“Useful Passivity”

The title phrase comes from novelist Ian McEwan, and, when I encountered it the other day, it vibrated with a particular resonance. Recently, offered a book contract, I’ve settled into a routine that will, I hope, carry me to completion of my new job: after loosing the little workman of caffeine in my bloodstream, and in the morning’s rising light, I go to the mix of research, musing and writing that shapes each day. But at some late morning point, even if I give myself a pep-talk about resolve and deadlines, the words – mine or those of others – lie inert on the screen or page. I write a sentence or paragraph, reread it, and I realize that I don’t have “it” any more, if ever “it” has appeared that day.

What to do? Like many of us, I first check e-mail, though “it” has never written to me. But yesterday, McEwan’s phrase appeared there in a message from my sister-in-law, who thought I’d like the clip where he uses it. I clicked and listened to find out what useful passivity is. It wasn’t long before I found a link to Henry Thoreau, though the link was in practice and not in name. McEwan was praising time away from task, and I slipped the word “necessary” into “useful”’s place; that gave it more Thoreauvian resonance.

In the short clip, McEwan thinks about creativity and the moments when he arrives at an insight or a subject or a phrasing and the mystery of that arrival. Getting there, he thinks, takes travel, but it’s not the sort of direct line we imagine when we draw a line from A to B. Instead, it’s an alphabet of meandering, of the sort a traveler does in a new country. Or a walker in the new hours of afternoon. Here then was Henry Thoreau’s daily walking habit; there then was my own trail-dependency.

Every day when “it” vanishes, I go out to the day’s trail. Sometimes, I fire up the hammer of my heart and run; other times I amble along in search of foot-digressions. I go up and down. I go sideways, here and there. A flash of color alerts me to an idea, or to a bird. I’m not at work, but work can’t happen without this time outside. “It” is out here somewhere.

Here’s the link to the McEwan clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9LZfX3Y8TI

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