Round Here We Stay Up

July 2, 2005 | 31 comments
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very very very very late. I do, at least. It’s 11:41 presently, and I’m still planning to finish this post, fire off some comments, do my sit-ups and read the new Adam Gopnik in this week’s New Yorker before I turn in. I don’t like going to bed so late, and I never plan to: my default daymap has me retiring about 11:00, so I can get up by 6:00 the next morning to do my three miles and read the scriptures before the children wake. This virtually never happens, though. It’s usually a lot closer to 1:00 by the time I get in bed, and I almost always awaken to my son’s cries at about 6:30, gritty-eyed and heavy-limbed and with no intention of taking on the treadmill anytime soon.

Staying up too late, in fact, is my most frequent violation of the constitution of self-imposed rules and standards that governs the traffic of my day-to-day life. The problem, in part, is that two nights out of four I go to bed alone, a business I loathe and assiduously procrastinate until fatigue insists. Mostly, though, the problem feeds on its own solution, like the snake on its tail: because I am by nature task-oriented, I put off sleep until I’ve checked off the articles of a well-lived day. Of course, putting off sleep itself constitutes a violation of those articles, and therein lies the rub (and rubbing of eyes). A law-abiding day, according to Rosalynde’s Fundamentals of Dailiness, consists of: an early rise for exercise and personal devotion, breakfast for the children and daily chores at the top of the morning, academic research and serious writing in the mid-morning, lunch and rotating weekly chores at mid-day, blogging and pleasure reading during early afternoon nap/quiet time, activities and outings with the children during late afternoon, dinner and family devotions and bed for the children, then nightly chores and situps, and finally serious reading or creative personal writing until bed. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Balanced and stimulating and productive, well-paced and well-rounded and well-planned… and almost impossible to carry off. I sleep too late, the children wake too early, they’re only out of the house two mornings a week anyway, somebody calls for a favor or a chat, I have to rearrange time-slots to get in treadmill time, there’s an Adam Gopnik and a Jonathan Franzen (sorry, Kingsley) in this week’s New Yorker. The possibilities for failure are, like the swine, legion.

But that I fail so frequently, that I stay up too late and sleep too late, that I neglect some social or spiritual or physical or intellectual component of the balanced life, and that I do so almost programatically, isn’t really the problem. The real problem is that balance, the method of a modern life lived with discipline and intention, is, well, moderate. A balanced life, with its regular engagement and careful apportioning and emotional hygiene, systematizes the categories of life and orders them temporally, and in doing so centers the gravity of one’s life in the habitual and the healthy. To be sure, the habitual and healthy is a nice place to be, and the rewards of moderation are real. But habit and health produce casual normalcy, a sort of larger formlessness subsuming the strictures of its smaller forms.

Balance is inimical to the excesses of creativity. The sacred, the sublime, the intuitive insight, the feverish breakthrough, the extremes of beauty and horror—these all require the interplay of excess and scarcity, and often the relinquishment of both habit and health, as well. Medieval nuns who achieved ecstatic personal spirituality most often did so through an ascetic regime of self-abnegation and mortification. Vincent Van Gogh and Christopher Marlowe produced their work not in spite of but because of their mental illness and excess. The great intellectual and social movements have at their inception, more often than not, the obsessive work of a single-minded founder. And in my own experience, periods of great creativity and productivity have coincided with jutting imbalance in my life: after my daughter was born, for example, my depression and anxiety brought, along with moments of panic and despair, an intensity of sensation and a drive to create that I’ve never enjoyed since; and during the final months of writing my dissertation I worked with a focus and absorption that precluded almost any extra-familial social interaction or diversion. (Both stages, coincidentally, involved semi-severe sleep deprivation.) My most vivid personal spiritual experiences have occurred during periods of extremity, as well. I wouldn’t want to live that way for long, but wow, what a spin while it lasted.

(It will be objected, perhaps, that I’m merely resurrecting romantic ideals of the artist-as-Byron, with his peacock’s excess and parade of lovers and flamboyant death. I’m not, though: I’m skeptical of the concept of genius as a transcendence of human spirit at the core of the romantic mythology. And stolid plodders can certainly produce good work, too: there’s Bach as well as Beethoven, after all. But the irregular swing of surfeit and deprivation that propels creative endeavor still seems to me hostile to the symmetry of balance. )

What balance and regularity and rationalized time-discipline is good for, of course, is industrial capitalism. The forward vector of modern time, shoving its long finger through alarm clocks and time-cards and work weeks, delivers a regime of time-thrift that teaches us to save and spend and budget our hours like so many pennies in a piggy bank: early to bed and early to rise, as we all know, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

