permitting intensity (+ week 2 check-in)

by Mario Merz

Martha Graham on her career as a dancer: “It's permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.” I’ve never heard that ethos articulated so clearly: permitting intensity. Personally, I like intensity and allow it to flourish in my life in a variety of ways. There was one evening last week when I had been up for two days straight and was feverishly editing a piece of writing that was due three hours ago while intermittently soothing the puppy. As soon as I finished I sprinted out the door to get drinks with friends and then came home at 12 AM to put the puppy to sleep and console a very upset S and then woke up at 4 AM to start the next day and thought, do I like this? I guess I like it.

I find intensity aesthetically pleasing because it suggests an openness to extreme experience. It seems to me that the Murakami quote about how “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking” also applies to lived experience: there are certain forms of knowledge that will be denied to you if you stay within the bounds. You could think of intensity as the pursuit of gnosis, of “transcendence arrived at through intuitive, interior means." It’s hard to deny that extreme results (whether it be athletic feats or works of art) generally require extreme focus, extreme commitment, and extreme personalities.

My friend Nick likes to talk about how aliveness is unevenly distributed. It’s clear to me that in some moments we feel more purely alive than others: years unfold in minutes. The most popular refrain when someone is in the first flush of love, after all is, I’ve never felt more alive. Intensity is the pursuit of aliveness. It doesn’t require the busyness we commonly associate with it in our mind: you can have a very intense meditation experience or a very intense writing session where it looks like nothing at all is happening on the outside.

Unwelcome intensity is sometimes thrust upon us through things like health problems and unexpected tragedy. However, if your life is consistently intense you’re likely complicit to some degree—saying yes to things instead of saying no, choosing complex relationships instead of uncomplicated ones, setting aggressive deadlines. Permitting artistic intensity by making something that stretches and drains you, that forces you to poke around uncomfortable corners of your psyche. It’s okay to need and want intensity—we praise moderation and balance but it’s pretty evident that some people crave a high level of intensity throughout their lives, and that intensity feeds their creativity and productivity.

Of course, there’s risk in permitting the wrong kind of intensity. If you spend 10 years working 18 hours a day on a terrible idea, nothing will come of it. If you spend every waking hour pining after a girl who will never be interested in you, she’s not going to suddenly fall in love. But if you choose with some level of thoughtfulness, intensity can be its own reward.

Oliver Sacks, from an essay about his impending death: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” Anais Nin, from The Four-Chambered Heart: “I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.” I don’t know how to sum it up: intensity as pursuit of depth, intensity as radical openness, intensity as an invitation to perfection, intensity as appreciation of complexity, intensity as purity of focus, intensity as a belief in “extreme and doomed commitments.” Sometimes intensity just feels like presence. Feels like the way you look at me and look away when no one else is around.

Yesterday I was reading Bluets in Dia Beacon and highlighted this passage:

So what would it be a symptom of, to start seeing colors—or, more oddly, just one color—more acutely? Mania? Monomania? Hypomania? Shock? Love? Grief?

I joked to a friend that the states she listed (mania, monomania, hypomania, shock, love, grief) were the only six states that mattered. Because they were feelings that pinned you absolutely to the moment, put blinders on your vision so you could see nothing else, used you and consumed you. For better or worse they were pure distillations of intensity.

Week 2 check-in

Hi! And welcome back to our lovely creative accountability group! How it’s going for me:

  1. 500 words of the new writing project every day

1/5: not going well. I did ~1000 words over seven days, so closer to 200 words a day than 500. However, will blame this on adjusting to the new puppy and try to make up for it this next week.

  1. Post on Substack 2x a week

5/5: going pretty well!! I did feel like I was in danger of veering off schedule when I was particularly sleep-deprived, but feel like I’m on track again. Have lots of ideas for what I’m going to write in the next three weeks.

Weird note: I don’t really cue up posts. I’ve been told I should, but I do treat this as a “blog” and it seems more faithful/“authentic” to write it live?

  1. Go to the gym 4x a week

4/5: I’m making it to the gym, but I wouldn’t say I’m exactly crushing my workouts (skipped all my accessory lifts on Tuesday and Thursday lol). On the plus side, I’m biking in Central Park and doing group fitness classes again!

How’s your week going? Did you make anything you were really happy with? Do you feel like you are off to a rough start?