I've just come back from a magical retreat for writers in a remote part of the Greek Peloponnese. Picture a white house with verandas and a terraced Mediterranean garden leading straight down to a clear blue sea, with exquisite vegetarian food appearing at regular intervals throughout the day. That alone would have been delightful enough, but the aspect that has lingered longest in my mind is the quiet mornings.
When the owners first set up the retreat, they left people to do more or less what they wanted in the mornings, but they soon realised that the rule of “silence till lunchtime” actually made the experience more enriching for everybody.
I have always liked quiet mornings anyway, as they give me time to read, think, write, and generally get my mind into a calm and creative state. But staying with a whole group of people under one roof, the silence rule gave me permission not to talk. I found myself walking past people in the mornings, sometimes with a fleeting smile, sometimes without even making eye contact. I still felt I was among people, but knew my morning reverie would not be interrupted by polite small-talk. Heavenly.
After breakfast, I would choose one or other of the shady writing spots created by our hosts in the garden and work on my current essay-writing project. When the bell for lunch interrupted the silence, I would join the others at the table, almost wanting the calm atmosphere to continue a bit longer. I sometimes winced when someone leapt straight into chitchat. I would have been quite happy staying with the silence and simply taking pleasure from the fresh salads and local cheeses on my plate and the sublime views.
All in all, the silent mornings made it much easier to write, but they couldn't protect me completely from the writer’s typical yoyo of moods. One day I felt what I was doing was pointless, next day I would reread my draft and be surprised at how well it was taking shape. On my last evening we all agreed to read some of our writing aloud to the group, and that experience left me feeling heartened.
There was another silent pleasure worth mentioning. One warm evening, four of us took up an invitation to go for a silent walk through the nearby olive groves. After turning off the road into the bushes and trees, we ambled along in a single line without a word. Not surprisingly, this allowed me to pay full attention to my senses – I could take full pleasure in the silvery green of the olive leaves; the seagulls swirling high up in the blue sky; the crunching of our steps as we trod on the dried-out stems of unharvested wheat; the sounds of unseen feathery creatures in the trees; the orangey-red blossoms tucked in amongst deep green pomegranate leaves; the soft patches of dark earth recently watered by the farmer. (I should have paid more attention to the smells – I only vaguely recollect the scent of Mediterranean plants.)
After this exceptional experience, I am keen to recreate some of the conditions elsewhere, possibly in France. Whatever else, I won’t forget to insist on the quiet mornings, and I will encourage people to come on silent walks. I feel confident it will be a gift not only for writers but for anyone who yearns for quiet time to contemplate.
I recently had two experiences on consecutive days that left very different impressions on me. The first was a sparkling conversation with a colleague (John Higgins) over tea in a Brighton café. During and after our talk, I kept glimpsing possibilities for future collaboration and conversation. And we parted having agreed that we would organise an informal ‘café-style’ gathering in Brighton in the summer, focused on ‘speaking truth to power’ (John’s research subject).
The second experience was a seminar for first-year undergraduates that I re-ran recently (as a ‘guest lecturer’) on essay writing. It went pretty smoothly as far as I could tell, but I couldn’t help noticing that it didn’t leave me buzzing like the café conversation just described. And it wasn’t just the bizarre setting: a cramped square room at the university, full of long grey tables covered by computers (known appropriately as ‘the workstation room’). Several other factors contributed to my slight sense of dissatisfaction. To give you a few clues, I’ll describe briefly what happened.
Before the seminar I had spent a considerable amount of time and thought on preparation; not so much what I was going to tell the students, but what activities I could offer them and which questions might stimulate their thinking.
At the appointed time for the seminar (11am), only one student was in the room; the others arrived in dribs and drabs. So I waited about 15 minutes before beginning, by which time about a dozen had turned up (out of some 20 on the course). As I began to talk to them about writing (a subject I can talk about enthusiastically), some looked alert, others gave the impression they hadn’t slept enough. When I posed questions, some spoke up while others remained quiet, but overall I think the session succeeded in engaging most of them. As I walked back to my bike afterwards, I noticed that, although I was pleased it had gone smoothly, I wasn’t feeling especially inspired or energised by the experience.
The following day I went to my desk in the morning, as usual, and wrote freely about these two experiences, using just pen and paper, without pausing to correct anything as I wrote. Later I typed up my written reflections, editing as I went along; and today I reshaped and shortened them for inclusion here.
