On Creativity and Concentration…

From a speech by William Deresiewicz, delivered at West Point last October:

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers.  I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.  The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write.  James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day for seven years.  T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career.  That’s half a page a month.  So it is with any other form of thought.  You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

I’ve written, at least obliquely, on how distraction disrupts our spiritual lives, but that is incorrect.  It’s incorrect because we have no spiritual lives and other lives: we have lives and everything we do is inherently spiritual, in one form or another, whether we are watching a football game or taking a shower or on our knees praying.

But, I think today about creating.  I love to write, so I can quickly identify with this quote.  I think of when I was editing my first novel and I would spend an hour upstairs working on it, Brooke would ask how it went when I came down and I’d tell her: I finally got one sentence just right.  A sentence.  A mere eight words out of eighty-thousand.

I write this to remind myself: the best works take time.  Unless you’re Jack Kerouac (who famously wrote the first draft of On the Road in three weeks), your work takes…work.  This is something I appreciate about writing novels.  You lay siege to a novel, and you measure your work in years, like a good wine.  You write other stories (and blog posts) and those end up, in some form, in your novel.  You rewrite scenes and rewrite scenes and rewrite scenes.  You do it because you are wired that way.  You do it because you care.  Ultimately, you do it because such effort and concentration and slowness taps into the very image in which you were created.  Such work makes you more human, in the original sense of the term.

So, in the words of William Deresiewicz, gather yourself into a single point and concentrate.  Write a novel or a song or a poem.  One of my good friends pours himself into photography, and I would guess that a portfolio of photos is similar to a novel in many ways: it requires countless hours of work — many of them at dawn or dusk — and time trying and retrying, editing and reshooting, until the way he views the world is evident in his photos.  My wife paints and draws, and though no one piece takes her years, the sum of her work certainly has.

Or, most concretely and universally, we pour ourselves into Ellis.  For eighteen years she will live with us, and maybe sporadically after that, and she is our greatest creative work: we made her and now work in concert with her to form her into a woman: someone confident and loving and loved.

Today I have already worked some on my second novel, and only moved forward a few paragraphs.  Yet somewhere deep within I can feel the concentration and attention of my work was vitally important today, even if it was short.  May we all become people who pour themselves into creative works, whether writing or shooting photos or gardening or growing a business, and may the effort and concentration and solitude of such moments make us more of who we were created to be.

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