. In one display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, objects displaying nearly identical winged protectors encompass fifteen hundred years. It’s a visual echo that resonates over millennia.

More than that—if that wasn’t enough—the walk takes me gradations of the unknown. We don’t know why the jade bi were sliced from jade. I return every week to them to revel in not-knowing—not ignorance per se, but engaged wonder. The bi remind me that some wonderful human-made things have no explanation. We can guess—we should guess—but our guesses should always be acknowledged as such. Precise and well-informed whenever possible. However, we must never let our desire to know ONE answer outstrip our willingness to learn as we go. Remember that you don’t know. I sit in front of a row of paintings by Monet, and I listen as someone explains how he had cataracts, which was why he painted like that. I do my best not to correct or alter the assumption, but it’s hard. Borofsky put the number “3277542 ” on his Man with Briefcase, and I may know how he numbered his work and why he said that he counted into the millions (these are documented facts), but as far as what motivated the artist, well, that’s an educated guess.

I constantly compile lists of things I know. People congregate in doorways. The left lane holds an uncanny attraction for slower drivers. Most people have not noticed that in Gallery 81 of the National Gallery of Art, the figures in the three paintings on the westward wall mirror those in the painting on the eastern wall. Children sometimes fall asleep in their parent’s laps. A man will ask, “Are you writing the great American novel?” (Answer, yes.) Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler sometimes looks strident, sometimes annoyed, but rarely befuddled. People take photographs of themselves that feature Mercury’s bottom, and I am sure that often this is an oversight. The people who work at the Courtyard Cafe will put aside the last napoleon for you. After that, mystery is certain. And necessary.

The writer and the fountain

To return to movement: swimming was always a venture into the known—the well-loved, effortful known. I swam with my head down and eyes focused on the line on the bottom of the lane, chasing yards and time, sure that neither would fundamentally change. Fifty yards is always fifty yards, and a minute is always a minute. Yes, I filled those minutes with more yards (or spent fewer minutes swimming more yards), And, most of all, pain is always pain. Variations in the depth and texture of pain were a cause for concern (the knees, the shoulders), but pain was always a given.

While writing requires sustained effort, one must also embrace the unknown. Moving helps.

I became a better reader (which helped me become a better writer) by moving between tables in various restaurant jobs. I wasn’t a bad reader in college, but that was because I could do the determined slog of three hundred pages between a Tuesday and Thursday class. I read with my committed swimmer’s mind. Whatever brilliance I glimpsed only came into full view after turning my head in seventeen directions and delivering service, hot food, and cold drinks, all in the proper order. And because I moved in a dozen other, unexpected ways. Words on the page became easier and more ecstatic. And no, I don’t think one needs to wait on tables to be a better reader (or thinker). However, learning to think on my feet and realizing that the persistent thrum of “I, me, mine” became more powerful when it moved through the music of “him, her, them,” helped me become a better reader and writer.

“I, me, mine” are necessary, especially when writing. You cannot hope to enchant some unknown “them” until you find a way to please yourself as you slog away hour after hour. And then you may fall into a rut. That’s not always the worst thing. There are plenty of creative and successful people who hew to the ditch they dig. Their neural pathways run straight and certain down deep gulleys. Helpful habits will keep you returning, chairbound, to the work.

And yet, stuck happens, and sometimes banging our heads in the mud only makes it worse. Seat of pants dully applied to seat of chair risks stagnation. And no amount of instruction (this is the structure of plot; this is the value of metaphor) and mental exercise (write a paragraph in another character’s voice; write a story about an animal) will return you to the light. Go for a walk, breathing through your nose so you can smell the world. Take out your headphones and listen to the world as you pass through it. Dance in a crowd. Break a sweat, and forget your brilliant, luminous mind. You don’t have to go to the woods, the mountains, or the ocean. You are a wild animal wherever you are if you just remember to be one.

There is a wildness to writing, and not just a wildness of mind, although, please, a wildness of mind. But our minds, we forget, are grounded in the crude animal matter of our bodies. The glorious, perfectly imperfect body will help us move the words, ounce by ounce, page by page, and pound by pound into the world. What happens next is a mystery, but by moving my body and mind, I have learned the value of mystery. It’s what comes next.

Gallery Walking

The clay pot from Syria and the stone head from Egypt. “Syria and Egypt are not so far apart,” you think. Shapes, after all, are shapes. I get a sense that Charles Freer would like this thought. He assembled his collection to bridge differences of time and space, to find unities and common threads. And yet, nearly three thousand years separate these objects.

Jackson Pollock, Going West

In the National Gallery, a few steps will take you a hundred years from Raphael to El Greco, and nobody’s confused by the differences between them. Gallery after gallery is organized by time, place, and artist. On one wall, Eakins, on another Whistler, and then two of Sargent. A row of Monet’s, each featuring a reflection in a body of water. We recognize the separate hands. We differentiate—pointedly so—Cassatt from Manet. We recognize that an early Pollock gets tossed upstairs in the glass cases of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Benton gets a wall in a room, and Lavender Mist has a bench in front of it at the National Gallery so you can sit and think about it.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950

Walking the galleries can be a jolting experience. It should be a jolting experience. Even in the galleries designated “Arts of the Islamic World,” the shifts from one work to the next makes me question what any of the artists thought, and even more so, what any of the viewers thought. There is no monolith here—or there is, and it constantly fractures and fragments. Yes, of course, Islam, but also them, and me.

