Why writers should do less and be more

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Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

New Year is a time for new quests. It’s a time for taking stock, reflecting on what needs more and what needs less. In my last blog I wrote about the problem with resolutions, how they can lead us to focus on life as a product rather than a process. But we all have dreams and aspirations and most writers have things they want to achieve, so we write the lists anyway.

We do this even though we know that facing a long list of things we must do can set up resistance and overwhelm. We do it despite knowing that ‘to do’ lists can make life, even our creative life, feel like drudgery sustained by a diminishing supply of willpower.

The clash between doing and creating

Of course, there are things we can do so that the ‘to do’ lists are less likely to make us feel like we’re drowning in demands. We can manage our time better by eliminating, streamlining, delegating, and sharing tasks. We can use time blocking or even take the radical step of sometimes saying no. Some parts of life cry out for lists.

Running our creative life on ‘to do’ lists also risks buying into the pervasive culture of ‘more, more, more’.

But for our creativity, for our relationships, for our continual processes of recovery, ‘to do’ lists are blunt instruments. Running our creative life on ‘to do’ lists also risks buying into the pervasive culture of ‘more, more, more’.

  • Too many people are always busy, often to the point of burnout.
  • Many of us are awash with information overload.
  • The dominance of consumerism in every aspect of life is so rampant that we now have a whole alternative industry making money from getting rid of all the stuff we never needed in the first place.
  • All too often we mortgage our time, time when we could be creating or interacting with people we love, for things: a car, a dress, …

‘To do’ lists belong to the mindset of ‘more’. Your goals for the year might not turn you into the world’s most avid consumer, but they can make you see your life as a series of items to cross off.

Switching to values

For the last couple of years I’ve carried a tiny book (about an inch and a half square) with a set of values I want to live by. I tried to focus on one of thirteen values each week (so each one is central four times through the year). It’s been an interesting experiment but thirteen is a lot of values and I’ve found myself wanting a tighter, simpler approach.

We know that we put most energy into what we are passionate about and when we act from our deepest values, this energy increases beyond imagining. With thirteen headings and a changeover each week I often felt I was skimming the surface and that some virtues were there to make up the numbers.

I liked the sense of vision I got from thinking about values rather than ‘to do’ lists. And it gave me more intrinsic motivation and provided a lot of reflection for journalling. But with such a long list of values there was a temptation to ‘do’ gratitude for a week and then move on to ‘courage’. Moreover, the values felt very abstract, even though I journalled about practical ways to live them. They were, at core, cerebral and disembodied so I’ve begun thinking about ways to embody a few key values that I can aspire to more deeply.

Switching to slow

In the last couple of years I’ve had very clear ideas about the goals that I wanted to achieve and how they fitted around particular values. This was sometimes helpful. It made me re-appraise the way I use time and I shifted towards a yearly rhtyhm in which I had blocks for work and others for creativity, often combined with travel. It enabled me to focus more on a particular area and to have a more immersive sense of projects, whether it was a work task like mentoring or editing, or my own writing.

In that time I’ve also learnt to say no and to use time in new ways. These changes have had huge effects. Most importantly, I realised that to live deeply and use time well meant living more slowly. I went back to the theological concept of time as kairos.

Chronos is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is ‘the right time’; it is ripeness, the moment of truth. Kairos FEELS different — it is related to those experiences when time seems to slow down or stop. Having a perfect life is unrealistic and perfectionism, as we’ve seen, can be a toxic myth. But having perfect moments is possible and time-expanding.

It’s not something you can fake or force but the more you take moments to slow down, breathe deeply, notice the small pleasures of a day, simply inhabit your day more fully and with more attention, then the more you’ll find yourself living by kairos. Some kairos moments will be the extraordinary times of life. The seconds after each of my children were born or meeting my grandson for the first time are kairos memories. These were huge life events and not something I can repeat or call up to order. We can’t always construct such moments, but we can put ourselves in the path of them.

You can live more life in one excellent day than some people experience in a lifetime

But what I’ve come to appreciate is that as well as the technique of time blocking, all of life needs to be lived more slowly and attentively. When I spend lots of time with family members in an attentive way, when I take the time in a morning to set up breakfast with beautiful plates and a pot of drip coffee doing ever so slowly, when I doing admin tasks as though they matter and with patience, then kairos moments arrive unlooked for. You can live more life in one excellent day than some people experience in a lifetime and when you we spend one day and then the next and then the next putting yourself in the way of living by kairos, then it will become how you spend your life.

Switching to the earth

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Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

Another aspect of valuing the slow has come from an unexpected new path. I’ve been doing intensive courses in aromatherapy and herbalism that have immersed me in a more connected sense of all life. The plants I’ve worked with, as well as the course leaders and fellow students, are wonderful teachers. Rather than endlessly thinking about how I should give time to what I really care about, these groups have shifted me towards embodying what I knew — that I need to:

• Live by kairos, not chronos.

• Live life not lifestyle.

• Live by less.

• Live to a kinder rhythm.

• Live new.

• Live now.

Switching to fundamentals

The process of slowing down over a period of two years, and the wisdom of the plants, have given me a different view of the new year — one that is not about goals. Rather, I’m learning to trust that the creativity will flow if I live a more connected, intuitive life. I don’t have a long list of virtues to work through this year, but three fundamental ideals, which have evolved from working with specific healing plants. These are what I want to embody more in 2020, seeing where they take my writing and my life.

