Winter #2: A structure for living
How I'm creating a scaffold for more creativity, love, and attention in 2023.
Welcome to Winter, Issue #2 of Making Time. Each week, I share a seasonal perspective on the creative process. This month, my theme is Structure. If you’d like to follow along on this year-long experiment, you can subscribe for free.
Here is what I saw out my window first thing in the morning on January 1st, on my fuzzy-headed way to start the coffee. It was one of the most luminous sunrises I can recall, with fog like a thin shroud over the canyon. A promising omen for a new year, don’t you think?
A new year brings two types of articles / newsletters / podcasts / videos into my various inboxes. The first type exhorts me to build new habits, buy new tools, sign up for challenges, learn a new skill, set this type of goal or that type of goal. There are lists and ideas and methods and I love all of it and want to do everything.
The second type informs me that I don’t actually need to do all the things. These articles remind me to stay in the moment, to be gentle with myself, to pace myself and take it slow. They tell me that goals are not the only thing in life, and that this momentary excitement about them will surely dissipate. I nod along solemnly.
It’s been this way for a while, the battle between making things happen and actually experiencing the richness of life. I am pulled one way, and then I’m pulled another. I go all out, overcommiting to projects that sound exciting, promising things to others that I can barely complete, trying to wrangle it all with systems and processes and almost (but not quite) succeeding. And then comes the inevitable burnout, a hollowing out of any creative impulse I have, followed by pulling back, an awakening, a promise to myself that I won’t do it again. Repeat.
The tension is always there because the urge to create is always there. I am not myself if I’m not making things, in some form or another. Creating things takes work, and it takes time. When you do it for a living, it also takes a certain amount of organization, or at least it does for me. But somehow, that feeling of work, and the sense that I should be doing more, starts to eat everything.
In The Master and His Emissary, by far the best book I read last year, neuroscience researcher and psychologist Dr. Iain McGilchrist explains this in terms of the dual nature of our brains. On the right, we have a way of thinking that is inclusive and holistic. It sustains attention. It has empathy with other humans. It integrates and synthesizes all that comes from the left and therefore, according to McGilchrist, is the most essential of the two.
On the left side, we have a hemisphere that is focused. It looks at pieces rather than the whole. It wants to solve problems and have neat solutions and acquire more things. It is oriented towards achievement and systems and goals and more more more.
We need the two sides to function together and complement one another. The problem, according to McGilchrist, is that the left side’s abstract, myopic, all-or-nothing mode of thinking causes us to put it in charge, when it is really meant to be subservient to the right, which is able to integrate both perspectives in a way that the left cannot.
The result is catastrophic, both at the individual and societal levels. We are becoming more and more like machines, focused on utility and productivity. We see others as utilities too, or as abstract groups instead of individuals. Technology reduces people to numbers. And this has created a feedback loop in which this mode of thinking is valorized, creating what David Brooks calls a “moral ecology.” Productivity, consumerism, and dehumanization are the air we breathe.
This all sounds horrible and leads me back to that original tension I mentioned: between getting stuff done and experiencing life in the present moment. How do I create things without relying on my left hemisphere, which is so good at organizing and making stuff happen?
And the answer is: I don’t. It isn’t a matter of either/or (a very left-hemisphere way of approaching things). It’s about integrating the two modes of thinking in such a way that the left serves the right, as it’s best suited to do.
So instead of chasing the high of goal-setting (as one genre of new year-centered articles would have me do) or throwing away goals and systems (as the other set of articles implores), I’m considering how to create processes that serve the larger perspective. In other words, how do I make the left brain an emissary of the right once again?
For me, that means creating structures in my life that help me:
Understand myself and my world better, and see what I might be missing.
Connect with other people and really see their individual humanity, not just their role or persona.
Love others more and help them where I can.
Pay attention to the world around me, moment to moment.
I consider these structures for living. Yes, they help me to get things done and accomplish more, but in the service of something that matters. This is the perspective that I hope to play with this year.
Here’s a toast to the new year, and experiencing many more glowing sunrises in the next 12 months.
A Monthly Structure
One idea I’ve been experimenting with as a creative scaffolding is the idea of monthly themes.
The idea is to create themes that I’d like to focus on each month, in order to direct my attention where it matters at that moment, and explore something that might otherwise get lost in the competing priorities of life.
This month, my theme is (you know this already): Structure. I’m putting all the little pieces in place to make my priorities happen. I’m scheduling things out, creating a few new rituals, laying groundwork for the rest of the year. It feels good to use this as a monthly theme, because it feels contained, like a project with an end date rather than endless administrative work.
Next week, I’ll share the rest of my themes for each month. Perhaps you’d like to experiment with monthly themes too? What do you think? You could share some of your own next week too, if you’d like.
Head, Heart, Hands
Things to make us think, feel, and do.
The 10 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World. I try not to share listicles, but this one has me excited to travel again. I have only been to one of these shops (El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Argentina). Though I must say, my favorite bookshops have mostly been neither beautiful nor grand.
Paul Graham on why reading is vital to thinking.
This article asks whether we really want the things we say we do. This was a helpful perspective as I thought about my plans for this year, and what tradeoffs and sacrifices I must be willing to make. For example, I’d like to work on cultivating my friendships this year, but that will mean sacrificing time, de-prioritizing work sometimes, facing deeply uncomfortable feelings like rejection, etc.
Go deeper, not wider. This is an old one, but worth a revisit in January.
The story of a portrait of Joan Didion that hung in her home, and it’s mysterious origins, was very sweet (possible paywall).
I made this crisp winter slaw from (who else?) Nigel Slater and added some supremed grapefruit for even more wintery tartness, and it was both wildly colorful and delicious.
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I love the idea of monthly themes to focus on. What a good idea. It makes a new challenge seem so much more doable or... not to do. I enjoyed the article very much on what we say we want. A new perspective on the "I want" way of thinking. Thanks Sarai.
This is beautiful, Sarai.
Yes, let’s create structures for living. But let us do so looking down as from above, as you say, “…considering how to create processes that serve the larger perspective… get things done and accomplish more, but in the service of something that matters.”