The noble art of withdrawal

What do you need less of in order to thrive in your writing and your life? What needs more? What needs less? There are times when the question to ask ourselves is about the resources and input we need to flourish, but at other times the more pertinent question is what we need less of.

What do you need less of in order to thrive in your writing and your life?

The path that goes nowhere

In May I stayed at an amazing artist’s cottage in rural Ireland. In addition to being wonderfully remote, nestled beneath the Sliabh Ban mountains, with a big peat-burning open fire and an artist’s pavilion to work in, the place had a huge and extraordinary yew-hedge maze.

Most of the paths within the maze went nowhere but exploring it was anything but a waste of time. The whole thing was a metaphor in patience, slowing down and paying attention and it was, ultimately, capable of solution. As a whole, the maze was not a dead end.

In The Dip, Seth Godin talks about how sometimes the right thing to do is to quit. He’s not advocating a mindset of giving up at the first obstacle. Sometimes you know you have to persist because you are honing your craft and pouring in good work, but at other times you may have a strong sense that you are investing in the wrong place — the wrong place being a dead end or unsupportrive environment.

It’s fine to be working your way through a difficult maze, knowing there is a centre to get to however long it takes. But it’s demoralising to be trying to get somewhere in a dead end that offers no prospect for growth and fulfilment.

Dead ends come in all kinds of guises — sometimes jobs that sap the life and spirit from us, sometimes people who consume us, sometimes projects that we know are the wrong ones but we persist because we’ve already invested so much.

A path that winds and has obstacles and sometimes makes us retrace our steps can still be a good path. A path with only dead ends is always going to frustrate. We need less of the paths that go nowhere if we are to have the energy and creativity to write.

Things you wouldn’t miss by missing out

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Often we stay on a wrong path not only because of the sunk cost (all the investment we’ve already made) but also because it’s a path we fear missing out on. From social media sites to the TV series that everyone is talking about, from fad diets to the latest gadget or look, we’re primed and fed on fear of missing out (FOMO).

But if we are serious about writing, about giving substantial periods of time and deep creative energy to our craft and art then we need to swap FOMO for NOMO (need of missing out). The truth is that we very soon don’t miss many of these things at all and not having them in our lives can free up reserves of imagination and time.

And sometimes we have to go even further and miss out on good things in order to prioritise the one thing that matters most at that time. It may be that the need of a family member or a friend is so important that everything else has to be set aside.

Or you may need a strategic withdrawal even from activities you enjoy and people you love to be with, for a period of deep writing. The musician John Cage was a proponent of silence as a deep source of creativity and, in her lecture on ‘Arts of the Possible’, Adrienne Rich notes:

The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,

To create takes time and huge stores of imagination and emotional power. It can be hard to find such reserves within when we’re constantly in a hurry and bombarded by noise.

People who consume you

If we need fewer dead ends and less noise, then we also need fewer low-quality, purely transactional relationships. Our most important relationships should be transformative and our path is likely to be all the better if we have fellow travellers along the way.

There’s a lot of thinking about surrounding ourselves with people who will push us forward. There are countless stories of people who resolve to only mix with others who will improve their lives and help them to became ‘successful’ as a result.

But there are all sorts of issues here.

  • What is the definition of ‘success’? (It often seems to be a materialistic view.)
  • How does this resonate with finding those with the ‘right scent marks’? (As opposed to having a hit list of friends with the right attributes that will further our career or wealth.)
  • What are the ethical implications? (Your three-year-old nephew might not have much to offer in the ‘getting on in life’ stakes.)

If we are, as Jim Rohn says,

the five people you spend the most time with

then should we ditch all the friends who are not high powered enough for our new-found ambitions?

Having transformative relationships and seeking out fellow travellers doesn’t need to be an exercise in measuring the ‘usefulness’ of others. Over a lifetime we move across different friendship groups; there’s a natural rhythm to this.

I had a close group of friends at university. They were an important part of my journey and I’m glad to be still in touch with many of them and to know about what’s going on in their lives. If they are in my area or I’m in theirs, it’s a pleasure to catch up, or to do the occasional favour for one another. But day to day, we have different lives now.

The same is true of a group of people I knew when we were all in the early stages of parenting. I count these people as good friends, but we only touch base once or twice a year and that’s fine.

