Coming Up for Air from Binge Writing: Research to Support The Role of Rhythm in Writing Performance

“Now hiss out a deep breath,” says my meditation group leader, “And feel your expanded diaphragm relax back to where it should be.”

Much to my surprise, I feel instantly comfortable hissing out breath in front of the other meditation students. As I repeat this diaphragmatic breathing exercise, I float in and out of a meditative focus. At the end of each exhale, I usually fall out of focus. Every time I fall out, though, is because I’m noticing this wildly relaxing feeling of my work-tensed shoulders sinking down to the floor, lifting up the same thought, in the same rhythm, over and over again: “This is how my good writing days feel.”

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Coming Up for Air from Binge Writing

I am a binge writer. I live for and dread the days when my schedule is free enough to claim a 6- to 8-hour space for myself to write. Dr. Carrie Leverenz first introduced me to the concept of binge writing through Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers.

Boice touches on issues of rhythm and repetition as early as his introduction when he stakes this claim: “When writers remain productive, they learn to make writing painless, efficient, and successful” (2). Later in that text, he refers to rhythm as an “automacity” that occurs most frequently when writers consistently control distracting stimuli and hold themselves accountable to a writing group or program to establish a habit of practice (76, 94).

Binge writing sessions, try as I might, never feel rhythmic. No matter what starting ritual I ease into the session with or how many times my fitness tracker tells me to stand and stretch, the end result is a depleted, baggy-eyed, aching body. At some point in my session I’m sure to fall so deeply into the flow of my writing that I stop noticing when my breath becomes short or when I hold my breath as I try to build to the next thought. Only when I remember to stop and breathe do I see how constricted my breathing has become.

Moving Positive Psychology into Writing Practice

For the long run (or write), Boice and other positive psychologists, especially those specializing in flow or the study of optimal performance like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have shown that creative professionals perform best when they feel there is a rhythm to their performances, a consistent habit of practice that becomes so familiar that one flows, almost floats through the practice in a rhythmic way. For as many creative and athletic professionals as they’ve studied, positive psychologist haven’t spent much time with writers–neither creative nor academic ones–leaving me to wonder what rhythmic performances or actions writers can enact to optimize our writing performance.

I’ve spent months reading and researching to answer this question, finding only that answers to this question are hard to find. Yet I have good reason to believe that breath awareness meditations provide an answer to the question so few are willing to pursue with research. I am of the belief that careerist writers–those for whom writing is part of their professional identity or work practice–may benefit from introducing rhythmic breathing practices that help them flow through their writing practices with comfort and ease.

Writing scholars have broached the concept of rhythm’s relationship to writing in differing ways, but my dissertation research seeks to develop a clearer image of the relationship between physical activity and writing activity.

For advanced athletes, consistent rhythm of movements and repetition of practice optimizes performance, pacing the athlete to endure extended periods of physical performance during games, events, or competitions. My meditation group leader, who happens to be a sports psychologist at Texas Christian University, reminds us of how integral breathing is to physical performance. “We know that runner’s high comes from that rhythm of breathing.”  he says, adding that the same high can be experienced in certain meditation practices. If rhythmic breathing sustains the mind and the body through deep meditation practices and intense physical performances, then those of us writing with mind and body engaged stand to benefit in some sort of way.

Ergo, we must begin to ask questions: how does rhythm play out in writing? How might writers breathe more rhythmically?

Rhythm and Repetition

In writing practice, rhythm and repetition are related but not synonymous, and this reality extends far back into earliest years of literate practice in ancient Greece, where gymnasiums supported both physical and intellectual development. Sophistic pedagogy delivered rhetoric and composition instruction using the 3 R’s—rhythm, repetition, and response—for which music was often used to enhance the three together as habit and to make learning more powerful (Hawhee 135, 141). Repetition as it supports rhythm, or rhythmos in Greek, is a relationship best understood as “any regular recurring motion” or “measured motion or time” from which “regulated repetition produces disposition” (Hawhee 141). Rhetorical performances by early Greek orators and writers relied firmly on physical performance, conditioning the body in gymnasiums where written and oral communication practice took place and was often related to the physical development activities occurring in adjoining rooms. Physically strong speakers might project their voices louder and clearer, helped even more by practicing one’s cadence through exercises of rhythm and repetition.

