To work is simply to sit down and type what comes to mind. This thought offers the writer a lever. It allows the creation of art to happen not through a single tremendously tough jerk of strength, but through a series of easier, lighter actions. Cycles of intense concentration come about ultimately because those repeated, simple efforts, like tapping a finger–or simply sitting and writing what comes to mind–are sustained for long periods of time. When one keeps coming quietly back to the activity, competing thoughts eventually decline in importance, and concentration is the spontaneous result. It’s the principle behind meditation.
One of my big anxieties when writing is the pressure to create something good or great. And in order to do that I feel a pressure to “try hard” and “concentrate” and “focus.” These, I have learned, are unhelpful ways to think about my task. They evoke images of straining like Samson wrestling a lion, or Hercules at the Aegean stables. True concentration does not need to be like that. Of course, I cannot deny that there does seem to be something like attention-as-a-muscle, a kind of muscle which when squeezed–the thinker squints, or knits the brow–forces out, if only temporarily, distractions. It seems to rigidify and render impermeable the otherwise osmostic membrane of awareness. Unfortunately, when the muscle gets tired, studies show those distractions may come rushing back twice as vigorously.
Perhaps I imagined flexing the concentration muscle as a parallel to what happens in neurons when they are in their “resting state.” Ion channels aggressively “air condition” the neuron, except that they’re not keeping out heat but positive ions. The channels thus maintain the neuron at an artificially negative charge. It takes energy to do this. When the synapse fires, the channels open, positive ions flood in, and the charge inside the neuron changes. Eventually, things need to be reset, at which time the positive ions are pushed out again and the resting charge restored.
While the firing of the synapse may sound like a parallel to highly painful, effortful concentration, the resting state is actually the energetic, busy state, the one where an artificial environment is maintained in the neuron. The synapse firing is the sudden dropping of the guard, the relaxation that allows a more natural state to result. So again, the notion of struggling, grunting concentration seems inapt. The resting state involves an effort as steady as sunlight and as quiet as origami. It is rewarded every now and then with the burst of illuminated relaxation from a synapse firing.
To think of my task as being to write something beautiful, therefore, is inaccurate and counterproductive. It encourages the illusion that if I just tried for a kind of pointed, punchy, determined drive, I would accomplish greatness. But I don’t have direct control over the excellence of the final product, and to pretend I do makes me anxious. Real focus is gentle and recurring, like the sea. It is that kind of focus, and not a particular final product, to which I should aspire.
It is not important that I sit down with the expectation that I will write something great. It’s important that I sit in the chair and put in the time, write the words that come to mind, and revise them steadily into better words. My effort is not an all-out labor, a sudden giving birth. It’s a simple series of quiet, linear actions. If out of this, inspiration is suddenly born, so much the better, but I cannot aim at inspiration directly any more than a scientist can go out tomorrow and decide to discover a new law of the universe. I have to have faith that the simple, mundane, eyes-on-the-next-comma acts of sitting, typing, and revising will themselves eventually lead me down the road to beauty.