I’ve been looking forward to January since November. Back then, I’d realized that the writing project I was working on had gone wildly off course. Although I knew it had made a wrong turn, I didn’t have the time or energy to chase after it. January, I figured: I’ll get back to it then. It can shiver in the wilderness for a while.
In my imagination, January was the ideal season for settling in and allowing my attention to wander inward. The cold and wind typical of midwinter makes being outside not-so-pleasant, while fires in the fireplace and tea in the pot generate contemplative coziness. January: I would mount an expedition to rescue my project, get it back on its feet and, if not marching, then at least staggering in the right direction.
Ultimately, writing succeeds or fails on the basis of ass-in-the chair discipline, but there’s something about the endeavor that begs for ritual and structure. I suspect this is because there’s usually something physical about those rituals or structures, something of a reference to the matrix of embodied existence. Discipline, like writing, relies on mental effort, but matters of cerebral bubbling are deceptive. While the brain can get the fire going, the energy for sustained simmering requires fuel from the external environment. The talismans of ritual—I can only write in the morning; I can’t work without the notebook/computer file where I started my notes; I do my best work at the coffeehouse; my lucky pen is out of ink; I don’t have any more organic/rooibos/hibiscus/green/oolong tea—are beacons, however faint, that keep us from wandering too far into the thicket of our interior wilderness. We rely on these amulets too much at times, forgetting to detach from their supposed powers and to start drawing on our own disciplinary batteries again. Routines and mantras, though, serve as touchstones that help keep us oriented toward the sustaining environment outside ourselves.
The whole point of writing is to make connections with other human beings. The words cannot function in public if they’re mired in the vortex of the author’s singular experience. Since discipline is part of the interior ecosystem, it’s vulnerable to the pull of the whirlpool of self-reference. The drive to write sometimes creates the urge to shut out the world as a source of treacherous distractions. This only accelerates the spin into a tighter spiral, though, distorting the brain’s energy so acutely it deflects into a black hole, a place where the desire for words falls endlessly in while nothing ever emerges to see the light of a reader’s eyes.
This is probably why writing deadlines are so motivating for so many of us. A deadline is an emissary from the outside world. It disrupts the circular flow with the obstacle of editorial expectations. Retreats and conferences and workshops work in a similar way, breaking the pull of the vortex with a surge of energy from the social domain. On a smaller scale, reading or going for a walk disrupts the rotation, giving the brain a nibble of sustenance from the outside world. We’re biological beings. Without food and water from the environment beyond our skin, we wither and die. The brain evolved as an organ of interface between the inner domain and the outer one. Without input from the latter, it simply cannot function.
Exterior influence, outside energy. This line of thought cautions me against getting too enamored of my January writing fantasy. Lucky me, then, that the spell of interiority is so regularly and so thoroughly broken. There’s the writing, yes, but there’s also the lure of an unseasonably warm January day, replete with sunshine and scarce of wind. There’s the dead battery on the truck when plowing needs to be done. There’s hoarfrost sending out glittery daggers, begging to be admired. There’s lentil soup that wants making. There’s horses to be fed, books to be read. There’s the cottontail rabbit that’s made its home in a burrow next to the front walk. And there’s the writing.