On Rambling

Advice is regularly on tap at the online salon-saloons where all the writer-types go.

Bartender, we’ll have the usual.

The first round of advice: Always be writing.
The second draft: See the first.
Rinse, repeat, drink.

But don’t drink too much because in order to always be writing, so they say, you’ll need a daily regimen. Recommended: Write first thing in the morning and then nourish yourself with necessary non-writing activities. Eat right. Exercise. Spend time with your friends or family. Sleep for eight solid hours. Write first thing the next morning. We’ve taken this advice ourselves. We can confirm that it means you’ll always be writing. Even when you won’t be writing, you’ll be not-writing for the writing’s sake.

The advice to “always be writing” usually means “always be working.” A lot of writing has, ironically, already been produced about the iniquities of a creative gig economy that has writers wired up 24/7 for maximum production. Resistance can seem futile. We add self-care and the care work of political advocacy to our dockets in defiance of the imperative to always be working, and still: the unfinished tasks on our bloated daily to-do lists drag us down the next morning like a bad hangover.

Bartender, we’ve had enough.

The mantra “always be writing” is bothersome in at least two additional ways. First, it smacks oddly of the writing advice a pirate might give. We would prefer it if this phrase owned up to that: “Always be writing, arrrrr.” Second, and more importantly, “always be writing” implies that writing is always there, on call, available for the doing. It doesn’t acknowledge that writing sometimes goes AWOL. “Always be writing” imagines that writing is an action that we have to, that we must, take.

We would prefer to not “always be writing, arrrrr.” We’d rather ramble.

What if we talked about writing in a way that acknowledged, even embraced, its inherently rambling nature? What if we said that writing is an event that does or doesn’t happen, a moment that arrives, or doesn’t? What if we said that writing is as much about land-lubbing, lolling, faffing, and waiting as anything else? What if we said that sometimes writing is distracted or playful when we need it to get to the point already; that other times, it’s driven and demanding – so much so that we hesitate even to stop for a loo break for fear of breaking its stride?

To cock a snook at the imperative to be productive is not to deny that sometimes, indeed, we must write for our supper or that we write under constraints – financial, physical, temporal, and more. Yes, sometimes, writing is drudgery. Sometimes writing just needs to get the job done. We don’t have to shun all constraint or protocol to embrace writing’s rambling nature. On the contrary, rambling would seem to require a clearly marked path from which to stray. At the very least, however, rambling is still not writing we must break our backs to grind out daily.

Charlotte, the rambler par excellence in Samuel Richardson’s History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) once exclaimed – mid-ramble – of course: “Lord, how we rambling-headed creatures break in upon ourselves!” In so declaring, Charlotte shows us how thinking of writing as rambling might also make it easier to identify those moments when we want to ramble, but can’t. If we’re on a ramble instead of a regimen, we might more quickly see when we’re stuck on routes that others have trampled flat or where roadblocks have been set in our way, and we might take a deep breath to heave ho forward, wait for conditions to improve, or simply feel freer to traipse off in a different direction. Likewise, we might feel less obliged to wait behind someone whose own ramble has them hung up in a harangue – and less self-conscious should someone interject to interrupt our own so-called rambling. As Thomas Brown once put it in his ramble narrative, Amusements Serious and Comical (1700), “the straitest way is not always the nearest; and indirect practices and measures are oftentimes very effectual helps to bring you to your journey’s end.”

The allures of jumping off of the “always be writing” pirate ship to go for a ramble have a long history. Flâneurs have a well-documented tendency to wander into our midst, especially when a stormy political climate has us all feeling shipwrecked. The ramble was once a thriving literary genre. There’s more to say about the histories of ramblers and their ramblings, but for now we simply want to highlight what they all share: a devotion to a mode of writing that is capacious.

The Ramble Drawings exhibited by the sculptor Richard Serra in 2015 are a good example of the kind of capaciousness that rambling affords, and they suggest that rambling is ready to make a comeback. Serra’s drawings – more than sixty of them – meditate on Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square, which means they also meditate on the black page associated with that notorious rambler, Tristram Shandy.


In order to create the drawings, each of which appears on handmade paper, Serra combined a variety of techniques. He drew some parts with lithographic crayons: the waxy, oily sticks artists more commonly use to draw on stone or metal. He next applied black pastel powder in varying degrees of thickness to the lines that he had drawn. For several of the drawings, Serra used a metal device to press the originals into imperfect copies, each of which bears the marks of the tool that scraped the image from one page onto another.

More delicate than the huge, heavy sculptures for which he is primarily known, the drawings ramble in a mode that’s flatter, but no less intriguing, than a monumental work like Serra’s Band. The drawings invite viewers to trace variations in color and gradations of depth in much the same way she would roam into one or another of Band’s hollows or feel compelled to walk along, leaning with Band’s exterior curvatures.