In The Sense of Learning, Berthoff offers a more contemporary account of physical activity as relevant to even the less physically inclined, speaking from a personal experience as a “profoundly unathletic person” when she received a cross-country skiing lesson from a friend:

Her instruction was to do thus and do so with my knees, to hold my arms this way and not that way, etc. All      that happened was that I continually pitched forward and fell in the snow. But suddenly across the meadows, I      saw a figure going like the wind—a young man in shorts and a tee shirt, obviously a serious skier! And as I          watched I suddenly saw the whole shape of the act of skiing; I saw the Gestalt; I got the rhythm, the allatonceness     of the action. I did what I saw and I shot across the snow! What I needed was not a model, which could show me     how the various gestures and stances and operations fitted together, but an image of how cross-country skiing     looks, and kinesthetically, how it feels. The image of the skier gave me the whole process; it represented the allatonceness of cross-country skiing. (89)

Allatonceness is a term still featured in Bruce Ballenger’s The Curious Writer, a first-year composition textbook, but in a way that does not invite physical activity into consideration with writing activity (8). Ballenger uses the term to explain how the activity of writing requires attention to multiple aspects of the composition all at the same time, such as balancing organizational patterns while re-crafting sentences and adhering to one’s rhetorical claims. The best writers, then, attend to all these aspects almost rhythmically, with ease, as one might once one becomes familiar with any activity, including physical activities. Just as shooting a lay-up in basketball or performing a dance routine repeatedly primes the physical body to perform optimally with rhythmic attention to multiple movements, scholars might learn more about how the body’s achievement of allatonceness helps us understand writers’ achievement of rhythm through allatonceness.

Through these writing scholars I find reason to believe that writing is sustained with rhythm, a relationship exists and seeks to be better understood, better utilized. For me, breathing is becoming a way of sustaining my writing rhythm.

Applying Rhythm Research to My Own Breath Practice

Particularly on those days when I know I must binge write or on days when I write in my car or else the writing time won’t happen, I use breathing meditations to fall into a comfortable rhythm. In the “Yoga-Zen Writing” course I taught last spring, Sondra Perl’s concept of felt sense writing helped my students and I see breathing and rhythm as more connected than we previously thought. In her book, Felt Sense: Writing with the Body, Perl claims that some writers can tap into what calls “a creative rhythm” through rhythmic breathing practices she presents on the companion CD-ROM that accompanies her book (57). Several years later, Christy Wenger’s “Writing Yogis: Breathing Our Way to Mindfulness and Balance in Embodied Writing Pedagogy” would also discuss how the mindful breathing practices of yoga provided balance to the mind as the mind creates and writes, letting the writer become “emotionally flexible” so that she or he is able to “pair the movements of extension and expansion” (28). There is a natural rhythm to deep, unadulterated breathing that can help the writer control external stimuli or distractions. When we allow ourselves to experience this rhythm of breath, we allow our bodies and minds to sink into a healthy writing practice that feels as wildly relaxing as my work-tensed shoulders sinking down to the floor.

The ease of rhythmic writing, especially when supported by rhythmic breathing , does not mean the writing practice becomes easier or that rhythmic breathing can guarantee highly-productive writing sessions at any time. Breathing our way to rhythmic writing takes diligent concentration and commitment to the practice.

In Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, Bradbury advises writers to commit to finding this rhythmic practice. Bradbury advocates for “repetitious exercise” achieved through “work” because it is “work itself, after a while, [that] takes on a rhythm. The mechanical begins to fall away. The body begins to take over. The guard goes down. What happens then? Relaxation” (139, 143). With the promise of such relaxation, I am breathing more. When my mind wanders away from the writing project before me or when my mind seizes with so many thoughts that the writing halts, a deep breath or two returns me to the page. I may have strayed because the next word did not come to me or because the idea I wrote was unclear to me for a moment, but repetition of my breathing habit always returns me to awareness of the writing as it unfolds, moving me back to a productive, breath-filled rhythm. Hours pass before I realize how much time I’ve spent writing or just how much I’ve written, but the pain of binge writing doesn’t twist peel apart my brain in quite the same way.

As I press forward with related research, I’m looking to interview careerist writers (academic or non-academic) who engage in both physical activity and writing activity on a regular basis (once a week or more). For anyone reading this blog post who is interested in talking to me about this research, I would welcome emails from you as well as recommendations of other interview participants who might be willing to talk with me about the connections between writing practice and physical practices. Email me at jacquelynehoermann@gmail.com or j.hoermann@tcu.edu. Find me on Twitter (@jackiehoermann) or follow my blog, All The Write Moves, at www.writemovesblog.com

Works Cited

Ballenger, Bruce. The Curious Writer. New York: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Berth, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990. Print.

Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing., 1990. Print.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen and the Art of Writing: And, the Joy of Writing; Two Essays [by] Ray Bradbury. [Cover Art by Peter Wolf]. no. 13 Vol. Santa Barbara [Calif.]: Capra Press, 1973. Print.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print.

Perl, Sondra. Felt Sense: Writing with the Body. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.

Wenger, Christy I. “Writing Yogis: Breathing Our Way to Mindfulness and Balance in Embodied Writing Pedagogy,” The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 18.1 (2012): 24-39. Print.

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