But the programmatic recursions of the balanced life also tick off the occasions of collective and communal worship. Daily family devotions of prayer and scripture reading, weekly participation at church with its regular, recurrent occasions for testimony and fasting and ordinance, monthly attendance at the temple—these all require recursive temporal cycles that excite the spiritual life by elevating the merely habitual to the ritual. Communal worship generally lacks ecstatic surpluses, but it supplies the gentler compensations of liturgy, sociality, observance. It seems to me that the current ideal of Mormon life, with its weekly FHE and quarterly PPI and biannual conferences, fosters this sort of religious experience. This is not to say that personal spiritual experience is ignored: it isn’t, though it strikes me that the recommended technologies—habitual thirty-minute study sessions, scheduled personal prayer—may be unlikely to achieve that result. But the ideal Mormon life is a balanced one, early to bed and early to rise for church, deliberately distributing its wealth of hours and offices to succor the whole body of Christ. In a society whose public life is ever more impoverished of civic ritual and communal effort, this is a good thing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to do my sit-ups.

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31 Responses to Round Here We Stay Up

  1. Gabrielle Turner on July 2, 2005 at 2:51 am

    Funny that I’m reading this post at 2:49 AM.

  2. Kingsley on July 2, 2005 at 3:02 am

    The only thing Byrony about me, alas, is my club foot and ravishing good looks.

  3. Kingsley on July 2, 2005 at 3:19 am

    Oh, and my timeless poetry. Thus:

    Poor Sister Roz
    Is fighting the paws
    Of the black cat called sleep; her directions?
    To strengthen each ab
    While enjoying a gab
    With the — journalist — of The Corrections.

  4. fMhLisa on July 2, 2005 at 3:19 am

    I’m up way too late . . .

  5. Wilfried on July 2, 2005 at 4:20 am

    Rosalynde, your post is very well written, rich in thoughts and nuances, and deserves close reading and rereading. The balance between routine on the one hand, with its inbuilt protection, and the more ecstatic experience does not seem easy. We should, as you put is so beautifully, appreciate “recursive temporal cycles that excite the spiritual life by elevating the merely habitual to the ritual.” I certainly agree.

    At the same time routine entails the risk of monotony, and therefore of boredom and progressive superficiality. It strikes me that in testimony meetings, the deep-felt, emotional testimonies often seem tied to exceptional events (birth, death, accidents, mission, marriage…), rather than to more permanent spiritual intensity from the own heart. Certainly, it is normal that such external events generate excitement and allow us to connect with higher powers. But then again, how to feed our personal spiritual life within the habitual is a matter deserving reflection. Thanks for making us think about it.

  6. Mike W. on July 2, 2005 at 8:14 am

    Rosalynde,

    As always, very enjoyable. I think we all struggle with balance because it is so unnatural. Life is never about having things perfectly ordered. I know that I’ve never experienced balance. There is always something that takes priority over most other things during different phases. I’ve heard it described as “cresting:” the idea that priorities rise and fall in response to the phase of life. It makes more sense to me than to try to force every facet of my life into perfect balance.

  7. J. Stapley on July 2, 2005 at 8:21 am

    I need 9 hours to function properly…but if I get it, I’m superman. Sadly, I rarely do and remain Clark Kent.

  8. danithew on July 2, 2005 at 9:12 am

    Balance is inimical to the excesses of creativity. The sacred, the sublime, the intuitive insight, the feverish breakthrough, the extremes of beauty and horror—these all require the interplay of excess and scarcity, and often the relinquishment of both habit and health, as well.

    What great lines. As always Rosalynde, thanks for the post.

  9. costanza on July 2, 2005 at 9:16 am

    Thanks Rosalynde–now I will have that Counting Crows song in my head all day!

  10. Kingsley on July 2, 2005 at 10:05 am

    No, seriously, Rosalynde Welch, your post, as always, sent my scurrying beneath my bed to suck my thumb and reflect insecurely on Wittgenstein’s dictum that a good style can only result from good thinking.

  11. Miranda PJ on July 2, 2005 at 11:03 am

    You can get used to going to bed alone if you do it more frequently. Since my husband Eric got promoted to shift supervisor at the toilet paper factory, he’s been working nights 5 days a week. At first, I was practically an insomniac, but it only took about a week and a half to stabilize.

    And I don’t care how much you protest, you sound so much more in control of your day than I am. My day is just a roller coaster ride whose course and speed is entirely determined by my children.