I could have just thought about these two human encounters, or discussed them with someone else, but the exercise of reflective writing (and rewriting) clarified and developed my thinking. It reaffirmed to me that, given a choice, I will nearly always choose an informal conversation with one of my peers over the alternative of standing in front of a class. And, as well as showing me which activity generates the most energy in me, it helped me work out what I might do differently in future, and even what really matters to me in life. If I choose to continue teaching, I will try to make it as much as possible like a conversation with an equal over coffee.
There is of course nothing new about reflecting on experience. 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne described how his own mind’s “principal and most difficult study is the study of itself”. Later he expanded:
“For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously, reflection [méditer in the French version] is a mighty endeavour and a full one… The greatest of souls make [it] their vocation, ‘quibus vivere est cogitare’ [“For them, to think is to live”: Cicero]; there is nothing we can do longer than think, no activity to which we can devote ourselves more regularly nor more easily.”
“On three kinds of social intercourse” (“De trois commerces”), essay by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Where I live, I am fortunate to be in a reading group, and the pieces chosen by my fellow readers have introduced me to all kinds of authors I had not previously thought of engaging with. The latest of these was the contemporary American writer Wendell Berry, and the piece chosen was his essay A Native Hill.
One of the principles of our group is 'close reading'. This means we allow ourselves the luxury of reflecting together on the quality of the author's language. Berry's writing is both elegant and eloquent. By reading and re-reading writing like this, I hope that something of its quality will seep into my own prose. We'll have to see...
Berry's essay begins with him pondering his close connection to the part of Kentucky he came from and returned to after many years in California, Europe and New York. He takes us on a stroll along the paths around his home, sharing his observations about rivers, streams, trees, fences, walls, roads, topsoil and litter. But A Native Hill is so much more than a description of a landscape. It is an inspiring meditation on how to live well in our busy, destructive human world.
At one point, he remarks: "It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history ... I am forever being crept up on by the realisation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth...".
I have long felt that cars and roads have made our world uglier and dirtier, so when I read Berry's perceptive thoughts on the difference between a road and a path, my heart started racing : “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.” “A road", he goes on to say, "even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.” These words felt like a delicacy that I wanted to savour as slowly as possible to make it last longer.
Though I loved the essay, the opening pages of the essay had left me feeling impatient. What finally hooked me were the following words on the third page: “I have pondered a great deal over a conversation I took part in a number of years ago in one of the offices of New York University”. From that moment, I couldn't wait to be told the rest of the story. Some years earlier, a senior member of Berry's university had tried to persuade him to stay in New York ‘for his own good’. But he had already made up his mind, after much agonising, to take up a teaching job at the University of Kentucky. Nevertheless, the conversation stayed with him for years and prompted him to reflect on the assumptions of the 'urban intellectual'.
I myself have chosen to spend most of my year in a city, but Berry's words left me respecting his decision to go back to the land - and the quality of his writing. By the time I finished A Native Hill, it had become clear to me that the leisurely opening was there to set the tempo for what was to come – mirroring the languid pace of nature, of the woods, and of the soil.
This morning, once I was showered and dressed, I made a cup of my favourite tea (an Oolong from Vietnam) and took it onto the balcony outside my study. Relaxing into a lounger, my face warmed by the winter sun, I allowed myself to become aware of my body, hear the urban sounds coming from the street, and noticed the thoughts floating into my mind, before letting them go.
This has become a bit of a habit lately. I do it before I switch on my computer. And, if the sun isn’t shining, I just sit quietly on the sofa in my study instead. Only after this ritual do I get out my pen and paper (yes) and start writing.
I know I'm not the only one to practise sitting quietly. Meditators do it, and Quakers do it, each for their own reasons. A couple of years ago I came across a nice phrase: ‘sit spot’, meaning a place where you go regularly to sit and do nothing, just be calm, at approximately the same time each day.
But sitting-quietly-before-writing goes one step further. It's not only calming. It also helps me find out what interests me most on this particular day. That then guides my writing, which in turn allows me to get clearer about what I love writing about, and what might then become a lively read.
When writing, you need an outline or table of contents – right? Only partly. Here’s another view, from one of my favourite books, Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg:
“[Outlining] prevents discovery within the act of writing .... It overemphasises logic and chronology, because they offer apparently ‘natural’ structures.”
These statements have had quite an influence on me lately. When I get to my desk in the morning, I nearly always start with a spell of freewriting (some call it automatic writing), using a fountain pen and sensuous letter paper that allows the ink flow more smoothly. My starting point is usually something that has struck me recently – often a conversation from the day before, or something I have encountered in my morning reading. Then I write down whatever relevant thoughts come to mind. This activity always frees up unexpected associations – memories, insights, experiences. They seem to float in from my peripheral vision.
