I’ve been revisiting past episodes of some of my favorite podcasts recently, and was reminded of a 2019 discussion with author Daniel José Older on Between the Covers. The interview is fascinating and I encourage you to listen to the entire conversation. But here I’m specifically interested in Older’s description of pausing to listen to an entire song (not always the same song) to slow himself down when he sits down to write every day. Older says his writing goes more smoothly when he follows this ritual. “We need to give our brain a little bit of transition room to get to that creative space.” It got me thinking about the different ways in which transitions are important, in creativity and in life.
Like Mr. Older, I find transitioning my mind creates a more effective start to a day of writing. I don’t have a formal ritual, but gathering a few elements before I begin is mandatory: my laptop (my primary writing tool), a cup of hot tea or a glass of water, and some music. Not just any music. I try to listen to music that can function as a soundtrack to what I’m writing. For my current work-in-progress, I’m listening to a lot of Glenn Jones, William Tyler, Rhiannon Giddens, and Gillian Welch. Having those few items in place leads my mind, and my body, into the fictional world I’m writing about.
We transition into other activities in a similar manner. Warming up before exercising, such as walking or light jogging before a run, warms up the muscles and focuses the brain. Some people make a ritual of preparing a cup of tea or coffee when they arrive at their office. Athletes and musicians often visualize the task ahead before a competition or performance. Even audiences sometimes participate in transitions, for example when the national anthem is performed at the beginning of certain U.S. sporting events.
Transitions are equally important in creative work. Movies and TV shows frequently include establishing shots between scenes to identify location and ease the audience into the next stage of action. Some of my favorite television series made good use of these kinds of establishing shots – I’m thinking of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek and the Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. in The X-Files. Those shows wouldn’t have been the same without their iconic settings.
Writers can employ transitions, also. Non-fiction books typically include a preface or introduction that describes the author’s objectives. Chapter breaks and descriptive prose has a similar effect in fiction. For example, many of the chapters in Edith Wharton‘s Summer begin with descriptions of the setting, similar to establishing shots in a movie, so the reader can move easily from one chapter to the next.
Architects also make use of transitions. Lobbies and foyers introduce us to a building we’ve just entered, and, if done well, invite us to go further. Frank Lloyd Wright sometimes used a “compression-and-release” approach to design: passing through a constricting space, such as a narrow door or hallway, gives one a much greater sense of wonder upon entering the release of a wide, open space. You can get a sense of this at Annie Pfieffer Chapel, a building Wright designed for Florida Southern College, where an almost tiny entry leads into the stunning chapel.
A wise college professor warned my classmates and I about the futility of compartmentalization. Life is a continuum, not a series of closed rooms. Everything relates to everything. Nevertheless, we humans sometimes require transitions, or at the very least, we function better with them. In creative work, transitions can bring the audience into your work and help keep them engaged. Physical and mental transitions can enhance our work practices. Transitions require us to slow down, and maybe that’s the point. Rushing through life, or art, diminishes the experience. A captivating story, like a life well-lived, requires time to savor the experience. So ease up on the accelerator and find your own transitional moments.