  12. Jonathan Green on July 2, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Rosalynde, I understand the problem, but I disagree with one of your premises. Looking around me, clear intent and rigorous discipline seem rather rare, so that the result of their mixture is not modest but rather prodigious achievement. Muddled intent and inconsistent commitment seem more the order of the day.

    Excesses of creativity and spirituality have important and irreplaceable functions, but I think both need to be balanced by hard-headed discipline. Overflowing creativity is a great way to get words down on a page, but a novel requries cold-hearted revision and the rigor of regular writing. The spiritual benefit of liturgical and devotional order is that it prevents us from singing our favorite hymn and ruminating over our favorite chapter time and time again until they have lost all their flavor, but a hymn we sing but once a year can catch in our throats when we had only meant to do justice to the tenor line.

  13. Julie Allen on July 2, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Rosalynde, I find myself plagued by the same seductive demons, especially since my husband has been in Hawaii for the last 7 weeks geting ready for us to move there next week. I have never even thought about my addiction to nocturnal drudgery in as eloquent of terms as you so deftly employ, but I thoroughly enjoyed your gift for exquisite description of the paradoxes by which I also live my life. Somehow I feel that time is infinitely flexible and that the final task squeezed in at 12:47am will not, in fact, reduce the actual amount of sleep I will find in the arms of Elysium.

    I justify my late hours by my husband’s momentary absence or by the fact that the kids are finally in bed, but in fact, when I am honest with myself, I must confess that I revel in my solitude, feeling both creative and productive despite, or perhaps because of, my awareness of violating the rules of an orderly conventional life, in this small but personally significant way. Perhaps it is the sense of succumbing to decadence that seduces me to read one last chapter of whatever fascinating book I happen to be reading, or maybe it is a sense of duty to myself to finish another chunk of whatever project I am working on (at the moment the transcription and translation of 200+ handwritten Danish pioneer letters from the 1860s to 1890s) so I will have less looming over me tomorrow. I call myself a glutton for punishment but I enjoy the sense of satisfaction I get from finishing tasks and from feeling like I am beating the system somehow. Rising early in the morning seems peculiarly cruel (as it was when I had 6am Primary Presidency meetings every week last year) but staying up into the early hours is merely bittersweet (particularly when the kids starting jumping on me in the morning).

    Thanks again, Rosalynde, for living and describing the examined (if occasionally less than perfectly balanced) life.

  14. Brian G on July 2, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    I don’t know if I agree with the idea that balance is inimical to the excesses of creativity. In my personal experience I’ve often had to relinquish habit and health in order to be creative, but this has only been out of necessity. I think most creative people, especially those without addictions or mental health issues, would prefer to work in a state of balance, where better discipline and control can be brought to their craft, but it is creative pursuit that is inimical to financial stability, which, of course, is related to balance. In other words, it doesn’t help to be out-of-balance to be creative, it’s desiring to be creative that can throw your life out of balance. It’s economic necessity that makes people stay up late and steal moments (sometimes from their employers) to be creative, and much of this can spin your life out of control.

    There’s really not that many solutions. 1) Be rich, or find a rich patron. 2) Trudge off to a day job, or care for the kids all day, and sacrifice sleep at night to pursue creative work on the side, or 3) neglect family and material comfort entirely to pursue being creative. Most people, especially Mormons, choose option 2.

    There is a fourth option which is nearly impossible and that’s to make money being creative. I’m of the opinion that the majority of great artists have made money from their work and that’s not only perfectly okay, it has made their work that much greater because it provided them with both the time that great art requires and the balance that most artists prefer.

    I think it’s sad that many people stifle their instincts and desires to be creative because they buy into the ideas that, at the very least, you seem to be fascinated by—the ideas that such things as obsession, anxiety, depression, and mortification are required or beneficial for creative work. I don’t believe this is so. These are just dangerous extremes of the ingredients that are really necessary: commitment rather than obsession, concern rather than anxiety, sensitivity rather than depression, and sacrifice instead of mortification.

    I think if less people bought into these misconceptions about creative work we’d have more and better art in the world.

  15. Christian Y. Cardall on July 2, 2005 at 6:03 pm

    Amen.

    When traveling, away from my spouse, I regularly have difficulty deciding to go to sleep until fatigue forces it upon me. Last night, visiting my dad alone here on the west coast, after our movie ended past midnight, I couldn’t put down a book until 3am. There is so much in the world to read, write, do, watch, listen to, buy, and experience that a sudden absence of normal daily responsibilities can make one somewhat giddy with a kind of ambition and appetite for a smorgasbord of trivialities.