Serra’s Ramble Drawings draw – literally – their viewers into contemplation and speculation. They invite us to fill in their black boxes with our own projects but also to linger in the shapes and topographies of the marks themselves. They are, at one and the same time, calls to narrate, opportunities to imagine, provocations to feel. Rambles. The whole series, almost everyone who saw it agreed, was atmospheric: a monochromatic experiment in texture presented without any artist statement or copy. Michel de Certeau would have called it an “anti-text.”

In the first issue of …. wait for it … The Rambler (1750), Samuel Johnson tried to describe what reimagining writing as the kind of rambling that Serra’s drawings embody might entail. Inevitably, Johnson found himself delayed in the task almost immediately. In the course of limbering up to start rambling proper, Johnson mused on how we warm ourselves up to get moving more generally. Before he can introduce his theory of rambling, then, Johnson finds himself rambling on about introductions. He notes that in our everyday lives, we exchange a mindless “Hello” with our friends and family: a kind of giddy up that sets us right to rambling. The epic poets avoided the problem of pre(r)ambling, Johnson observes, by simply starting in medias ramble.

Those of us raring to ramble somewhere in between the epic and the everyday, however, have not been so lucky. Johnson says our situation is like a bad romance. Either in our haste to get to the point, we chase the writing away. Or while we dally in coy, careful planning, the writing ambles to greener pastures.

In a recent lecture published also as an essay of sorts, Patricia Lockwood also tackles the problem of how writers might stop writing and start rambling. For Johnson, rambling’s inherently ad hoc nature made it difficult to get going on the right foot in an age that customarily followed classical precedent. For Lockwood, we now find ourselves stuck in the slough of political despond. “How do we write now?” Lockwood asks. Really, “how the fuck do we write now?” Even our everyday “customary greeting[s] of hello” begin urgently in medias res these days: “what the fuck is going on… no seriously, what the fuck is happening.” And it might not matter much anymore how epics begin when it looks like they’ll all end in tragedy anyway.

Both Johnson and Lockwood grasp that writing – that thing we do from top to bottom, from left to right, from beginning to end – does not always give easy way to the same sense of capaciousness that inheres in an “anti-text” like a black page, a powdered drawing, or a winding slope of rusting steel. The only way to start rambling, they conclude, is just … to start rambling. Rambling is best understood as a practice rather than as a theory.

Although Johnson and Lockwood struggle to disentangle the practice of rambling from regimen – Johnson promises to publish one short essay twice weekly and Lockwood “claim[s] the morning” for reading “real book[s]” – they both still try to inhabit “practice” as de Certeau understood the term: as a walking way of talking.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), de Certeau lingers over minutiae’s proclivity to expand in this walking way of talking which is, of course, rambling. Such a proclivity means that the rambles of the everyday and the epic have more in common than we might think. Even as rambling is, by definition, open-ended, all rambles share a set of coordinates: a here and a there, a near and a far.

De Certeau locates these coordinates in the daily patter of children as well as in the mythical “language of talking birds.” Such chirruping starts in medias res no matter where it begins: “like a series of ‘hellos’ in an echoing labyrinth,” each of which “gambols, goes on all fours, dances, and walks about, with a light or heavy step.” De Certeau says that birds and babies have admirable ways of communicating that are “anterior or parallel” to the kind of talking or writing that strives to reach an “informative” endpoint.

De Certeau famously uses metaphors of walking to write about talking and vice versa. The metaphor trots right in: Children and birds gambol, go on all fours, dance, and walk about when they talk. His definition of walking notes its singsong quality in turn: Walking “affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks.’ All the modalities sing a part in the chorus, changing from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker.”

Johnson himself appears to have anticipated de Certeau’s ideas about walking and talking. In Rambler no. 5, Johnson picked up a famous “seeming paradox:” “that very few men know how to take a walk.” “Indeed,” he felt, “it is very true” because we too often think of walking as a means to get somewhere. At best, it’s a mindless necessity. At worst, it’s a backbreaking trudge. Really knowing how to take a walk, Johnson says, entails keeping your mind open so as “to be able to accommodate itself to emergent occasions, and remark every thing that offers itself to present examination.”

De Certeau calls these emergent occasions “enunciatory operations” and also appreciates the “unlimited diversity,” the opportunities for remarking on everything, that they afford. Lockwood agrees. “Go into churches,” she urges, and also into “mosques, temples because even when their ceilings are low, they impose a shape on great height. Go to the post office, with all its sounds of being sent.” She continues: “Read diaries, which make the day permanent. Read anything that slows you down to the pace of real life, like Zora Neale Hurston’s preservations of dialect that walk in dresses down dirt roads. Read one of those Annie Dillard books where she watches an ant fuck for like fourteen straight hours and at the end of it somehow believes in God even more than she did already.”

