Friday, August 8, 2008

Finding My Way Home

It's been a month since I've posted anything. For the middle two weeks of that month I was on vacation, visiting my family in Florida and North Carolina. Now I'm in an extended transition into my new office across the quad from my old office. Most of the boxes of materials I had packed up have not been brought over yet, so I'm in a sort of in-between space, getting to know my new location, establishing some new routines, and re-establishing some old ones. This, for example. I'd like cultivate the habit of writing something every day. Sometimes I get into that pattern, and I like it when I can make it happen; but sometimes it just gets to be too much. One of the things that I noticed when I was traveling and not writing was that I was consistently having vivid and robust dreams. I don't know if that's a function of being on the road and out of my element, whether it's the stimulation of new sensory data that's putting my brain on overload, or whether it's some sort of spillover effect from not having the outlet of writing. But my sleep for the last three weeks has been fitful and punctuated by interconnected dreams. I wake up with a dream in my head, turn over, and fall back into the same dream transformed, bent, re-channeled. In the morning I wake up, and unless I make some effort to capture the dream and make some notes, within a few minutes all the images and all sense of narrative structure has fled.

While I was in North Carolina I ran across an article in the July 28 New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer called "The Eureka Hunt," (abstract here) in which he reflects on the sources of good ideas. At one point he talks about the importance of relaxation — even drowsiness — in generating insight:

The insight process…is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. Jung-Beeman said, “The problem with the morning, though, is that we’re always so rushed. We’ve got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think.” He recommends that if we’re stuck on a difficult problem, it’s better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking while we’re still half asleep. (43)

I know that it's true that a lot of the ideas I have gotten for poems have come in that half-waking moment. But I don't often have the self-discipline to make the effort to capture them when I'm just waking up.

But what I'm doing now is not entirely different. It's the end of the day. I could be, and soon will be, on my way home, but right now I have a little time to relax, the time and the inclination to sit here and type. And it's, well, pleasant, to be sitting her in my new office at the end of the day following the lines of thought that my fingers are spinning out for me.

The walls and the shelves of my new office are, for the time being, mostly bare. I've spent a lot of time the last few days sorting through materials, throwing out some of them as I was packing, and throwing out others as I have been unpacking. I've got books and files that I brought with me from Massachusetts when I moved here ten years ago, some of which I haven't looked at since then. Doesn't seem likely I'm suddenly going to need any of them soon. So once the rest of my stuff arrives, I'm going to be weighing each item in mind's eye and tossing what I don't really need. Travel lighter.

I'll end with a poem by Eamon Grennan from which his book Matter of Fact, which I read on the plane to Florida and re-read on the plane back, derives its title. Grennan is thinking about Cezanne, and about how the methodology of the the artist and the writer ("excavating form from facts") might be said to overlap. The poem consists of two sentences, a statement and a question, which taken together articulate and exemplify a process of writing that makes perfect sense to me. Yes, this is what we might aspire to be able to do. That Grennan succeeds so often at it is one of the reasons I enjoy reading him so much.

Cezanne and Family

When he was excavating form from facts—
finding the geometry of trees and Mont Sainte Victoire—
he was doing what I'd like to find
a byway to, translating ravages of daily dross

into an illuminated shape or two, simple as light
but holding all the prickly specific unspeakable
matter of fact, a grasping-at (think the thousand
cuts of colour), paint laid and layered, angling

into a new veracity), that offers a centre
but no easy symmetry, coming to a point, yes,
but letting the disorderly goings-on of nature
go on, undisciplined as they are

and no containing them. Could it be like families,
I wonder, the way they don't ever or rarely ever
make clear and formal sense, and yet the facts
add up and we stand there, astonished by them?

1 comment:

John Larkin said...

Hi Bruce
Enjoyed reading your post. To be in the dream/waking state is such a reward.

Two days ago I let go notes, research and papers I had written eight, ten and more years ago. They took up space physically and mentally.

Luckily, over the last ten years I have moved from one country to another, twice. I was able to let go of so much stuff. It was cathartic and liberating. It makes space for new ideas and new things to enter your sphere. Let go.

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