    Also, even the midst of normal daily routines, it has often been my experience that creative effort or problem-solving requires of me an obsessive focus of hours at a time—especially when aimed at some sort of “breakthrough”—during which schedules are defied and other responsibilities are either ignored or given very superficial attention.

  16. Kaimi on July 2, 2005 at 7:51 pm

    I’ll second Brian — one can be creative without being Sylvia Plath.

    It’s easy to be fascinated by self-destructive, overwhelming creativity, the muse that’s a demon. But the rigor of daily work is what brings creativity to life. No one would remember Michelangelo if he hadn’t had the daily rigor and discipline to actually go paint.

    And on the broader level — the broadest possible level — isn’t human creativity just a precursor to godly creativity? Our half-finished short stories are the immature manifestation of a creative instinct which will come to full fruition when we design entire worlds and plans of salvation. We’re chicks and fledglings at the moment, squawking around the nest and pretending to fly with our downy wings. But one day our creative energies will be loosed upon the greatest (and most important) canvas imaginable.

    And at that point, I imagine that both abilities — the ability to focus completely on the creative act, and also the ability to balance that creation with other many duties — will be needed.

  17. Ann on July 2, 2005 at 8:20 pm

    My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;
    But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light.
    – Edna St. Vincent Millay

  18. Bill on July 2, 2005 at 9:36 pm

    Shakespeare in the Park this year is As You Like It.

    Here’s wisdom from Rosalynde’s own namesake:

    Orl. Who ambles Time withal?
    Ros. With a priest that lacks Latin, and a rich man that hath not the gout; for the one sleeps easily because he cannot study, and the other lives merrily because he feels no pain; the one lacking the burthen of lean and wasteful learning, the other knowing no burthen of heavy tedious penury. These Time ambles withal.

  19. Vicki on July 3, 2005 at 12:08 am

    What a wonderful post and discussion. Seems like weekly I renew my resolve to further define and stick to my household and personal routines and goals and this discussion makes me feel like I should keep at it.

  20. Susan Staker on July 3, 2005 at 11:47 am

    Some of the best writers say that writing means chaining yourself to a desk, a pen (nowadays usually a computer) for a certain number words and a certain number of hours a day. There are many paths to those moments of ecstasy and grace. And the challenge, especially over a long lifetime, becomes finding ways to return to those moments–and expend them on something that lasts and builds. Certain routines of life probably end up belonging to phases of life. I’ve come more and more to believe that discipline and hard work remain core to any of the habits of life that sustain and nourish over time.

  21. Jack on July 3, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Yes, nothing can replace hard work. But, many artists will work their guts out because of an obsession with art rather than the impelling virtues we associate with discipline.

  22. Harold B. Curtis on July 3, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    Why am I a willing pawn
    To suffer yet another yawn
    Fearing all the worlds wrong
    When I recieve the dawn.

    There must be a better way
    To contemplate the waiting day
    Perhaps we should let it lay
    And turn ourselves to pray

    Succor in the darkest night
    Reveals itself an inward light
    Viewing through the master’s sight
    Our choices between wrong or right

    Harold B. Curtis

  23. Tom Johnson on July 3, 2005 at 11:11 pm

    I like your writing style. Your post reminds me of a conversation I once had with a friend of mine who taught writing. I said (half-kidding), “J., I’ve decided you don’t have enough inner turmoil and angst to be a writer.” My comment had him thinking for a few days, actually producing in him the very turmoil and angst I’d said he lacked. When I saw him again, I apologized for the comment and said I was just kidding. He said he wished I hadn’t taken my comment back, because the very idea that he lacked such turmoil and angst to be a writer had actually given the necessary emotion to write. (He was laughing as he said this.)

    I once took an interesting survey on personal strengths. My twenty-first “strength” (which was therefore a weakness, being so deep in the list) was “self control and self regulation.” Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness (author of the survey) defines this strength as follows: “Self-control and self-regulation: You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.”

    Typically only the first five characteristics are strengths–the rest are weaknesses. Your post makes me think Seligman has completely miscategorized this quality, at least where creative endeavors are concerned. Thanks. I’ll add it back to the top of my list.

    Tom

  24. Kingsley on July 4, 2005 at 1:56 am

    Yeats says the only way to get a good style is by “sedentary toil” and “the imitation of great masters.” Think of young Ben Franklin toiling in the candlelight, not only minutely contrasting, line by line, the styles of all the books he could get his hands on, but actually rewriting vast sections of them in order to (1) get at their heart (2) try to reveal their heart in a different way, in his own words.

