EWF blog post ~ Armchair Love: Posture, Thinking and Writing

Late last year, I was excited to become one of three mentees in the Emerging Writers’ Festival Digital Mentorship program. I’ll be writing about a post a month for them for the next six months or so (you can read more about the program, and the other writers on it, here.)

My first post, an argument for armchairs and an exploration of how posture affects thinking, went up yesterday. You can read it here.

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Food reading: Stupidity in Concentration

I’ve begun reading Wendell Berry, as part of some research that I’m doing, and finding, as Michael Pollan says of him, that his writing makes so clear things that should already be self-evident, and it does so in a way that is “always patient and logical, as plumb and square and scrupulous, as well-planed woodwork”. I could share about a million quotes that demonstrate this, but this one is my favourite so far. He’s writing about the stupidity of factory-farming animals, but the ideas here could apply to all sorts of areas:

“If the people in our state and national governments undertook to evaluate economic enterprises by the standards of long-term economics, they would have to employ their minds in actual thinking. For many of them, this would be a shattering experience, something altogether new, but it would also cause them to learn things and do things that would improve the lives of their constituents.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

What I love about Berry’s writing is that he doesn’t forget farmers in his talk of the stupidity of the overall system. While its not universally the case, so much of the criticism of our food system neglects to mention farmers — which, unconsciously I’m sure, serves to lump them in as part of the problem. In fact that problem is the overall business model — which, for the most part is something that’s as much imposed on farmers as it is on the people who eventually eat the food it produces.

“It ought to be obvious that in order to have sustainable agriculture, you have got to make sustainable the lives and livelihoods of the people who do the work. The land cannot thrive if the people who are its users and caretakers do not thrive.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

Definitely something worth remembering.

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This essay is from a collection of Berry’s work, entitled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, which is available on Amazon here. (Full disclosure: I’ve got an affiliate account with them, which means I’ll make a small commission if you purchase the book through that link.)

The social function of literature?

On Thursday I rushed (quite unnecessarily, as it turns out) from a lunchtime yoga class I teach at UNSW to get on a bus to Canberra to visit my family. I’ve written here before about how I like catching a bus or a train somewhere by myself. It means I get Thinking Time.

I’ve got a lot to think about at the moment. Exciting plans, not-yet-plans, writing, reading, family stuff, money (sigh). When I slumped back in the seat on the bus yesterday, I realised that it’s actually been quite some time since I’ve given myself a break to think. I mean, I think a whole lot as I travel all over the place to teach yoga and various forms of writing. But it’s really been ages since I’ve let myself just think. When you’re travelling to teach, there’s only so far you can let your thoughts wander, in case you end up missing the bus stop or distracting yourself so much that you end up referring to your students’ feet as their hands and inadvertently instructing them to tie themselves up in strange knots. (I frequently say things like, “Inhale, walk your feet forwards between your feet… I mean…”)

Anyway. That’s a (very) round about way of saying that I got some thinking time yesterday. I put my headphones in, found some thinking music and stared out the window.

One of the things that’s been on my mind lately is the social function of literature. In my ramblings on writing as activism I touched on the idea that my writing is often an attempt to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. I’m starting to try and unpack that idea bit by bit.

Allow me to be embarrassingly earnest here for a moment.

Essentially, for me, trying to put myself in other people’s shoes in writing is about compassion. Most of the things that anger me most about the world come down to other people’s lack of compassion. Human beings seem to have this innate ability to lose all compassion for other people. And then they’re jerks to one another. It drives me nuts. (Happily, I’m also often pleasantly surprised by people’s capacity — sometimes those very same people — for compassion.) I’m guilty of it too, of course, and I reserve my harshest judgement for myself.

One of things that interests me most about yogic philosophy is its teachings on compassion. Yoga teaches compassion for all living things, human or otherwise, because all those living things are really part of the same thing. Atman, Brahma, the Self, the Buddha Self, the Universe. A whole lot of names for the same idea. Whatever you want to call it, and whether or not you’re interested in identifying yourself as belonging to one of the traditions that teaches this stuff, the idea that we’re all connected to one another — all dependent on one another — is intriguing.

When I write, I certainly don’t sit down and think, “I know, I’m going to write a piece that teaches everybody that they’re equal to the homeless man they wouldn’t normally look at.” I’m not out to write didactically. But I don’t think it’s possible to write or read stories about human beings — particularly fiction — without being pushed in some small way to think about the world from another person’s perspective. Even if just for a moment. And hey, we might not always feel compassion for the people or characters that we’re reading about (especially if you’re not a bleeding heart, like I apparently am), but even just a glimpse into that perspective, I think, has the potential to shift something in the writer and the reader.

For me, this is what literature is all about: exploring and presenting different perspectives, suggestion and question. The word that I use to explain that process is compassion, because it makes sense to me. Compassion doesn’t mean agreeing with the person or character’s perspective, but it does mean attempting to understand it. Which of course means, for me, also attempting to understand the perspective of the people in the world who are jerks to each other.

Let me get down from my soapbox now. Pack away my pompous wanker pants.

Talking about compassion and linking it to the social function of literature is problematic, I think. I’m an eldest child, and was often accused of lecturing my younger brothers (most of the time the accusation was probably spot on). As a result, as an adult I’m really conscious of not lecturing people. Saying that literature teaches people compassion makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m advocating the kind of writing that’s overtly didactic, even patronising. Writing that lectures, in other words. That kind of writing, I think, actually creates obstacles in people’s thinking, rather than chipping away at the obstacles that are already there. I certainly observe that reaction in myself.

I’m not sure how to resolve this discomfort. I don’t know where the balance is. I don’t know if I even need to resolve it.

This is really the beginning of my thinking on this topic — it’s by no means an exhaustive exploration of what’s in my brain (although I do feel slightly exhausted after typing it all up). I feel like my thinking has a lot of room for development. Any thoughts on the matter (the social function of literature or the need for brain development on my part) would be most welcome.

Slow Reading

I found this article through Mad Bibliophile today. Interesting reading. It relates to a lot of the other things I’ve been thinking about recently, so I’ll try to write something longer about it at some point. Time is something that’s on my mind a lot lately, given that I’ve now got more of it.

But for now I’m off to get ready for a dress-up party!

Thinking time

I seem to spend a lot of time on my own these days. I only realised just the other day how much time I spend in my own company. Most of my work is in the evenings at the moment, and I’m not a late sleeper, so I spend a lot of time pottering around by myself during the day.

But by no means am I lonely. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy the time.

Most Mondays I get on a train and head up to Newcastle to visit friends up there and attend a production meeting for a creative collective I’m involved in. The trip is three hours long. At first, I thought of that three hours as a chance to get a little bit of writing done. Or some class planning. Work-time, that is.

As it turns out, I find it impossible to work when I’m in transit. I’ve tried, but I usually end up with two or three words on a page and frustration in the space between my eyebrows. I’ve found the same thing on the three-hour bus trip I sometimes take to and from Canberra when I visit my Ma, Pa and brothers.

So recently I stopped trying to force myself to work. When I did, an interesting thing happened: I started to think. Properly think. You know, about life, the universe and everything and nothing. I thought through the problems I was having with my writing and often came up with solutions — I thought through life problems and again, often came up with solutions. I also started to think bigger than myself, to think, dare I say it, philosophically about the world. No solutions there. But interesting nonetheless.

How often does one get a chance to just sit and think these days?

Now, when I travel alone, I call it Thinking Time, and I don’t understand how I ever did without it.

Here’s the view from my thinking seat on the train to Newcastle. Sigh.