Guided by Feeling, Not Feelings

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Book Reviews / Reflections

I recently finished George Saunders’ latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. In it, he takes seven short stories by famous Russian authors and talks about what works in them—what’s going on at a deeper level than a cursory read might reveal and why he can’t stop reading them himself. He intersperses this with discussions of his realizations as a human being and a writer.

I loved it, but it’s taken me a little while to put my finger on why, and now that I have, my mind is zinging with connections that would take weeks, or months perhaps, to synthesize. But brevity must reign here in blogland, I know, so I’ll focus my enthusiasms accordingly, as best I can.

But first, a sweeping statement from yours truly:

Saunders’ writing in this book is insightful, clever and funny. He has a great ability to peel open the stories he’s chosen in a way that is meaningful to everyday life, and perhaps more importantly, to the everyday life of our hearts. This isn’t a text on how to read, or even how to write: it’s an observation of how we humans engage with art in general, why we need it in the first place, and how it’s profound enough, even through the offices of our bungling minds and hearts, to teach us about who we are.

That said, Saunders and I achieved our greatest resonance in his discussions of the creative process itself. There are things being said here I want to scream from the mountaintop. One in particular is that great art cannot be produced without accessing the spontaneous knowing that is embodied by our intuition and feeling(s). He explains this by example, in typical Saunders fashion:

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices that he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture—the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. (Oh, why can’t they be together? If only ‘Little Jack’ would just go home. To his wife. To ‘Linda.’)

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so—in a split second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal ‘Yes.’

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference. (emphasis added)

The creative process for Saunders is one of listening to this intuitive preference over and over and over again, through rain, hail, sleet or snow, until the final product is satisfactory. It sounds simple, but it’s not. This is because it cannot be contrived, it must unfold spontaneously. Art requires “…some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what [is] actually happening.”

About his process, he writes, “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with P on this side (‘Positive’) and an N on that side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? If it drops into the N zone, admit it. And then, instantaneously, a fix might present itself—a cut, a rearrangement, an addition. There’s not an intellectual or analytical component to this: it’s more of an impulse, one that results in a feeling of ‘Ah, yes, that’s better.’ It’s akin to that hobo adjustment, above: by instinct, in that moment.”

Is this just Saunders’ method, though? Or something more universal? I very much think the latter. One of the greatest descriptions of this process I’ve ever encountered comes from the writing of Christopher Alexander. His four-book series The Nature of Order is a remarkable work: he begins with discussion of what makes any structure or artifact “living”beautiful, whole, nurturing, authenticand then turns to the processes (both external and internal) that are capable of extending this life into the world. Like Saunders, he feels this can only be accomplished when we are guided by feeling itself:

We come now, to the most important and most profound aspect of living process. I believe it is the deepest issue in this book. I believe it is the most enlightening and appealing. Yet it may also prove, intellectually, to be the most controversial and the most difficult to accept.

The issue has to do with feeling.

I assert, simply, that all living process hinges on the production of deep feeling. And I assert that this one idea encapsulates all the other ideas, and covers all the other aspects of living process. It may also be said that this vision of living process is, or if true may turn out to be, in the end, of the greatest importance for the future of humankind.

Feeling is a difficult word, as Alexander acknowledges. He goes on to say, in a later passage, “The word ‘feeling’ has been contaminated. It is confused with emotions—with feelings (in the plural) such as wonder, sadness, anger—which confuse rather than help because they make us ask ourselves, which kind of feeling should I follow? The feeling I am talking about is unitary. It is feeling in the singular, which comes from the whole. It arises in us, but it originates in the wholeness which is actually there. The process of respecting and extending and creating the whole, and the process of using feeling, are one and the same. Real feeling, true feeling, is the experience of the whole.”

Lastlyand I know I’m packing in the quotes hereAlexander has this to say about the recursive nature of the process by which this feeling is made manifest in a work: “You know the feeling which the thing will have. But you do not yet know the form. In fact, you keep having to change the form, because as the work unfolds, you find out many, many details which have the wrong feeling, which do not function, in response to the whole, as you thought they would. Because you keep the feeling constant, you have to change the form.”

