Friday, December 4, 2015

Book Note - World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down

In the beginning chapters of World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, Christian McEwen describes her childhood growing up on an old estate near Edinburgh, Scotland:

          A place of beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens… a kind of paradise, [where she] spent immense amounts of time alone: hunched in the dark angle of attic stairs, or mooching dreamily from room to room. There were days when it seemed a place in a fairy tale, each piece of furniture trembling with incipient life…Often I felt invisible, even to myself, as if I had drifted out of contemporary chronology altogether, and been reduced to some ethereal essence: a ghost child, some kind of passing spirit. 

She was describing a place I knew: Great Island, a glacial remnant of rock and evergreens a mile around, smelling of pine needles, and sunshine, and the pure, sweet, spring-fed waters of Lake Sunapee. It was a place of mystery, with dappled light, and carpets of moss and odd creatures, like blood-red salamanders, and speckled trout, and small brown bats that flew out of the shadows in the evening, dancing over the water like large moths. For me it was a place endlessly new and changeable, yet timeless, as slow and enduring as the rock deposits left behind by the receding ice 11,000 year ago.

Not so much a place as a state of being.

As writers we know this place. We know it as well as our own backyards or our childhoods. We are always trying to get to it, to cultivate it, to invite it in: this place, where we are somehow intensely present, but at the same time removed, aswim in that dream-like state where perception and imagination meet.

For Christian McEwen, writer, poet, teacher, the road to this place is best traveled slowly, with a kind of attention that borders on reverence. It is akin to the notion of mindfulness: the idea that deep awareness of the world around us makes us more alive, more thoughtful, more compassionate, and certainly more creative.

Creativity takes time, and not just hours, but unhurried hours, the daydreaming kind where the mind is free to wander. Modern life is against us here, McEwen writes:

         Nowadays time... eyes us from the edge of our computer screens, or the dashboard of our car; ticks away the minutes on the clock beside our bed. There are clocks set into our ovens, our cell phones, our Palm Pilots: a pantheon of tiny fretful gods, each one berating us under its breath for not meeting our   commitments right this minute. 

It is a pressure writers feel particularly keenly, and the subject often comes up at retreats, or in workshops, or at author talks: endless questions about PROCESS. Writers want to know how other writers, especially successful, if not prolific, writers, do it: find the time, energy, and focus to get words on the page. There is sense that if only we could be more efficient, more disciplined, more dedicated, the words would flow effortlessly, like an open tap.

For McEwen, though, creativity comes not from regimenting time, or finding more time, or using time more efficiently, it comes from stepping outside of time, from slowing down long enough to let the senses take over, to make new connections and let ideas take root. She quotes Mary Oliver, “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world… I am forever just going out for a walk and tripping over the root, or the petal, of some trivia, then seeing it as if in a second sight, as emblematic.”  Writers are first observers, and that means learning to pause, to see with new eyes, and to connect through stories and conversations, and quiet, even silent communion with ourselves, and each other, and the natural world.

Child Time, In Praise of Walking, The Art of Looking, A Universe of Stories: the chapter titles in World Enough and Time, read like poetry and the writing overall is meditative, the language and style nicely evoking the message of the book. These twelve linked essays can be read straight through, the themes, examples, and characters interweaving and building in meaning and effect, or they can be read randomly and in part: each chapter a collection of tightly knit observations that McEwen likens to “ …daily reading, so-called lectio divina or divine reading, giving you a chance to muse and ruminate, and acting as encouragement for your own creative work.” 

 “Tactics” at the end of each chapter quote a wide range of artists and writers, and offer effective, evocative practices in the art of slowing down and cultivating awareness. 

World Enough and Time, is not a craft book. It will not tell you how to write more fluidly, or correct your punctuation, or tighten your plot line. What it will do is encourage you to exhale: to relax into your creative work, cultivating your own island of stillness and repose, where such work begins. And where, according to McEwen,“…despite the daily onslaught of racket and distraction, it still remains possible, even now, to turn things around: to spin straw into gold, time into eternity, anxiety into ease and inspiration.”

Please join SBWC and Christian McEwen 
for a reading and discussion
Monday, December 7, 2015
6:30 - 8:00 pm
Thayer Memorial Library 

Hollis Shore is the President, Program Director, and co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer's Collaborative, and graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults program. She was the 2012-13 Boston Public Library Children's Writer in Residence, and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery Award for her novel, The Curve of The World, out for submission shortly. Contact her at

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