In our current moment, it’s perhaps easier to feel burdened rather than enlivened by the prospect of unlimited diversions, of learning how to walk all over again so that we can watch ants fuck and talk about what that means. But the possibility that such diversions could be conjured, not by an algorithm or by the mandate to “always be writing,” but rather by a practice of rambling, feels different somehow – even if (or, perhaps, because) some of those diversions will remain just out of reach or the paths that lead to them will have to go untrodden sometimes.

Recognizing writing as rambling can do more than just shift what it viscerally feels like to write and to be a writer, day in and day out. As Johnson, Serra, de Certeau, and Lockwood all suggest, rambling can also shift what we write about and how we write about it. When we allow our writing to be rambling, we are less beholden to the relentless drive towards productivity – the feeling that every last drop of experience must be wrung out of life and committed to print in order to yield … content: if not a title followed by your byline, then a line of click bait.

To ramble rather than write neither disavows the value of workaday writing nor disdains the twittering of talking humans; but it does resist the idea that writing is utilitarian content delivery. Writing as rambling embraces an ethos that finds value in the cul-de-sac, the mezzanine, the oxbow, the ruin: in short, in all those odd forms that are not, necessarily, conduits to the usual destinations. When we ramble, we can follow writing to its must-see attractions as well as to its curious outposts and dead ends. Rambling produces writing that is, like Serra’s drawings, de Certeau’s echoing hellos, Lockwood’s post office, and Johnson’s “every thing,” capacious precisely because it can be short, quick and assembled bit by bit until it sprawls over time. It can go here and then there, near and then far, and back again.

Lockwood finds considerable relief roaming in this “headspace.” It is a place where “flowers, which open into red throats like tiger lilies, [are] ready to speak. They are an opening to possibility, they are a trembling in the air, they are the fact that anything can be a poem.” Johnson was less lyrical but no less relieved by a vision of what kind of writing rambling makes possible. He was grateful for the opportunity rambling gave him to give up worrying about getting “lost in a complicated system.” He was also grateful to relinquish the feeling that he needed to “arrange the dissimilar parts of an extensive plan” into a final point. Johnson thought of a ramble as an “experiment.” If it failed, he could leave it for a “few days.” Then, he could circle back to fix any “mistakes” that were made. He could revise or extend the “opinions” that were first formed. Or, he could choose to forge new paths towards “other topicks less dangerous or more tractable.” Johnson, like Lockwood, knew that rambling kept him open to possibility.

The second essay in The Rambler naturally takes up the topic of distractions. The essay after that takes up the topic of criticism. Ramblers risk running into both. Yet Johnson felt that such byways – alternately pleasant and irksome – presented the rambler with unique opportunities: to meditate for a while on the potential value of a seeming distraction, for example, or to consider when a critic must be bypassed as well as when she must be heeded as a helpful guide, pointing out a new route worth exploring. At the very least, Johnson maintained, if readers didn’t like what they read, at least it hadn’t taken them long to read a ramble. And if need be, Johnson was prepared to quit the whole enterprise and saunter back home.

Johnson was right to have anticipated that his rambles would flummox readers. They didn’t always like The Rambler’s “expanded” style (in Boswell’s diplomatic description). Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge – who was frequently chastised for his rambling – maintained that “sentence after sentence in The Rambler may be pointed out to which you cannot attach any definite meaning whatever.” Johnson’s haters particularly complained about the “hard words in The Rambler.” They were its biggest problem, according to Boswell. Many suspected that Johnson peddled his sesquipedalian vocabulary on purpose. Such a vocabulary, after all, made “his Dictionary indispensably necessary.”

It’s worth noting here that Serra once made a dictionary of sorts, too. He created a list of verbs, “to bounce,” “to suspend,” “to flow” or “to curve,” for example, that he would then enact in sculptural form. Lockwood likewise implores her readers to linger over words: to “learn the names of trees,” “keep a physical notebook,” and “use the kind of pen that runs out.” De Certeau might be said to have created a veritable grammar book of walking. Boswell offered a defense of this penchant for collecting and curating words that ramblers seem to share. Citing Johnson’s dry observation that “He that thinks with more extent than another, will want words of larger meaning,” Boswell argued that Johnson’s brief rambles needed big words. Otherwise, his “ideas would be confined and cramped.”

Inspired by all these ramblers and ramblings, we created The Rambling so that we can all have a place where we can write without cramping our ideas or our style, where we are open to possibilities and experiments. The snail on The Rambling’s emblem, adapted from George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635), embodies this ecumenical approach.

She brings together the near and the far, the here and there, as well as the big and the small. Our snail may look like she’s going out on a limb, but on closer inspection that limb turns out to be a bridge and she is crossing it at her own pace. Although she may be rambling far afield, and a little precariously, that doesn’t mean she’s left her home behind. On the contrary, she’s bringing it along for the ride. Her shell has a lot of room in it, after all – room for the ram; room for the bling; room for disaffected pirates (arrrr) to amble and gather their lilies – and it isn’t breaking her back.

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