Spring re-cycling


Silk’s Post #77 — Is it still snowing or freezing somewhere back East? I’m sorry, I truly am. Happy St. Patrick’s Day anyway – at least the beer is green.

ewe-&-lambsHere on the wet coast, though, it’s sunny and warm. The pasture is turning lush. The daffs are popping up. And we have 11 new lambs bouncing around the farm.

Since this was the first winter in several years that I didn’t get to escape for a couple of weeks on a sunny beach somewhere else, I am more than ready for spring. I have that hopeful, restless, let’s-get-on-with-it feeling that always comes upon me at this time of year. Obviously I’m not unique since there’s a familiar name for this state of mind: Spring Fever.

I want to get out and do something different. Clean up old messes and begin something fresh. Unburden myself. Sweep my brain clean. Fly in the air. Restart, recycle, reset, replenish, recreate … all those ‘re-‘ words. It’s the season of renewal and ascension, and it has me thinking about how important these cycles are.

People who live in places with real seasons are fond of saying they couldn’t live in places without them – even though those who can afford it tend to turn into snowbirds when the arthritis kicks in. The great temperate climatic band that circles the globe is home to most of us on Earth, and our rhythms are organically tied to seasons and cycles.

There’s not a culture that doesn’t have these cycles embedded within it – and, of course, religions have expropriated the ancient annual milestones for their own observances. But these cycles are anything but arbitrary. Human survival has historically been dependent on doing the right things at the right time of year. Planting, tending the flocks and crops, building, reaping, preserving, sheltering. Aesop put this timeless truth in story form for children with the fiddling grasshopper and the industrious ant.

The fact is that life is not linear – it’s cyclical. We acknowledge humans’ self-sustaining circadian (24-hour) rhythms. We know that the monthly cycle of the moon affects the tides of people as well as oceans. And even though we’ve largely become an urban, rather than agrarian, species, I think annual cycles are so deeply ingrained that they create their own ‘social weather’. Everyone knows this intuitively, even if they don’t think about it.

But how many writers embed all these cycles into their stories? Those who are able to imbue their writing with a sense of natural cycles add resonance to the context of their stories. They deepen their plots with an extra, more textured layer of time and place. Their characters are more human, more visceral, because they have more organic, more complex – and less controllable – influences driving their feelings and actions.

Even stories that are set in cities and play out over very short timeframes can have seasonality. So, you say you’re writing a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story that takes place in an underground world beneath the ruins, so there are no day and night, no lunar cycle, no seasons? Wait – maybe there are. The obvious signals may not be in evidence anymore. But people’s internal rhythms don’t depend exclusively on literal cues like weather, dark and light, sun and moon. (If that were the case, there’d be no such thing as ‘jet lag’.)

Is this starting to sound suspiciously like astrology? Whether you consider it superstitious mumbo-jumbo or ancient wisdom, astrology reflects a deep species’ memory of the inextricable links between human life and natural cycles. Spectacular, improbable pyramids, obelisks and pre-historic monuments from Tikal to Stonehenge immortalize our relationship with the heavens and earth – and the cycles that keep us spinning through the universe.

Have we become too sophisticated to worry about this antique worldview? Have we learned, through our boundless technology, to control our environment so successfully that we’ve rendered these natural cycles irrelevant? Aren’t we essentially different from our more primitive ancestors?

Well … no.

Think about it as you drink your green beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Or – if you’re more into cycles than saints – as you toast the Vernal (or Spring) Equinox, which occurs on March 20th. Now, isn’t that a funny coincidence?


Writing in the dark

Silk’s Post #7 — I love to write at night. Not in a civilized, disciplined after-dinner session, rationally timed to finish off a chapter before the late news hour. No, no, no. I mean an all-night, insomniac marathon conducted with the red-eyed passion of the addict.

I love to write during that unclaimed time of darkness, when the world is sensibly asleep, leaving the empty hours to those who relish the void. This time belongs to me. My mind runs free. I’m a night hunter pursuing words, insights, patterns, ideas that lurk in the peripheral vision. I feel like a day-shy vampire who rises unafraid in the silent time unwanted by others, stalking the hours until I fall into bed with exhausted satisfaction as the sky begins to blush.

Is my night writing my best writing? Not necessarily. It often needs a good slap in the face when I re-examine it in daylight. But it is certainly the most imaginative stuff I write. It’s more like play than work. There’s something about breaking the rule of circadian rhythms that encourages rule-breaking in general. At night, my writer wakes up while my self-editor goes to sleep.

I don’t do this every night, of course. This behaviour is episodic. First, I literally have to have the energy to stay up. Second, I have to feel obsessed. Third, I have to have the time to sleep in the next morning. But lately – driven by this crazy 5 Writers deadline, which is rushing at me much, much faster than the pages are accumulating – I’ve been thinking about how to discipline my work habits to be more productive. And I realized that night writing is when I seem to be capable of churning out serious wordage.

The writing nation is filled with stories – apocryphal and literal – of great night writers, literary giants who burned the candle late, and, in our romantic imaginations, burned themselves up at the same time. There’s an iconoclastic appeal to the image of the tortured, driven writer pursuing his craft alone, in the dark, with only the muse looking on. This image works best if one imagines the writer scratching out a manuscript on parchment with a quill pen. Perhaps with a raven tapping on the window and a lone wolf howling in the distance.

Yet, writing at night is more common than one might suppose after reading all the claims of advice-giving writers who promote the first hours after waking as the optimal time for creativity. (These tend to be the same writers who chant the mantra “write-every-day-write-every-day-write-every-day,” preferably to a quota). But a bit of research found a surprising number of references to night writing and the famous authors who indulge(d) in the practice.  First, let’s remember that many authors – successful and aspiring – must pursue their writing in ‘spare time’ not taken up with commitments to working for actual money, raising children, feeding themselves, looking after various matters of hygiene, or engaging in social intercourse. Most of that spare time can only be found late at night.

Then, there’s insomnia and other circadian ‘abnormalities’. Charles Dickens’ 1861 essay, Night Walks begins with a gorgeous premise:

“Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights …

In the course of those nights, I finished my education in a fair amateur experience of houselessness. My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.”

I learned – in a wonderful blog on The Guardian website contributed by Matt Shoard (who wrote the post between 4:00 and 5:30 am) – that not only Dickens, but also Robert Frost, Alan Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Carol Ann Duffy, James Tipton, Richard Brautigan, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, TS Eliot, JD Salinger and many other luminaries famously wrote at night. I learned “Why You Should Be Writing at Night” from Jonathan Manor, guest blogging on Jeff Goins’ website devoted to writing practice.

And I also learned the secrets of circadian rhythms – what I call the Circadian Cha Cha – in an inexhaustible series of articles by psychologists and chronobiologists who have studied this thing to death. It seems each of us has a natural biological clock – our personal time zone – which is genetic as well as environmental. Scientists like to classify people as ‘Larks’ (morning people) or ‘Owls’ (night people), with many variations between. I took a quick survey to determine which type of bird I am, and came up with the result that I am neither a ‘Lark’, nor an ‘Owl’, but a ‘Hummingbird’: “ready for action both morning and night, in sync with our culture’s demands” (lucky me).

Given that finding the time, and the will, to get words on paper is a perennial obsession of writers – especially those of us on a frightening deadline – it might be worth your while to learn the steps to your own Circadian Cha Cha. Writing is about more than discipline and determination. You have to work with your own rhythms. So figure them out.

Check out this simple test on the Psychology Today website to find out what kind of bird you really are.

Then fly with it!