Is Alexander not describing the selfsame process as Saunders did above? I believe he is. For Saunders, art involves “some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what [is] actually happening.” Such a process cannot be arbitrary, planned or formulaic. This is the process of listening to our heart as it speaks to us—instantaneously, unerringly, yet somehow confoundingly—about whether or not a choice we’ve made is consonant with the whole that is coming into being. This doesn’t mean that reason doesn’t enter into it, but reason cannot viscerally sense the whole or provide access to the field of resonant feeling that is the whole coming into being.

Alexander quite agrees.

Each of these geniuses is pointing us in a common direction: we don’t need more facts, better technologies, or more expertise; we need the unique responses to wholeness that each of us alone can offer to the world around us. Because in truth this isn’t just about constructing buildings or writing novels, it’s about constructing the network of relationships on which a living, healthy, and thriving world community depends. We will do this not by planning or designing our way to it, but by creating it, through a myriad of incremental, stepwise transformations—thoughts, words and actions—that enhance our feeling of the whole and extend its life into the world.

18 Comments

  1. Great post, Michael. I’m quite familiar with the ‘Ah, yes, that’s better!’ feeling. I completely agree it’s an intuition in the moment. One can sometimes (but not always!) go back and explain the intuition after the fact, figure out the logic your mind used holistically.

    As we touched on a while back, I think over time — with a lot of familiarity with something — one’s intuition and intellect can merge to one degree or another. Even so, the “feeling” never goes away.

    I’ve also experienced what Alexander describes about tweaking the form of something until it has the feeling you’re reaching for. (I’ve always liked Jackson Pollock’s work. I read once that he dribbled paint (his canvas was laid out on the floor) until the painting looked right to him. I’ve done something similar with random images I’ve generated — keeping at it until it “looks right.”)

    You’re talking here about the Yang to the Yin of science, and I quite agree. I agree so much that my post for tomorrow (which is already written) is somewhat about the same thing. How’s that for synchronicity? 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Wyrd! Look forward to reading your post today.

      I think many of us have the experience of working something repeatedly until it’s “just right”, or at least better. We do this innately to a certain extent, which makes you wonder where and how we got off track. Alexander thinks we definitely got off track and that we’re taught so any concepts and abstractions it is very difficult to listen to that point within us that advocates for the life-enhancing choices. What I love about Alexander’s books is they are FULL of examples and images. There is a profound skill here I think, that can be enhanced through our attentiveness.

      I didn’t like the thought of that when I first began to write, but I now realize without multiple rounds of editing the real story hardly comes through!

      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah! I think it’s easy for all the distractions of modern life — “the din” — to cause us to lose our intentionality, to react to the world rather than act in the world. It’s a hard bullet to dodge; it catches me all the time!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Me, too, Wyrd! Creative writing seems to be one place where I experience this most directly. It’s like a retreat from the “din” as you so aptly described it–a place where it only works if I listen and respond to what’s happening…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michael,
    I find books on the creative process intriguing. Am I dreaming, ,or is your conclusion ” we need the unique responses to wholeness that each of us alone can offer to the world around us.” connected to ACIM?
    Even if I am off base, I enjoyed your piece and applaud your enthusiasm. Your writing seems different at this moment, different phrasing perhaps? or a new spring in your step.

    take care,
    Linda

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Linda,

      I don’t know if there’s a new spring in my step or not… but I do so love this topic! I didn’t make a conscious attempt to relate this to ACIM, but I think there are ways that it is for sure. When Alexander talks about building he talks about “extending” a feeling into form. And ACIM of course talks about all creation being an extension of the true content of ourselves. And ACOL talks about this much more than ACIM–the notion that transformation occurs by making our feelings real. Here is one example from A Course of Love (Dialogues, Day 18, Paragraph 11):

      What is meant here by the word demonstrate, is to show your feelings, to make them visible. They are the creations unique to you through your interaction with the Christ-consciousness that abides within you. One way of doing this is through individuation and becoming known. One way of doing this is incarnation through relationship in which the relationship, rather than the individuated Self, becomes the known. Both ways are ways of creation. When feelings are shown, or made visible, the new is created. This has always been the way of creation. Each blade of grass, each flower, each stone, is a creation of feelings. All you need do is look about you to know that feelings of love still abound. Beauty still reigns.

