Impatience is my greatest flaw. My husband once said of me: ‘had you been able to, you’d have cut your own umbilical chord.’ His comment, beside its humour, reveals a great deal. It shows, on the one hand, my constant need to get things done and have things happen a little bit faster than, by nature, they should. Babies are not designed to cut their own umbilical chords. But there’s a positive in there too. This character trait shows that I am hungry for life. That I want to get going, take charge of my own destiny, that, in the current favourite phrase of my two and a half year old little girl, I want to: ‘Do it all by myself.’
It is a go-getting spirit, one which shows independence and a thirst and curiosity for life.
And so, we come to that wonderful Jungian principle that has guided me from the moment I first learnt about it:
our greatest vices are intrinsically connected to our greatest virtues.
The two balance each other in our lives and our characters – one cannot exist without the other. That is why we must be careful when we criticise others for a particular flaw, or worse, try to change them: if our wish comes true, we might lose something good along the way. I suppose what we need to do, then, is to be alive to the consequences of the vice and how, as with all vices, it might sometimes leap out of control and sabotage our best efforts.
I know when my impatience has made me skid off the rails because I can feel its ramifications in my body and in my state of mind. I feel an itch, a tremor, my heart beats too fast, my mind whirls and – Itell myself – I won’t feel better until I do something about it, until I act. Only when I do try to sort it out – usually too early – I often sabotage the very thing that I most wanted. And then I feel sick and my mind reels, knowing that I am out of step with the world.
It is at times like these when I remind myself of Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s wise words:
Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.
I fell in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s writing when I first came to New England in my early twenties. He’s one of those sages who words nourish as much as they challenge. I turn to him often for advice. I was reminded of his thoughts on patience, pace and nature when my dear writing friend, Jane Cooper, sent to me one of those literary postcards with Emerson’s words printed across the front.
There’s a great deal to unpack in this thought of his.
First, I do not believe that he is saying that pace necessarily means slowness. Sometimes, the natural world bursts into life. Think about spring and how a bare, sad looking tree, one day, can blossom overnight into the radiance of a bride. Of how fast the grass grows in summer. Of how quickly a sunflower seeds shoots up a stem.
Sometimes, writing is like that too. It’s pace needs to be fast and furious, the words need to spill out onto the page, we need to feel as though our minds and imaginations are going too fast for our pen.
The point is, we’re still in rhythm: we’re still respecting the process, the natural order of things, just as nature is, when it seems to race ahead.
And we know, of course, that there is often a great deal of stillness and growth that precedes a sudden bloom.
Patience is required when things go fast too. It is just as easy to get impatient with a speedy process as with a slow one. Again, it’s about falling into sync with the natural rhythm of things.
And then, there are the slow times too, the times when the pace softens, when the tempo drops, when the words come one by one, when we need to do more thinking than writing. I find these times hardest – because they go against my temperament. But I know they are important. Just as I know that I need to trust the painfully slow nature of the publishing industry: for every month of writing it may take my publishers three months of editing, planning, packaging – but that’s because it takes a long time to get a book out into the world. My paperback of The Return of Norah Wells is coming out in seven days – and it’s felt like forever. But I know that everyone on the Norah team wanted to make sure that it came out at just the right time. I need to trust their process.
The writing life, I’ve found, like the natural world, is not tolerant of impatience.
Our job as writers is to find the pace of our particular project, of its characters, of the story, of its ideas, of the research that may need to be done.
Understanding the rhythm of our writing life, like understanding the rhythm of the natural world, takes being present and alert, it takes listening and watching – and patience.
And so, I turn to the natural world to teach me to better respect the rhythm of my writing life.
That is why I like to swim in lakes rather than in swimming pools; why I like to walk in the woods rather than to step on a treadmill; why I like to cycle rather than to get in a car. Because being part of the natural world as much as possible, is good for our souls – especially, our creative soul. Nature syncs us into rhythm again. It helps us to understand that everything has its pace from the seasons to its individual elements: the time it takes a lake to thaw, a bud to flower, the leaves to turn red in autumn.
The rhythm of our own bodies is also a good teacher.
No more so than when it is creating something or fighting something. Think of the rhythms of illness and healing after an injury – we know how forcing our bodies to adopt an unnatural pace of recovery, just makes things worse. For me, pregnancy has been a good and painful teacher too. Nine months to create a little creature feels like a lifetime – especially when you’re being sick every two minutes. I currently pregnant with my second child, a little girl (see, I’m so impatient I needed to know the gender as early a possible!), due in April. Every day, I have to tune into the strange rhythm of my body as it creates a new human being. I can’t force my agenda on it. I need to understand it and then do everything in my power to help it along, to help it flourish and thrive and grow in the best possible way. This is true of writing to.
And so, whenever we feel that itch of impatience, we would do well to look out of our windows at the natural world, or to turn inwards and listen to our bodies, and to think about pace and rhythm and how organic the process of all things is, from the creation of a flower or a child to the creation of a novel.