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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Movement Versus Action

Ernest Hemingway once told Marlene Dietrich, "Never confuse movement with action." (You can read the entire anecdote here. This quote has been taken out of its context before, so I feel somewhat justified in taking it out of context once more.)

I live in Japan where movement is everything and action is nothing. This is at great odds with the society in which I grew up, the US, in which action is everything and movement nothing, a society that worships efficiency, adores speed, reveres personal accomplishment, while despising wasted movement resulting in no tangible change.

Here in Japan, everything is about making the appropriate motion, but not about accomplishing anything with that motion. Efficiency is meaningless here, where workers strive to NOT finish tasks because they cannot leave the office till the boss goes home and they need something to do to fill in that time. Making sure you are in the right slot for your social position, not motionless but certainly actionless, in the right relation to things and people around you, is the key. And everything here can take FOREVER for a girl from a results-oriented society.

Even my mother-in-law stretches out every mundane task in an effort to show how devoted she is to her calling as housewife. For example, she constantly corrects how I hang the laundry. According to her, I need to (one by one) fold each wet item in half, and then in half again, and then clap the item three or more times between my hands, and then unfold the second fold, and then the first. Then I am ready to hang the item on the line. This seems meaningless to me, in my rush to get the chore done. I see no difference in the wrinkles in her clapped-upon clothing and my clapless pieces. But she has stretched the chore out to easily three times longer than it takes me, and is pleased with herself for her movements (and also justified in not having to do anything in the world outside of her home since all her rituals are so time-consuming). (I don't follow her exhortations, by the way, even when she is watching me and tut-tutting my slovenly ways.)

So I am thinking about my writing. Is it about movement or about action? And should it be about movement or about action?

I don't mean in my poems--clearly there is time in certain poems for movement and time for stillness in others, time for action and inaction sometimes, even in the same poem. I mean in my practice of writing--should it be about movement or action? I'm not sure this is even a meaningful question.

I suppose those for whom writing is a ritual--the everyday writers--it's about movement, while for the write-when-inspired writers, it's more about action. Which puts me squarely in the (philosophical) movement camp (but not in the actual movement camp, not as of late anyway). Hmmmm....perhaps my mother-in-law is on to something....perhaps I'm turning Japanese.

Is not the ritual what I love of the writing?


Tressa said...

"I don't like to write but I love to have written" ~ Michael Kanin.

I believe this might be how I feel about writing at the moment, not an action, not a movement but an accomplishment.

Carol Berg said...

This is an interesting question. For me, I think the motion is important, that repetition of writing by hand in my journal helps my writing overall, somehow. Like that 10,000 basketball hoop shot, you know?

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Tressa,

I've seen a similar quote attributed to Robert Hass: "It's hell writing and it's hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written."

Accomplishment is a wonderful feeling, isn't it?


Jessica Goodfellow said...


I've come to feel that way about writing too; it's the practice that matters to me. This is in direct opposition to how I feel about everything else in my life, which tends to be goal-oriented, and I wonder if writing matters so much to me because it is the one place that I can let go of that. It's my one zen place, I guess. The practice, the movement, the stillness in the movement.