  25. Ashley Crandell on July 4, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Good for you, Rosalynde, in making regular exercise a part of your day–or night!

    Annie Dillard, in _The Writing Life_ says that Nietzsche, like Emerson, took two long walks a day. She quotes him: “When my creative energy flowed most freely, my muscular activity was always greatest…I might often have been seen dancing, I used to walk through the hills for 7 or 8 hours on end without a hint of fatigue; I slept well, laughed a good deal–I was perfectly vigorous and patient.”

    I must say, I vaccillate between being inspired by this and utterly jealous of his free time. What isn’t clear to me is the causal relationship between creative energy and physical energy. Did walking the hills inspire him, or did the rush of ideas send him out among the hills?

  26. Melissa on July 5, 2005 at 4:34 am

    The morning birds have just started to chirp outside my window (they usually begin around 4 am) and I have yet to retire. I’ve spent the night writing and will not sleep before my day begins in 90 minutes or so.

    I was thinking about this post as I finished up my work this morning because I am a chronic insomniac. I can understand admiration for those who work late into the night and still arise with the morning birds for exercise or devotion because I used to admire this as a great feat of self-discipline. But, as one who now suffers from sleepless nights (and often works through them), I can say without question that my most effective work is done on those rare occasions when I’ve slept well.

    As one who always longs for rest, I have ceased to think that sleeplessness is a virtue.

  27. Wilfried on July 5, 2005 at 4:56 am

    Appreciate your comments, Melissa. Perhaps we need a blog for insomniacs and those in totally different time zones in the world.

  28. Naomi Frandsen on July 5, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    Funny that I’m reading this post at 3:47 p.m. (read: Gabrielle [#1], my sister, mother of 3, has to snatch time for pleasure in the middle of the night while I, student, can treat myself to your posts during the industrial capitalist hours of daylight). (actually, though, I consider reading your posts part of my liberal arts education)

  29. Rosalynde Welch on July 5, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks, all, for your contributions. A few notes: I don’t think the excesses required for extraordinary creativity (and not only artistic creativity) need be self-destructive, though they often are, particularly if sustained. Like I said, I’m not glorifying the romantic-Byronic Icharus, or at least not trying to. Obsession with a particular project or problem or person, immersion in a new context, be it physical or intellectual or aesthetic, extreme self-consciousness and self-attention, or extreme un-self-consciousness and attention *away* from self—these are all forms of experiential excess that needn’t necessarily be spectacularly self-destructive. I do think, though, that extraordinary forms of creation cost something, personally, from the creator. It’s really, really hard to live an ordinary life, with an ordinary allocation of energy and resources, and get extraordinary results. (And I’m certainly not speaking from experience… my own life and results are decidedly ordinary.)

    And the sort of self-discipline a number of you have lauded is distinct, I think, from the time-discipline I was (trying to) talk about. Indeed, the sort of intensely focused and driven self-discipline some of you talk about is itself, I think, a form of excess. Time-discipline, as I’m using it, is a moderate and programmatic allocation of time across different endeavors in order to maximize a certain sort of efficiency. In any case, I absolutely agree that self-discipline is necessary to bring creative projects (again, not only artistic creativity) to fruition.

  30. Rosalynde Welch on July 5, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    Now a few individual responses: Gabrielle, Lisa, Kingsley, Melissa–GO TO BED you crazy people!

    Mike: I like the idea of “cresting.” Probably because my life centers around children, whose needs run on such a short sine wave–every three hours, three times a day, morning and night, once a day (though not nearly as predictable as that makes it sound!)–most of my cycles have to follow the sun. When they don’t need so much physical care, I hope I’ll be able to work on the longer cycles you talk about.

    Kingsley: I never thought the phrase “suck my thumb” would be part of one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me!

    Julie: “the transcription and translation of 200+ handwritten Danish pioneer letters from the 1860s to 1890s”—wow! I’m very, very impressed. What do you plan to do with the letters?

  31. Rosalynde Welch on July 6, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    Kingsley, I’d never read that about Ben Franklin toiling away by candlelight; guess he didn’t abide by his own dictum (“early to bed,” et al), huh? It’s actually funny that you mention Franklin; I was going to cite him as one of our native architects of the “balanced life” ideal, picking up a genealogy that stretches back to the Greeks (a la Foucault and the Greek technologies of the self) and through the Renaissance humoral model of the body. Franklin seems to me the ne plus ultra of industry, rather than creativity, though astoundingly prolific. Need to read his Autobiography, as I’ve been planning to for years, before I can really say anything, though.