1. Abundance

When we live out of abundance rather than scarcity, life is transformed. This is not a matter of economics or somehow conning the universe to make ourselves rich by visualising luxury cars each day. This is about a quality of living that connects us with the numinous. It’s living from abundance that enables us to savour a slow, deliberate life.

When I was in ministry I once failed to get a post I was interviewing for because when asked for my favourite quote from the Gospels, I replied:

I came to give life, life in all its fullness.

I don’t have a religious faith now, but that quote is one of many that stays with me. Life is short and precious. To live from abundance is an act of hope and a blow against despair. Abundance is the opposite of living out of fear and scarcity. It’s a deep and joyful mindset. It’s not about self-negation or sacrifice, but being outward-looking. It makes us generous.

And when we are generous we are enabling, empowering and encouraging without taking away the self-respect of others. We feel more optimistic, lighter, more rooted and connected.

As Simone de Beauvoir says:

That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.

Why is it particularly essential that writers should cultivate abundance and generosity?

Because we write

  • about the human condition in all its incarnations
  • not as judges, but as observers, witnesses, and those who allow understanding to grow and flourish
  • flawed characters, not only because perfect ones are boring but because, by writing of flaws with empathy and kindness, we change human relations and the future
  • because our lives as writers and as humans will be so much richer for it

Generosity slows us down by making us more present in the moment, by making us more attentive. This is what Simone Weil wrote herself, in First and Last Notebooks:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

At the first weekend residential on the herbalism course I’m doing, we each chose (or were chosen by) a card with a beautiful image of one plant that would be our familiar for the year. My card is rosehip, an amazing plant.

Rich in vitamin C to stave off winter colds and fatigue, it’s a physical representation of abundance, packed with seeds. It’s also a restorative that soothes, relaxes and nurtures. A hugely generous plant with tonic actions that support the body’s defences, she also has her own defences. This plant is a giver, but not a doormat. Abuse her while harvesting and you’ll feel the sting.

Plants are so much more about being than doing and rosehip teaches that

  • Abundance includes healing and vitality, nourishment and healthy boundaries.
  • You cannot lack compassion if you live from a wellspring of abundance and it will lead to radical generosity.
  • You cannot race through life half awake and live in abundance, but will inevitably slow down and pay attention.

2. Gratitude

This is the deep sense that life is valuable, even when it is challenging. Gratitude is the ability to mark and celebrate the blessings and the things that make us learn that every day is transformative. When we acknowledge all of it, abundance follows.

Many of us have demands and stresses coming at us constantly. Sometimes life is dark and difficult. The universe gets a lot wrong. One of my closest friends recently had a year of more loss that seems humanly bearable. And yet she has remained one of the most gracious, emotionally resilient, empathic and grateful of people. It’s not that the losses didn’t effect her deeply but that her perspective is life-affirming even in the face of the worst moments. She weeps for what is lost but nonetheless chooses to celebrate what is good.

My friend has a lot in common with the fennel I worked with in the autumn. This aromatic plant, full of volatile oils, aids digestion and clarity, just as gratitude helps us to digest life and see from a better perspective. Hildegard of Bingen tells us:

Fennel forces the spirits into the correct balance of joy.

She is both uplifting and calming, as is the attitude of being grateful.

3. Connection

Is connection a virtue? It should be.

  • To live deliberately with purpose and belief.
  • To care about the earth we live on and how we connect to all life.
  • To connect to our kith, not only family but those who are walking a path with us, our community.
  • To live each day embodied, not only cerebral and distant.
  • To connect to our deep inner life and processes of creativity so that we can look outward again.

Over the winter I’ve been making tinctures, some of which will become an ointment for winter aches. One of the ingredients is comfrey which has an impressive list of actions, but is particularly linked to wound and bone healing as well as pain relief. It is also known as ‘knitbone’, a herb that goes to the fundamentals and reconnects, bone to bone, tissue to tissue. It acts on the surface of things, but penetrates to the depths. We do this in our writing and in our lives whenever we realise how deeply connected we are to all life, human, animal, plant …

I go back to Thoreau:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Switching to being

I don’t have a list of what I’m going to do this year. The fundamentals of abundance, gratitude and connection have instead given me a sense of who I want to be, the story I want to become. Of course it’s aspirational and I’ll have to keep starting again and again, but the ‘to-be’ list, inspired by working with plants, includes becoming someone who:

  • cultivates radical generosity
  • lives slowly, with more simplicity
  • connects with others (human and …) and asks for help
  • celebrates the good of each day
  • dives deeply into creativity and the internal story
  • remembers to be bodiful and move
  • focusses on healing and vitality — on what nourishes

I can only begin to live this story by doing less and being more.

How will you frame your quests this year?

What are the fundamentals that you want to embody?

Where do you find the metaphors that will support your story into reality?

Who do you want to be in 2020?

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — if you’d like to be part of a community of writers diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, I’d love to work with you in 2020. You’’ll find lots more information on my site about the weekly emails, monthly themes and online workshops as well as a special offer. Or simply sign up to my email list to join the conversation.

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

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