Tag Archives: christian mcewen

taking breaks and being selfish

Good morning this beautiful morning — how is the sun singing to you this morning? How are you letting yourself into the sky’s day?

I am back to this blog writing after a bit of a vacation — I’m sorry for the long absence. I went back east for about a week, and got to nestle and swim in the New England summer. During vacation I read a lot, swam in the Pacific, visited with friends and family, sunbathed, walked in the rain — I wrote, too, though not on the computer.

I don’t like to spend much time on the computer while I’m on vacation; I take myself offline, and though I keep my phone close at hand so I can take pictures, I avoid email and my social networking apps. Being away from the (perceived) demands of social media allows me to take a real break, to slow down, to pay a different kind of attention. I feel less scattered when I’m offline — though it can take a day or so for the quality of my awareness to recalibrate from easily distractable and multi-task-oriented toward something more focused and yet with a wider peripheral vision. I begin to walk more slowly. I turn away from the screens, letting my eyes open back to the real world that surrounds me.

I tend to feel guilty for taking these sorts of media-input breaks, like I’m in avoidance mode. This is an old feeling, and comes from the years in college when I would, in fact, avoid the phone and email so that I could tell my stepfather that I honestly hadn’t been aware of his many and varied attempts to contact me. I would turn the phone’s ringer off and turn down the volume on the answering machine. This was before voice mail, though — I wasn’t able to avoid hearing the cassette tape whir into motion once the recorded greeting started to play, and I couldn’t turn down the tape as it recorded his message to me, sometimes sweet and wheedling, sometimes threatening and angry. So I’d leave the apartment, wandering the streets of my small college town for hours, holing up in cafes where I wrote and wrote and wrote, always aware of what I was doing: avoiding the phone, not being where my abuser wanted me to be.

In her book World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, Christian McEwen writes: “The practicing artist is, by definition, someone who is able to build a life around his or her own creative work. Inevitably, such a person will have considered his or her attitude to time. What matters is not how much they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

By necessity, during those years, I learned the power of making time for my generative, creative life — even all these years later, though, the powerful and useful practice of taking space from communicative devices can be, for me, tinged with guilt and shame: I internalized the sense that I’m running away from something or someone, that when I make space for my creative self, I am taking something from someone else.

You don’t have to have an abuser telling you that you’re selfish for not being at their beck and call to have this particular lesson take hold: we get this message from our work, our families, our communities — that we are selfish if we say we need time for our art, particularly when the time we need looks to someone outside our own head like time being wasted on a walk in the woods or reading poetry or daydreaming or otherwise creating the sort of open, woolgathering headspace and heartspace necessary for generating creative work.

How do we unlearn this message, that time not spent doing work that benefits someone else is time wasted? Or that time spent in our creative process is time spent selfishly? Or that being selfish with our time is always a bad thing?

How do you challenge that idea?

After all these years, I still have to breathe deep into the anxiety that when I get done with my writing time, I’m going to have to deal with someone’s fury. I don’t — if someone is going to be angry with me for taking the time I need to write, I gently encourage them not to be in my life anymore. Sometimes I succumb to the fear of selfishness: I stop taking the time I need to write, in favor of spending time with other people. After several days of this, I hit overload. Every. Single. Time. I become cranky, achy, short-tempered, and less able to concentrate on anything or anyone. I end up needing lots of time to myself in order to come back into balance.

It’s kind of like the way I still sometimes binge, when I’m feeling really bad about myself, which then reminds me that my body doesn’t respond well to that kind of overstuffing — that that coping mechanism doesn’t serve me anymore, and I deserve to take care of my body in other ways.

I have to learn and relearn these lessons: when I allow myself the practices that I need in order to be in balance — which includes both “free” time (which is the playtime that my psyche needs in order to keep the words flowing) and writing time — then I am better able to engage in my relationships.  Not everyone works this way, but I do.

What do you need in order to fully inhabit your creative self? Can you write about those conditions and desires for ten minutes or so today? Notice how your body feels when you write about what helps our writing to flow… and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for going as slow as you need to go. Thank you for your words, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.