The Contemplative Life?: expectations, idealisms, and reality

by Anna Blanch on March 20, 2010

This is remix of a post from about this time last year. I am in the midst of some pretty heavy-duty writing for my General Research Ordinance (kind of the equivalent to defending the prospectus – but different). Thus this post seemed particularly apt though it doesn’t completely describe my current state. Would love your feedback and comments as always.
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I love to write when creativity strikes and while I would contend that is in a place of unbridled creativity that my best ideas come it is not usually where I can expect to write polished pieces. Often the moments of creativity produce sparks and tangents that take time, control, and discipline to flesh out into fully developed arguments that flow. I often have to go back after I have posted to fix spelling and grammar mistakes, and to add prepositions that my eye did not see before publishing. On one side it helps me to realise that i need an editor, or in the least a proofreader for my writing. On the other I become very aware that I still have a great deal to learn technically and stylistically. Writing (even if you do it for a living as I do) is a skill (a muscle even) that must be exercised. Just like you use different muscles to swim than you do to run you must exercise the different muscles that are used in different registers and kinds of writing.

Producing Academic writing of publishable quality can be particularly challenging. Each discipline has its own rules about voice (these can even differ from journal to journal, and from country to country, within a discipline) and the use of “I.” The sense of “joining” a conversation can be daunting, especially when it feels like you stick out like a sore thumb or are wearing shorts and t-shirt and flip-flops (thongs for my Aussie readers) to a black tie gala affair.

When I was taking a graduate level seminar on Milton with Dr. Phillip J. Donnelly during my first semester of Graduate school in the US it became apparent to me that Milton scholars are some of the smartest people I have ever come across. If you don’t believe me go and read his book on Milton’s Scriptural Reasoning: Narrative and Protestant Toleration. I mean, hopefully, you can read really smart erudite people in every field (otherwise it may be problematic that they are experts) but as a whole the Milton scholars blew me away. Talk about tough – they are knowledgeable in rhetorical and classical forms, classical education, as well as the literature of the period, politics and history.

We were expected to write a publishable article as part of the Milton seminar. That wasn’t unusual in itself; in fact writing an article length paper and a conference length paper were almost always expected as part of every Graduate seminar I took. What was unusual was that I have never felt so out of my depth in my life – the quality of writing and thought was just extraordinary. One of my fellow students described it this way:
It’s like arriving at a skating rink and you know what the ice looks like and you’ve maybe been on the ice once or twice before and you were pretty wobbly…but then you realise that you are at the Olympics and it’s the final of the individual figure skating and you’re expected to go out there on rental skates and perform a triple axel.

It was a pretty apt image of how we all felt. But you know that sense of being humbled is growth-inducing! I don’t think i will ever let that Milton article see the light of day. It became something real and something tangible to show that I did get somewhere with it all and yet I feel like I need to leave Milton to minds greater than mine and seek to enjoy the brilliance of his work. Just cause you wrote it doesn’t mean you should publish it. There’s a good lesson: when you learn what you are not it is almost more helpful than thinking you know what you are.

Academic writing, whether for a Professor who has set you a deadline or for an editor who has set you a deadline, can be more a labour of love than a labour of love if you know what i mean. As the Vampire Slayer herself Buffy Summers once said:

I thought it was gonna be more like in the movies. You know, inspirational music and a montage: me sharpening pencils, reading, writing, falling asleep on a big pile of books with my glasses all crooked because in the montage I have glasses. Real life is so slow and it hurts my occipital lobe.

The reality does not always match the idealized versions in our minds. Spending 6 or 7 hours straight at a library table leafing through books isn’t always a movie montage of hurried, productive activity. In saying that, I love libraries and I’ve had productive times there. I’ve had lots more productive time sitting in an armchair or a couch with my laptop on my lap or a coffee table rustling through piles of articles and books to find the quote i’m looking for or wildly gesticulating to the imaginary muse with my my hands in these grotesque shapes as I search for the right word in a given situation. Pushing through exhaustion, hunger, and a desire to do pretty much anything else, in order to finish a piece of writing is not always a pleasant experience and one I hope not to have to repeat too often. However, it has taught me some things:
  1. I can always keep writing no matter how tired I am but it might not be very good
  2. I really need some time to proofread and self-edit
  3. I rarely can write piece longer than 2000 words solely on a computer screen. I like to write all over physical drafts.
  4. Draft 4 is usually infinitely better than Draft 3, but beyond that changes are cosmetic.

