Why writers need the art of minimums
Part 2: Enough
To live from a sense of abundance rather than lack, is to be rich.
The discernment to know what is unnecessary in life, what is merely superfluous, what is more than enough, is crucial to claiming the time and space to create. As Wendell Berry puts it:
Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.
At a book launch earlier this year one of the audience members asked me about having a sense of confidence in achieving an sales for the books I write. It’s wonderful when the work I’ve done connects with others. To make even the smallest difference to any life is humbling and wonderful, but the really amazing thing is to be able to do the work at all.
Being in flow, experiencing the writing process, learning who I am and who I am becoming, are so much more important than numbers of book sales or reviews. It’s not that I want my books to go unread, of course. But book sales are the bonus, not the motivation. It’s so easy to get caught up in the product and the applause as the priority, as though this will make us happy or demonstrate that we are better or more successful people.
When we feel that life is about what we lack. When we’re chasing success and external approbation then nothing will ever satisfy. We never reach the point of anything being enough or good in itself. As Stefan Zweig puts it:
History relates no instance in which a conqueror has been surfeited with conquests.
When we work for the end product, there’s always another and another bigger, better product to go after.
Conversely, when the motivation is the writing itself. When we do it for the process and because we love it. When we work on our internal story, then we become more joyful about the writing and, in turn, the work benefits.
When the moment is enough
When we write, create or live from a sense that we need to always be doing more, then we become insatiable. Even if we achieve what we set out to do, it’s not enough. There will be some bigger, shinier goal to persue. When we live from scarcity and lack, the present is always lacking, always being compared to some mythical future that constantly moves a bit further and further and further into the future.
But when we simply stay with the moment, get into the flow of that moment, centre ourselves around a still point, then the hunger for more and more, drops away in the stillness of the moment and the process.
We live in a culture that believes the motivation for work is predicated on worrying that we’ll fall behind, have less status, fewer conusmer goods, less prestige. But the desire to have more stuff and/or more fame is actually a very poor motivator. It keeps us stressed and in the shallows. People who are not alienated from themselves and others don’t need insecurity and envy as spurs to creativity.
Deep work comes from a sense of abundance and centredness. Deep work comes from slowing down and paying attention. Deep work happens when this moment is enough and we lose ourselves in it.
And enough isn’t about external products, what we have in the bank, how many friends or followers we have on social media or how many books we sell. Enough is an internal state of being. It’s about choosing your creative work and loving it. It’s about living from an attitude of connection, generosity and attention. As Lao Tzu puts it:
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
This questions our understanding of success. The dominant story of our time is that success is more, more, more. But is it?
When it’s the journey not the destination
Life doesn’t go in straight lines. We meet obstacles, have to double back to attend to baggage, need to improvise on the spot. As Mary Catherine Bateson writes in Composing a Life:
The knight errant, who finds his challenges along the way, may be a better model for our times than the knight who is questing for the Grail.
We write new stories and become new stories in all kinds of messy ways. A good life is not one in which we make the most money and consume as much of the world’s resources as humanly possible, but one in which we create meaning and relationship. The knight errant, a Quixote figure looking for connection and determined to helpnalong the way, is all about the moment and the flow.
Likewise our creativity. The more we flow with it, improvising along the way, the more the process will be a delight and the destination will be secondary.
Bateson goes on:
Our aesthetic sense, whether in works of art or in lives, has overfocused on the stubborn struggle toward a single goal rather than on the fluid, the protean, the improvisatory. We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labour to assert the artist’s vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.
When success is an internal voice
The world is full of definitions of success. It’s possible to be brilliant and rich and feel empty. It’s possible to completely fulfill someone else’s vision of a life of achievement and feel alienated. It’s possible to live by laudable values but realise that you are simply conforming and ticking behaviours off a list with no sense of embodying the ideals.
The writer Parker Palmer instead suggests:
Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.
Palmer is not suggesting fatalism, but stripping away all the conditioning and baggage that tells us who to be in order to dive deeply into that still voice within. Palmer goes on:
Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about […] or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.
The internal voice is the one that isn’t following those norms and cultural myths that shout at us about what we ‘should’ to do to make it big. Instead, the internal voice speaks:
the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live — but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.
This voice may not always be comfortable:
My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for “wholeness” is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.
[…] The soul is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.
When the calling is enough
When we listen to the wild animal of the ‘soul’ — resilient, savvy and shy, then we realise there is nothing lacking and we have the courage to set out as Quixotic knights errant to delight in the process — of life, writing, creativity …
It won’t make the path straight or smooth. It may bring neither riches not fame. But it will be a life of abundance, which is its own riches. It will be a life that is a different story.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.