Swooping, Smelling Roses, and Stopping

I haven’t written much for two weeks. I’ve been busy. Setting up a limited company ready for trading by Black Friday, within a month of its conception, is a bit of a task it seems. While applying the lean philosophy, our MVP has still taken a lot of work. (I’m sure I’ll do a post on this, so stay tuned.)

Although I’ve not been writing – prose, that is (lot’s of copy) – I’ve read several books and listened to the odd podcast.

It’s all been top quality stuff, but the highlights were a couple of episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show where Tim interviews Rolf Potts.

These two writers have influenced my thinking over the last year, to say the least. Tim because his work acted as a catalyst for a change that was brewing, and Rolf, for reminding me that I was neglecting an important part of myself.

I can’t do the two-part interview justice here. It’s worth listening to the whole thing. But I will draw on a couple of things that stuck me.

The podcast was right up my street: writing, travel, and measuring success using the time metric rather than by a monetary scale alone. What more could you want?

I also picked up two new categorisations that gave name to things I was doing anyway.

First off, I’m a basher.

That is not as bad as it sounds. Being a basher is not licentious in any sense. As an aside, I was once at a party and I was busy telling a girl that I was planning on trying woofing during the summer. She was Parisian and had only learnt of dogging the week before. As such, she assumed WWOOFing was an esoteric offshoot of that hallowed English tradition. Despite this, we still dated for a while. But perhaps the first impression was enduring. The relationship only lasted a couple of months.

Anyway… back to the ranch.

The word describes writing method. According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are swoopers and there are bashers:

“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

So a bashing out a piece of prose a slower process. By the time the first page is complete, the first paragraph has been re-written several times. (Writing this, I’m resisting my basher tendencies, and so far I have only gone back to visit the first paragraph once or twice…)

Tim and Rolf are bashers too.

In Tim’s experience “being a basher is just the most torturous process of self-loathing and doubt.” He laments the fact he agonises over two paragraphs, sometimes for hours at a stretch. While I feel Tim’s pain, I’m glad to hear him say that. It is affirming to hear my experience of writing echoed by two published authors, whose work I enjoy. And, as Rolf confirms, swooping and bashing are both legitimate creative methods. Although this awareness doesn’t make the process any easier, knowing it, I don’t feel so isolated. I feel a stronger sense of connection to the creative discipline I’ve begun to explore.

Talk of exploring brings me to my next highlight.

One of my favourite things to do when I arrive in a new city is to wander from the hostel and explore. Better still, I take the metro to a point of interest and, after looking around there, try to find my way home by foot. Invariably this results in foot weariness by the end of the day. But I never regret these escapades. Getting lost, you have experiences a guidebook could never suggest. And the people and happenings you meet along the way make for great stories (whether you enjoyed it at the time of not!)

Rolf shares my philosophy, suggesting:

“If in doubt, just walk until your day becomes interesting.”

He gives a name to one who undertakes this wandering: the flâneur.

If you’re not attentive, familiar surroundings become old. You become so accustomed to your environment that you no longer experience it. It becomes a purely utilitarian space. The flâneur doesn’t let this happen. The concept, which took shape in 19th century Paris, connotes a man of leisure, an urban wanderer. It describes a way of being which doesn’t take things for granted. It encourages us to slow down, to leave a bit of extra time, to amble to our destination rather than pace.

We’re so used to taking transport directly to our objectives when we’re at home. We aim to get from A to B – maybe stopping at C on the way and pick up some groceries – in the most efficient way possible.

We often transpose this sense of urgency onto travel. Visitors try to see as many sites as possible during a brief stay. But travel isn\’t about box ticking. Rolf uses the analogy of eating a meal in Italy. He asks whether it would be desirable to optimise an Italian meal for efficiency?!

The flaneurial attitude can be transposed onto life, wherever possible. We spend so much time rushing from place to place that we don\’t experience life to the fullest. What is the point of spending effort optimising, if you don’t make use of the time-wealth you are attempting to free up? Every once in a while, pausing, and taking in what’s before our eyes is essential.

In fact, pausing – or stopping altogether – is the subject of the next point I want to explore. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but something Rolf said inspired me to get it out:

“Having a cessation of obsessing on your creative life, will allow your brain to work in ways that will make you more creative.”

Rolf makes the point in relation to travel. In fact, he’s drawing on an article in the New York Times which affirms the importance of taking vacations.

What’s important about taking a holiday is stopping, that is breaking the normal pattern of your thinking. In everyday life, it can be as simple as pausing and taking a breath. (It sounds cliched because everyone says it. But there’s a reason for this – it works!)

Sometimes a more pronounced gap is necessary.

During my undergraduate dissertation, I was a mess. I must apologise to those that knew me then. I was a grumpy, self-involved nightmare. While spending time with family and friends, my thoughts were elsewhere. My brain was ticking over in the background trying to mold disparate information into a cohesive argument. I should’ve known better than to try to put Daoism in a box, I guess. Or, for that matter, to talk about it at all. After all, “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know” (知者不言言者不知 DDJ 56

When it all got too much, when I’d read so much that the loose conceptual framework started to grow unstable, I would go off and do some tai chi.

Invariably, once I began focussing, a question that I’d been fretting over for hours – or days – would solve itself. As soon as I dropped into stillness, the answer would come. My mind, given a break, would find the answer. I had to be disciplined not to run back to the computer and start typing again. If I just carried on training, I would still have the answer at the end. (But more often than not, I would succumb to temptation and go back to scratching out my argument while the insight lay fresh in my head.)

It’s in the space between phenomena where we often what we are seeking within the world. Or, at least, the break from sensory over stimulation allows us to make sense of what we already have floating around in the grey matter.

In sum, I seem to have drawn together a guide for creative contentment:

    • 1) When it comes to being creative, we all have to find our own rhythm. Are you a disciplined morning writer? Or a night owl who only switches on after dark? Are you a swooper? A basher? Or a conflicted mix of both?
    • 2) Every fire needs fuel. For creative arts, that means experience. Being a flâneur is a great way to gather kindling. It could be as simple as taking a different route home – or just being present during your usual path. Equally, you might take up a new hobby. Something like photography, for example, makes you experience light in a totally different way.
  • 3) Taking a break is essential. Turn on airplane mode for ten minutes, have a cup of tea, or do some yoga. If you need a more pronounced pause for your piece of mind, take several weeks and go world wandering. Whatever vehicle you use, interrupt your normal patterns. It’s vital for the health of the creative mind.