Some of my friends comment, “What a nice Sunday ritual you have,” hinting that the museums are peaceful places of reflection. I walk past two sets of angels (Mohammed and Mary, each surrounded by beings of glorious verve and color) listening to The Rolling Stones singing “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” Yeah, peace is my goal. I spend time every Sunday in the company of Monet and Calder—quieter voices after a fashion—at least they aren’t dissonant. The day is dissonant.

Entirely not to scale. The Minaj of the Prophet, by Jami, 1492; Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, 1485/1500.

The vase from Syria and the head from Egypt. 1100 kilometers between them–roughly the distance from Washington DC to Alabama, Illinois, or Maine. So yes, I can see the confusion. Add 3000 years. 3000 years ago, Greece was beginning to lose Mycenaen writing. The New Kingdom in Egypt was collapsing. Babylon was in decline. Celts had started migrating from central Europe—Ireland was still in the future. Turn your head and watch the world change.

Perhaps we think that it changes more slowly now. The leaps from Stone Age to Bronze to Iron seem so slow and so enormous. Now we are cocooned in steel and silicon. Everything is instantaneous and, almost by magic, eternal. Time has stopped. Travel and commerce brought every place within our grasp. Disney helped us imagine a small world, but how quickly it fragmented over my lifetime. Maybe the differences were always there.

from The Wonders of Creation by al-Qazvini

Even walking through the Art of the Islamic World at the Freer, there is an early 15th Century folio from al-Qazvini’s Wonders of Creation. From 100 years earlier, a page of the Shahnameh includes an illustration of Gushtasp slaying a dragon. I don’t know how these stories were received.

It is a commonplace to claim that people have universally enjoyed, even hungered for, stories. I don’t know how each of these audiences spread over 100 years, a thousand years, longer, came to story or to art. I cannot simply state that what I feel, they must have felt. I walk the galleries and try to imagine across time and space how those who came before felt.

Art and Time

My Sunday walks take me from 3000 BCE to just a few months ago. All in the span of some five miles or so—less if I just walked a straight line. From the oldest—the Neolithic Chinese jades at the Freer—to the most recent—Kay Rosen’s Sorry—each reflects a moment in time. These are not the rings of a tree, grown without intent, just as evidence of growth. Each made thing encapsulates its time and drops out of time—enduring over centuries. In another city, my walk would be longer (Washington DC has an advantageous clot of museums) and reach back further, if only by a few thousand years.

Eleven-tier tube (cong 琮) with masks
Late Neolithic period, ca. 3300-2250 BCE
China, Lake Tai region
Jade (nephrite)

I’m not as interested in the stones that are older—so much older—but I am aware that they tell a story that predates existence as we know it. What struck me most about the Grand Canyon was not the majesty of the view—the views—but the exposed rock that told half the history of the earth. There are two billion years of rock on view in the walls of the canyon. And that’s just half the history of our planet.

I live in the small, human slice. As noisy as it is, compared to the roar of 4 billion years, it is barely a whisper. If it lasts another 4 billion years—and it will, with us, or if history any guide, without us—then this—writing, art, music—is somewhat less than futile.

Except, it isn’t. We have stopped time as long as we have occupied the earth. We have some evidence, and we know that so much evidence is lost. The placard that explains the Cong declares, “While their original meaning and function remain unknown….” We don’t even know ourselves, and we have only been here for a moment.

It may seem grandiose, but we evolved to mark time—to stop it and extend it. We did not evolve to chase girls across the plain or club each other into submission to get more girls. We are aware of time in a profound way—our prefrontal cortex allows us to plan and reminisce (perhaps about girls, if that is our particular bent). At the other side of the Freer, Hokusai conjectures about living until he is 110–and imagines what his art will be like. My cats, as far as I know, and as much as I love them, are not wondering about much beyond the next meal or cheek scratch.

Someone will object, making a claim for elephant art or bird nests or whale songs, but, over and over again, not as the exception but as the rule, we alone make art.

I’m listening to Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold’s When Brains Dream. Part of their query engages what we get from dreaming—how (and if) it functions in an evolutionary schema. It’s a helpful book, and alongside Mark Solms’s The Hidden Spring, it offers some genuine insight into what our brains do.

One of the things our brains routinely do is make art. Rather than dismiss it as a spandrel or simply a flourish of peacock feathers, perhaps it points to something else. For the moment, I suggest it shows an engagement with time that is exceptional (from other living creatures) and functional. Each work reveals something about its making, even if we can only decode some technique connected to a particular time and place. But each work also punches out a hole through which it falls out of time—or rather falls into time. It exists in the past—a then, several thens—a now, and the future—a time, like the present, that will become the past. Sometime and forever.

Art’s subject matter is always time. “In these lines to time,” Shakespeare wrote. Philip Glass’s “The Grid” moves us through space at several paces, propelling us through time. Monet’s Houses of Parliament at Sunset is an impression of a place and an impression of a time. It shimmers from one moment to the next, and in its shimmer, it opens a moment.

I surmise that like the cong (or dreams), we do not know the function. But there was, there is, and there will be a function.