And yet... from time to time I do feel a desire to formulate an outline. Seeing the major headings on the page helps me as writer to step back from the detail and glimpse the wider picture and to ponder what order will work best for readers. It crystallises the shape of the book and sets boundaries – I'm not a musician myself but I understand a framework can make improvisation easier.
The chapter headings are not slabs of concrete or stone. They are more like a menu with a few enticing dishes on it. A menu offering a thousand items would be almost impossible to navigate.
I have created many outlines over time, and each one seems better than the last. But it is always replaced by another.
Recently I looked at my latest attempt and noticed it had grown too unwieldy, with about 17 headings, so I grouped them and ended up with just 7 headings. Imagining myself as a reader, I found this much more appetising and far easier to take in than the longer version. And with my author's hat on, it even looks like something I might enjoy writing, though I know it will morph again.
The crucial thing for all writers is to continue writing notes or sentences every day is possible. This reveals what really interests us, and eventually there might be enough good material for a book that others will enjoy reading. As Klinkenborg wrote:
“You’ll never know what you think until you escape your outline.”
If you want to excel at writing, the consensus is that it’s crucial to read a lot. Over my lifetime, I haven’t read as much literature as I would have liked. This is mainly because I worked in various research jobs at the beginning of my career. By the time evening came, I felt saturated and had neither the appetite nor the stamina to read another word.
A couple of years ago I made up my mind to catch up with my reading. But rather than enrolling in a course in literature, I decided to be my own university. I just started reading books that had escaped my younger self – by Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Wharton, Goethe, Gaskell, and plenty of contemporary authors too.
Not only has this tardy spurt of reading given me a sense of the wonderful variety of narrative forms; it has also heightened my feeling for the beauty and wisdom in the words of great writers. I hope that some of these qualities will rub off on me. Meanwhile, the reading is certainly deepening my understanding of human relationships.
For some time now I have been working on a book about how humans relate to each other. Last July, I had three chapters in draft form. They were partly memoir and partly my reflections on human communication. More unusually, each chapter was inspired by a work of literature - respectively, Kafka’s The Castle, Camus’ The Guest and Michael Ende’s classic children’s book Momo.
Everything was going fine until a handful of conversations and email exchanges in August left me wondering whether I was asking my book to do too much.
While I was pondering what to do about this, I stumbled across Alison Jones’s “Business Book Proposal Challenge”, which entails writing a book proposal in just two weeks (with Alison’s expert help). I joined the relevant Facebook group, more or less kept up with the daily tasks, and regularly shared my progress with other authors doing the same challenge. Alison is an experienced publisher and a coach, and the process was both rigorous and instructive. At the end, Alison liked my book idea but wondered whether there was really an ‘acutely felt need’ for my book.
To me it was and is absolutely clear that paying more attention to relationships is essential if we are to live peacefully and sustainably together on this planet. But I also understand that publishers want to see a specific need or niche, so they can feel sure they can sell your book. I am still pondering what exactly that need might be. But meanwhile I will continue to write about what really matters to me, and hope that it engages my readers.
In this brand new blog, I intend to explore what I call ‘interpersonal moments’ or 'meaningful moments'. These typically arise in everyday conversations, or spring from something I have read or witnessed. Sometimes recent experiences, sometimes more distant memories.
My aim then, in the words of my friend and onetime doctoral supervisor, Patricia Shaw, is "to reflect on our concrete, actual lived experience". Ultimately I want to show that social patterns (e.g. power, bullying, racism, organisational culture, as well as trust, cooperation, defiance) have no real existence outside specific human exchanges. Without paying attention to the human encounters in which they emerge, we cannot fully understand them.
The flipside is that I do not want to write a grand theory of communication or a book offering unsubstantiated opinions and generalisations. That wouldn’t be me. For some reason, I have always wanted to understand things in sufficient detail, and from different perspectives, before I was willing to reach even a provisional point of view. But this will not be my last word on this matter - I am already exploring what it means to 'make a judgement'.
As a writer, I am all too familiar with the temptation to produce an artefact that is unified and comprehensive. One way for me to resist that urge is to stick to reflecting on meaningful moments. To quote Hannah Arendt "...to stop and think; to pause and reflect; to allow yourself the alertness to be struck, surprised, and to respond without too much presupposition or prejudgement." *
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* Why Arendt matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (2006) p.16