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.



I had time tonight to read one of my favorite chapters in literature: the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms.  I know: probably the same chapter you were thinking of.  The story shows the sadness of war, and yet love blossoms in the midst of it.  In the last chapter, Henry’s lover Catherine goes into labor, and we see Henry going back and forth from the hospital to a cafe, and there are some beautiful and true stream-of-consciousness moments when Henry sits in the cafe, worrying that Catherine may die, and his son with her.  Upon re-reading the chapter, I found the stream-of-consciousness especially gripping (And what if she should die? She won’t die.  People don’t die in childbirth nowadays…Yes, but what if she should die? She won’t die.  She’s just having a bad time…She can’t die. Yes, but what if she should die? She can’t, I tell you.).  I talk to myself in the same manner, two voices battling and obsessing in my head, and Hemingway captures this perfectly.

In the middle of this chapter, in the middle of his wife in labor and possibly dying, is this seemingly random moment:

Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants.  As it commenced to burn…they fell off into the fire.  Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going.  But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell into the fire.  I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and life the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground.  But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on  the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it.  I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.

I remember when I first read this passage.  I was upstairs in Wheaton’s library sitting an a carrel; I could see the clock tower from the window.  I remember reading it and being moved by the profound sadness and loneliness of it.  Frederic Henry can’t or won’t save the ants from the fire, like he could not save the men going to war, like he could not save his wife or son (though that occurs later in the story).  I remember sitting in the library at Wheaton feeling my own mortality — not only in a way that meant I would die, but in a way that meant I was limited: I cannot be the messiah, for myself or for others or for ants.  I remember sitting there and feeling alone and isolated, yet not in a despairing way: in a cathartic and satisfying way.

I felt that way tonight, with my wife and daughter gone, after a fairly frustrating day at school.  I felt mortal in a limited way; alone.  I don’t know how to describe this other than to stress it wasn’t a terrible, despairing aloneness, but rather one that shows me that I am made for connection: connection with other people, connection with the numinous.  So, I re-read this wonderful passage, and saw once again my aloneness; I saw once again my sin and imperfection and mortality.  I am not the messiah.  I am a man, and to quote another Hemingway story, who sometimes needs to, “continue, slowly, and wait for luck to change.”

So I wait tonight.  In my aloneness, which is not quite loneliness, yet not as bright as solitude.  I read Hemingway.  I find catharsis.  I pray.  I talk to my wife on the phone, eight hundred miles away.  I pray.  I talk to my father.  I read Hemingway.

May we all find catharsis in our aloneness, for the catharsis reminds us of all the others who have gone before us, all the other stories like ours, and at that point is hope; at that point aloneness changes all the way into a lovely, lovely solitude.