I guess though for something good to come out of it, hard work is a must. But there is a difference between hard work and self-masochism. I, of course, can say that in hindsight. Go and read my The long awaited sigh……..Train whistles and Tired eyes post for some musings in the midst of the mayhem.

What does it mean to live a contemplative life in the 21st century? Should I go, take orders and live in a cloistered order and write for the rest of my life. I’m not married. I have a strong sense of vocation. I’m not casting aspersions on orders of any kind or being faecetious either. Some of my favourite people are nuns (seriously: you can thank my grandmother). Does living a contemplative life mean consuming all kinds of media? does it mean rejecting social networking? Should i even bother asking that? – I blog after all. I guess though as much as I njoy this medium I am not hemmed in by it and it doesn’t define me or my writing.

Part of the process of living a contemplative life (or any kind of healthy life) is to know and understand how you work best. How about you? Can you write completely on a computer screen? Do you know when and where you write best? Who am I kidding, we all need to know how we live best not just work. What drains you and what fills you up? When do you work best, when is best for errands and other tasks? with music or without music? do you eat to live or live to eat? what does exercise do for your state of mind? are there certain people who bring sunshine into your day?

I am looking forward to time and space to enjoy reading again and the quality of thought I know will result from a peaceful heart and mind. I feel like i have chain-ganged the muse in the last 12 months or so – working when i am utterly exhausted and writing an inordinate amount of words on demand. I am always suspicious of claims that one should be able to write 1000 words an hour. Writing 1000 words an hour is really not that hard, writing 1000 quality words is what is difficult.
I want to muse, to wander and create. And I have to the conclusion that I need physical space and not just intellectual space. Cities and I are not generally in creative sync! In just over a month I will be heading back to Australia for some much needed time with family and friends. I am not sure how much “musing” time will be possible but I will be breathing in that beautiful country air and looking out over a landscape I love so much. That’s what fills me with joy – my family, my friends, my country.
I’m not sure I’m any closer to a definition of what constitutes a contemplative life in the 21st Century. Reading because you want to and not because you have to might be a start. Carving out physical and intellectual space might be another step. Allowing yourself time and energy to create may be another, including being willing to drop what you should be doing to write and create (I really should be packing up boxes to ship to Scotland as I type). My practical upbringing means i feel slightly guilty about dropping the practical to pursue the creative but my sanity thanks me and that, my friends is worth more to me than productivity (although….).

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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  • Preston Yancey

    As always, a wonderful post! I can particularly relate to the violent gesticulations in search of the proper word for something. This has often happened in public (in the library, the Reading Room, etc.) and has resulted in people who are not prone to these actions studying me intently as if I'm without my sanity. Ever so often, though, I meet the gaze of a kindred spirit, their hand mid-air as well. (Alright, never has their hand been mid-air as well, but I hold out hope for it.)
    While I was writing my first novel, it seemed the only place I could manage to do it was sitting on my bed in my house, all the lights on, everything else turned off. Ridiculous in a sense but my queen-size took up most of the room, giving me some kind of cushioned island to isolate myself upon while I spilled words across the page and prayed for them to be sensible. Nowadays, thanks to university, everywhere has become a kind of place to write. I think what happened is I finally accepted the habit I have–and I don't think by any means I'm the only one privileged with it–of writing all the time in my head. The world is scripted-as-it-happens to me, which somehow later shows up on the page in some variant. At least, the parts I remember.
    It's not the first time I've wondered about you and the cloistered life. Since that first time we had lunch and you shared with me your progression in faith . . . I'm not quite sure what to say about it, other than I am continually impressed (and most importantly inspired) by your faithfulness to God. He has blessed you with so many gifts, which you use so well to His glory.

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