I grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. It’s so big it makes New York seem like a miniature diorama of a proper city. Add the population of Los Angeles and New York together, and São Paulo is bigger still.
When we were in our mid-teens, my older brother Luís Eduardo and I would sometimes visit the historic downtown district and run a race along a particular obstacle course. Rua Direita, which links the cathedral to the opera house, is a pedestrian street teeming with the life of an anthill in battle. The crowd there includes shoppers, office boys in a hurry, throngs of beggars, bank cashiers running errands for the keepers of illegal games, fat women carrying enormous loads balanced on their heads, toothless and drunk black men the grandchildren of slaves, con artists, pickpockets, cardsharps, prostitutes, transvestites, and thousands upon thousands of other men and women and children and animals of dubious genetic make-up, all squeezed into a narrow street and jostling for space using as weapons everything hard and pointy: their briefcases, umbrellas, canes, shopping bags, elbows, knees, and falsies.
The game that Luís and I played consisted in racing from one end of the street to the other, as quickly as possible but without letting both feet leave the ground at the same time, and without touching anyone else in our path.
It was a riveting game. Adrenaline and testosterone made us feel like toreros in a mythical arena, both seeking danger and running away from it. Luís was bigger and stronger than I, built like a fridge with legs. He played dirty without knowing that he did; it was just his natural way of being. I was all rubbery and elastic, prone to falling down and scraping my knees or twisting an ankle or three. I played ugly, not dirty; but, unlike the warm-hearted brute that was my brother, I knew I played ugly. I did it on purpose, to spite the competition, to sully the world in revenge for being unfair to me.
The game was a great life lesson: The individual against the crowd, brother against brother, legs against brains. To play the game you absolutely had to interact with several thousand people, in varying degrees of intimacy. You could do your very best and not get anywhere; the obstacles were unyielding, uncooperative, too many, too big, too slow. You could play fair or dirty, pretty or ugly; but you could never, ever be sure of winning, regardless of how you played.
Timing, however, improved your chances. Knowing when to stop, when to speed up, when to slow down, when to skirt a group of office boys who stood motionless right on your path, when to jump, when to skip, when to walk, when to run, when to take a longer route that might be faster—if you knew the “when” of everything, you might possibly beat the competition.
In fact, timing is everything, regardless of what game you play.
Golf? It’s all in the rhythm of your swing, the timing of your decisions to do or not to do, to lead or to follow. Tiger Wood may have amazing physical capabilities, but it’s his rhythm that got him places.
Hockey? The greatest players aren’t the strongest ones, but the ones with the best sense of timing. Wayne Gretzky was a skinny little guy who looked like a speck of humanity next to his teammates and opponents. But he took his father’s advice when he was young: “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” And he became skillful than anyone else, superior in mind and body, more imaginative, more creative—thanks in good part to his uncanny sense of rhythm.
Neurosurgery? Here’s Malcolm Gladwell profiling the great surgeon Charlie Wilson in The New Yorker:
Once, when a new head of nursing at U.C.S.F. wanted to start rotating nursing teams in neurosurgery, instead of letting Wilson work with the same team every day, [Wilson] stopped operating for a week in protest. New nurses, he explained, would mean more mistakes—not fatal mistakes but irregularities in the flow of his operating room, such as someone's handing him the wrong instrument, or handing him an instrument with the blade up instead of down, or even just a certain hesitation, because to Wilson the perfect operation requires a particular grace and rhythm.
Writing? It’s all about Rhythm & Flow. The timing of your every decision will determine whether or not you write that book, or finish it, or get it published. Writing is a game of creativity—a game with complex rules, in which winning means transforming a dream into a reality, an idea into a book, a personal insight into a public work of art. The integrated writer is a good player who enjoys the game and who plays it with skill and joy.
Imagine we’re back in São Paulo playing the game. Let me tell you how timing affects it.
If I wait a second too long, or if I take off a second too soon, I may find my path blocked by a busload of shoppers who suddenly stop dead on their tracks to look at a window. A second, perhaps a fraction of a second, and I’m blocked. Part of the game, then, is determined by timing: when to do something, when not to do it. This is true for everything in a writer’s life. The integrated writer knows when to write, when to write by hand or at the computer, when to write by hand with a pencil or with a pen, when to edit, when to delete, when to submit, when to do anything whatsoever—and, most importantly, when not to do anything at all.
To play the game, it’s simply not possible to keep to a single speed throughout the entire race. There are too many factors involved, too many obstacles, too many other agents and witnesses and receptors to deal with. The least event affects my rhythms of thought and movement, making them faster or slower. A drunken beggar reaches out, trying to touch my arm, and I speed up away from him. A gaggle of deliverymen spills out from nowhere, and I bring myself to a sudden stop. I never know when I’ll have to change my speed or for how long. Habit, routine, safety and predictability are all delusory. The integrated writer is alert and adaptable. You must not only have many speeds at your disposal, but you must also know how to change speeds quickly and smoothly.
Throughout the game, I play three rhythmic roles. I’m an actor, making active decisions to do something or to refrain from doing it: I decide to run, to wait, to turn to the left all of a sudden, or to sit in the middle of the road and cry. I’m a receptor: I see, hear, smell, and sense everything around me, watching dozens of people at a time, listening to a cacophony of voices and barking dogs and music blaring from inside shops. And I’m a witness: I observe, analyze, and synthesize information as if I were "someone else" at a remove from the game. Needless to say, the witness inside an adolescent in a fight with his brother tends to be perfectly pathetic!
You can’t escape your triple role, not even if you go live alone in a hut in the Outer Hebrides. There too you’ll act, receive, and witness; there too you’ll be subject to the laws of Rhythm & Flow, one of which says your rhythm depends on the rhythms of other people, animals, and forces of nature. On Rua Direita, if someone behind me makes a decision of his own and speeds up, I suffer the consequences and get booted in the ankle; if someone decides to pickpocket an old lady a yard away from me, my game is changed in some way big or small. The same rule applies to every writer who’s ever lived: poets, novelists, screenwriters, journalists, stenographers, fortune-cookie scribes. We all must constantly deal with collaborators, editors, designers, marketers, and booksellers. The integrated writer is an individual who can do team work, and a team player full of individuality. The integrated writer yields to other players some of the time, but imposes his or her will the rest of the time. The integrated writer knows when to delegate, when to take over; when to share, when to keep things from other people’s eyes; when to engage with another player, when to disengage from another player.
St. Augustine once asked, “What is time? If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” Time is too difficult to define, but for our purposes we’ll say it’s a continuum of past, present, and future, every microsecond of your immediate future always becoming immediately your present, and every microsecond of your present always becoming immediately and forever your past. You can’t play the game well if you live in the past or in the future; you can only play it in the present. To do so, however, you must be permanently attuned to your past and to your future. Look back, look ahead, and look all around you—here, now!
©Pedro de Alcantara, 2015