Life in the Bubble

Stop the presses: I finally finished Anna Karenina.

What’s that you say? I’m acting like I deserve a medal? Well yes, I think I do deserve a medal for finishing a book that’s almost 1,000 pages long and that contains long, didactic passages where characters act as mouthpieces for the author’s opinions about Russian society and culture in the 1870s.

What’s that you say? If I feel the need to gripe about it, why did I even read it? Because although the experience of reading this book had its chorelike aspects, it was also quite rewarding. The writing at the sentence level was always good and often exquisite — and sustaining that level of prose excellence over 976 pages is no mean feat. I think my favorite thing about the novel is its finely detailed, completely convincing depictions of human psychology. These characters were the most human, believable, alive characters I’ve ever read in the pages of a novel. You simply won’t find a more true-to-life portrayal of what it means to live a human life, to have the human experience. So, as a reader, I enjoyed the book, and as a writer, I learned a tremendous amount from it.

And there was another benefit to reading Anna Karenina — almost a side effect, but a very welcome one. I found that the act of reading it started to feel a little bit similar to the act of writing my novel. When I sat down at my computer, opened the Kindle app, and started reading where I’d left off, I felt the same sense of discipline and conscientiousness and duty that I feel when I sit down at my computer, open Scrivener, and start writing where I left off. The act of reading Anna Karenina started to feel as if it was part of the larger act of writing my novel.

As I would go through my day, I found that when I wasn’t thinking about my novel, I would often be thinking about Anna Karenina instead. My thoughts about Tolstoy’s novel started to swirl around and intermix with my thoughts about my own novel. I would read or see or do things during my day that had nothing to do with either novel, but I would relate those experiences back to one or the other or both novels.

And when I would get some spare time with nothing to do and no plans, my thoughts began naturally to turn to either my novel or Tolstoy’s. I became obsessed with them both. Still, writing my novel was more fun than reading Tolstoy’s, so in those crannies of spare time, I wrote more. I wrote more and more and more, and I still am — up to 100,000 words as of today.

In short, I had entered that state of concentrated creative productivity that choreographer Twyla Tharp calls “the Bubble.” I’ve written about Tharp’s Bubble before. She talks about it in her book The Creative Habit, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to lead a more actively creative life. Here is the passage from her book where she defines the Bubble:

When I look back on my best work, it was inevitably created in what I call The Bubble. I eliminated every distraction, sacrificed almost everything that gave me pleasure, placed myself in a single-minded isolation chamber, and structured my life so that everything was not only feeding the work but subordinated to it. . . . Being in the bubble does not have to mean exiling yourself from people and the world. It is more a state of mind, a willingness to subtract anything that disconnects you from your work. . . . You can function out in the world (indeed, you have to), but wherever you go the bubble goes with you.

Now, I have not “eliminated every distraction” in my life or “sacrificed almost everything” that gives me pleasure. I still indulge in the occasional videogame, not to mention imbibing draft beer at my local purveyors of libations. But I do now feel that my life is structured so that everything in it is feeding the work. I do now feel that wherever I go, the bubble is going with me. There’s now a sense in which my head is always in the game. And I attribute that sense of pervasive commitment to the oddly totalizing effect that Anna Karenina had on me and my writing.

It’s kind of like getting in shape through physical exercise. You don’t always enjoy the act of exercising, but once you’re physically fit, you feel better all the time, whether you’re exercising or not. Anna Karenina helped get me in better shape as a writer. So the next time I’m knocking back a cold one, I’ll raise a glass to Mr. Tolstoy and another to Ms. Tharp.

Next up in the cavalcade of classic literature? Beloved. I have no idea how it’ll affect me or what it’ll teach me. I’ll let you know.

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