There are a handful of people I’ve known for many years, who I think of as ‘family’. These people are my kin. They are people I can grow and change with, who would never want to limit me. We’re geographically spread out, from a mile away to across the planet, but I know we are there for one another at a deep level. These people deserve my loyalty and these relationships are enriching and transformative. They might not be people who will help me sell my next book or take my craft to the next level, but I always get intelligent conversation and support. I care deeply about them.

Having these people in my life doesn’t mean I can’t also have quests that involve other people. There’s a world of books and courses and mentors out there. There are myriad ways to put yourself in positions where you have to raise your own bar to keep up with those around you.

And in some of those places we will discover other genuine and deep friendships. Of course, your time is precious. It’s one thing to be ethical and loyal; it’s something else to spend time with a group who only want to get drunk or who gossip about others and drag them down. What I would caution against is trying to choose new friends on the basis of a hit list of how useful they might be to you. That’s not friendship.

Recently, as part of a mentoring group I’m in, I’ve been thinking a lot about how environment impacts on us. An environment that supports us makes a huge difference. Environment covers everything from clutter to the music and food we choose. And people are a major part of our environment. But some people are destructive. The writer Tina Welling has a simple question for screening both activities and time with people:

Is this an energy drain or gain?

She’s not talking about the emotional exhaustion that might come from spending time with a good friend in distress or need. Rather, she’s questioning pouring emotional resources and time into those who are manipulative, only ever take, or bring you down. It’s definitely not a matter of cutting out your grandmother because she’s not contributing enough to your intellectual growth or wealth. But it is about realising that we interact in a large variety of ways and some of those interactions are harmful.

We don’t have to label people who drain us or harm us, for whatever reason, as evil. We don’t need to resort to gossiping about them, but we do need to limit the impact. A friend of mine recently told me he’s making a concerted effort to get harmful people out of his life and this is clearly healthy. To quote Nora Ephron :

I don’t want to work with anyone that I wouldn’t be willing to have dinner with.

It’s a good maxim. Of course, we don’t have to be best friends with everyone we work with, but if one dinner with them would be painful, it might be time to think about how to set some boundaries.

We all deserve to be surrounded by people who care and who help us to be our best selves, but we don’t need to confuse this with crude notions of only material ‘success’. One of my most transformative relationships is with my 19 month-old grandson — he’s likely not going to advance my career any time soon, but it’s the love and learning that matters.

And while we’re thinking about spending time with energising, loving people and limiting our exposure to destructive people, it’s also worth thinking about ourselves too.

And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?

Matthew 7:3

Energy draining people are sometimes intentionally so, but more often they’re just people who’ve learnt unhealthy ways of relating. And most of us have some past baggage to work on in that area.

Are you a self sacrificer who uses passive aggression? Do you take more than give? Do you justify yourself rather than apologise? Do you listen? The person we can most influence is ourself. And we all get relationships wrong at least some of the time. No one wants to be person that others are thinking about ditching so it’s worth working on our own ability to listen and show compassion too.

Those negative voices

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Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

Just as we need to consider our own impact on others, so we also need to consider it on ourselves. During life we all accumulate internal voices that don’t seem to be crewing for us. We don’t have to have been abused or known terrible trauma to gather wounds from day to day living but, sadly, many of us have truly awful, even tragic experiences to negotiate at some point. All this baggage can result in areas of ourselves that are repressed, tendencies to project our worst fears and thoughts about ourselves onto others or low self-esteem.

One way or another, we have to find ways to counteract the negative voices that come from within. This may mean doing deep work to gain insights from shadow work or dream work. It may involve imaginatively interacting with the voices to make peace and work with our wounded parts and become gradually more integrated. It may come through meditation or therapy or through imaginative play. But whatever the route, it certainly needs to be a process of learning how not to give ground to negative self sabotage.

Slow Down Deep

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Photo by Tony Reid on Unsplash

Give yourself the time, space and permission to consider your choices. Withdraw for a week, a day, a few hours, or sometimes for just five minutes to make thinking time, time to simply be. When we embrace the need to nurture ourselves, to withdraw creativity then we begin to live with

Radical generosity to ourselves, our writing, and all that we are connected to. It involves slowing down enough to dive into the sediment of ourselves, to emerge as writers of skill and imagination;

Deep attention that opens us to flow and crafting. Deep attention makes us listen within, to our vision and passions, and without, to how we can reach out to the world; and

Transformative creativity, which changes the stories we write and stories we want to live by. Transformative creativity enhances our quests to live good and meaningful lives.

Creative withdrawal isn’t capitulation or giving up, it’s an imaginative answer to the question: What needs less?

Becoming a different story

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Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

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