      This could have been six or eight posts probably, but yes I think what Alexander and Saunders are describing is fundamental to our ability to heal and transform our world…

      With Joy!
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “that point within us that advocates for the life-enhancing choices..”. very instructive post, Michael, on how we create what “feels right”… it made me reflect on ,my own process and examine the “sound” I look for as I edit over and over again. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Rajani! Your searching for the right “sound”–the right sound for you is exactly it! And I expect you find this, too, but when we engage in that process and enter this creative space in a deep way, we are often surprised by what emerges. We have to sort of “play” with things until they’re right… And then when they are, it’s sort of astonishing. The great challenge of a world wanting everything quickly is that we’ve lost this art generally. And it leaves us with flashy and sleek images that are somehow “off” with respect to nurturing the heart of life within us…

      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post Michael ❣️ I too have a feeling when something feels just right, like a piece that fits into a puzzle. I hadn’t thought about wholeness, but that feels right too. It’s part of something bigger … even when we don’t have a clear view starting out. At the beginning there’s a sense of following the feeling, and trusting it as we keep coming back to it. Thank you for this 💛🙏💛

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes! I have come to rely on this process in many different ways–from writing technical reports at work to fiction writing to gardening, etc. Even with technical report writing, there’s often insights that are missed in a first draft. Only when I have something down, and go back, and listen to it beat by beat, do I discover there are questions in there I never thought to ask. But this richness isn’t apparent if we rush to be “done” with things. There’s a “living with” that must occur to be in this place of relationship with our work! It’s definitely a lovely feeling when it clicks, too. As I just noted to Rajani, we surprise ourselves when we take the time to listen and respond to what we’re in the midst of creating…

      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • Taking the time to listen and respond…. And being open to an unfolding from the heart and soul. That’s the wisdom to embrace and live from.
        Thank you Michael 🙏

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m in accord with others here, Michael, in that this is an excellent post, and one which all bloggers ought find of interest. Wyrd and Rajani, along with yourself and those whom you quote, have said all I possibly could. Harmony, balance and beauty: these are perhaps qualities impossible to replicate other than by the (somewhat mysterious) means described. Top Marks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hariod!

      Please pardon my delayed reaction. I haven’t been on-line much, and have been on a road trip vacation for a week and a half, during which I enjoyed very little time on my laptop. And many great conversations with old friends. It was great. So pretend I just read this and am saying thank you for the kind words, and I much enjoyed your excellent pun! And yes, there’s only one way to do this, and it’s unique to each of us… haha.

      With Love
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a test comment. I have been unable to leave comments on your blog. Yesterday I had my response to this post and I feel too tired today to try to articulate it again. But I really wanted to leave some words here, and try again.

    Much love your way!! & and to all the artists who observe and respond by shaping and forming and making connections.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, it worked, Ka! I’m sorry to have missed your previous, and have no idea why it wouldn’t have worked previously. Just one of those things, I guess… I really appreciate you reaching out a second time, though. It’s always nice to connect and “see you” appear on the horizon. Much love to you as well, and Amen to what you said about all the creatives!

      Peace
      Michael

      Like

  7. I agree with all the other comments, how brilliantly you have penned your thoughts, would also like to add that the title is incredible!

    Like

    • Thank you very much, Isha! I appreciate it. It’s been a while since I wrote this post. I didn’t realize when I posted this weekend I’d somehow picked up a thread of posts about feelings. Haha. Nice to pick up where you left off sometimes! Thank you for reading and commenting…

      Peace
      Michael

      Like

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