Book Review: World Enough and Time
Posted September 2, 2013on:
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, Baughan Publishing (Peterborough, NH), 2011, 367 pp.
I recognized the title line immediately, from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and loved the way the author had plucked it from its context of sexual seduction to entice us into a contemplation of slowness. McEwen’s World Enough and Time is a series of carefully considered essays on slowing down, and the necessary relationship between slowness and creativity. I see myself as a creative artist with both my preaching and my writing, and I know that neither one is possible without making a life that is spacious and slow. I struggle to preach on Sunday if I don’t have a quiet day off on Friday. The slow time matters, even if I am not working on the sermon itself. With that in mind, I was eager and receptive to read this book, which was given as an assignment by my Macedonian Ministries group.
McEwen begins with a basic case for slowness and a compelling indictment of modern American life, which she diagnoses with “hurry sickness.” Hurry sickness is a feeling of time poverty, so that life is lived in constant motion without the chance to linger, reflect, absorb or tarry. I have read many books on this theme, with corresponding statistical or theological or sociological analysis. McEwen offers none of those. She simply points out, with a poet’s care and sharpness, what we all know: a life full to the brim with activity is often empty of meaning, depth and relationship.
For the remainder of the book, she devotes a chapter each to a varied list of slow activities, slow gifts and slow ways of being. In each chapter, McEwen looks at the lives of artists and practitioners in those areas, combing their lives and art for quotations and insights about the process of creativity and slowness. She examines the gift of a long conversation with a friend, childhood experiences in nature, walking, reading, writing (especially reading and writing poetry), silence, sabbath, storytelling and meditation. Two of my favorite chapters were the ones on dreaming and on looking.
In “The Art of Looking,” McEwen talks about the cultivation of the eye in artists. A great work of art does not come from the technique of the hand, but from the eye of the artist that is able to see and illuminate something that the rest of us cannot. Such art requires enormous time spent observing the world with great care and attention, time that might appear idle and fruitless to others. I am not a visual artist, but I connected with this passage as a preacher. My sermons require a lot of time spent staring out the window, looking off into space, or letting my mind wander. It’s the only way I can “see” what I am supposed to say each week. McEwen quotes from several others who speak to the path to seeing something new:
“To learn something new,” said the naturalist John Burroughs, “take the path today that you took yesterday.” All professions have need of such devoted practitioners, willing to push past their own boredom, their own comfortable familiarity, in order to arrive at something new. As Proust once said, “The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.” (121)
Every week, my journey with the Gospel is a quest to see it with new eyes. The stories are familiar and many are well-worn. Yet, when they are seen with fresh eyes, they give us new life.
In “Across the Bridge of Dreams,” she catalogs the relationship between creativity and dreams. I don’t usually share this, but this book has given me courage. Dreaming is a critically important part of my sermon writing process. I concentrate and work at the computer to research and think and analyze, but the mystical presence of the Gospel good news only comes to me when I sleep. I lay down in prayer with the sermon in my mind, and in that hazy place between dreaming and waking, the Spirit does its work to bind it all together for me. Sometimes, I will awake in the night to make notes. Other times, I dream it over and over again so that by morning it is all clear and ready to transcribe. According to McEwen, I am not alone. She shared that Samuel Coleridge, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabelle Allende, William Styron, and Robert Louis Stevenson all described writing in through their dreams, and included dreams in their process much the same way that I do. (245-249) It’s not simply paying attention or gaining insight or journaling about my dreams–the dreaming is an essential part of the writing process for me. I have to work it out in the dream. The same was true for them.
World Enough and Time was a rich experience from beginning to end. The book demands slowness in the experience of reading, so that you might contemplate and ruminate on all the things McEwen brings together. It also invites a re-reading, as a whole or just a chapter that piques your interest for a time. It is a book that invites you to dive in and surface again, to splash around here and there rather than simply consuming it from one end to the other. If you ever needed a compelling case for slowing down and creating space in your life, especially if you are an artist in any way, McEwen’s World Enough and Time is just what you need.