Madness, Rack, and Honey

Collected Lectures

“I never set out to write this book,” Mary Ruefle begins. And yet, she did write it, and that contradiction is the first of many. The lectures that follow are both brilliant and silly; they seem to half stumble about, and then marvel at the fact that they are still standing—then from that perch notice something that they couldn’t see before and which only now seems self-evident. In the opening pages, she sets up poetry as being against knowledge, but read further and it’s more that she puts people—irrational, lively, and only occasionally wise—above all else. An unspeakably good read.

Related writing

Reading notes

Waste time

Ruefle begins the titular essay in her collection with the statement, “I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say,” and then proceeds, as elsewhere in the book, to say a great deal:

“You are a walking paradigm of the human condition—you think you know more about the universe than you actually do.” “You are congenitally unable to do anything profitable.” These astute remarks were made to me by someone who knows me well. And I am thankful for them, for they encourage me in ways he could not imagine and did not intend. John Ashbery, in an interview in the Poetry Miscellany, talks about wasting time: “I waste a lot of time. That’s part of the [creative process]....The problem is, you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted. Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life. You can’t use your time.” In other words, wasted time cannot be filled, or changed into another habit; it is a necessary void of fomentation. And I am wasting your time, and I am aware that I am wasting it; how could it be otherwise? Many others have spoken about this. Tess Gallagher: “I sit in the motel room, a place of much passage and no record, and feel I have made an important assault on the Great Nothing.” Gertrude Stein: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Mary Oppen: “When Heidegger speaks of boredom he allies it very closely with that moment of awe in which one’s mind begins to reach beyond. And that is a poetic moment, a moment in which a poem might well have been written.” The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time. For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.

Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, page 136

For there is so little time to waste during a life. What a lovely corrective to the advice we’re usually given, that wasting time is slothful or indolent. And note that Ruefle is careful not to suggest that wasted time is invisibly productive. This isn’t a backhanded lifehack—it’s a defense of inefficiency. And one we would be wise to heed.

Why we write

I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say”; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.

Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, page 77

I’m not sure where the advice to “write what you know” originates. If I could locate it, I would pull it out at the root and then poison the ground from which it grew. You cannot know what you know until you’ve written it. As you write, you learn what you know—or, more likely, what you don’t know, which, let’s face it, is most everything. Ruefle’s distinction—“write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to” gets at the crux of it: you can listen even without hearing. That is, you can pay attention to something without apprehending it; you can vibrate with a sound without recognizing what that sound is. The distance between the listening and the hearing is traversed by the words you haven’t yet written.

Tolerance for boredom

Byung-Chul Han on attention and boredom:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and process characterizes this scattered mode of awareness. Since it also has a low tolerance for boredom, it does not admit of the profound idleness that benefits the creative process. Walter Benjamin calls this deep boredom a “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Han, The Burnout Society, page 13

I hold those first two sentences lightly—it’s self-serving for Han to attribute the cultural achievements of society to characteristics that have been especially helpful for his field of philosophy, and I am unwilling to reject the possibility that other modes—especially non-Western, non-colonialist modes of thinking—have produced great cultural achievements. (Albeit ones probably erased or dismissed by Western thinkers.) That said, I do take to heart his diagnosis of our current predicament, especially with respect to the lack of boredom.

There’s a quote from a writer that has rattled around in my head for years (although I have never been able to source it, leading me to wonder if I accidentally made it up), but it went something like, “I only need a half hour a day to write. But I have to wait around an awful long time for that half hour to show up.” I think about this all the time—that the actual amount of time spent in doing something creative (writing, designing, making music, whathaveyou) is often buffered by hours and hours on either side by real—sometimes pleasant, sometimes infuriating—boredom.

This of course brings me back to Mary Ruefle, whose words on this topic have become something of a mantra: that creativity requires wasting time. But here wasted time isn’t time spent unproductively—time spent scrolling, or playing games, or skittering around the internet—but rather time spent not doing. She calls it “a necessary void of fomentation.” That is, not merely an absence of doing, but a not-doing so complete it doesn’t stimulate, and it doesn’t heal. It merely waits—patiently or otherwise—for an arrival. I fear we have forgotten how to wait.