The Writer & Essentialism

Without great solitude no serious work is possible — Pablo Picasso

As I head into the more productive season for the working writer — I teach — I include a cautionary in my journal: “No Ken Wilbur.” It’s an inside joke, only for me, but by explaining it you’ll get an idea as to how I struggle as a writer to get down to what is essential.

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The Distraction
The writer with too many projects on the go gets very little of value on the page.

One of my chief problems as a writer is an embarrassment of riches — I have too many ideas; alone, this is not an issue. A writer with a lot of ideas simply must ensure that the idea gets filed away for the future. My problem begins when I attempt to act on all of my ideas — at once. Or, with all my ideas before me I do a little of each either every day or skip around. Mondays is for poetry, Tuesdays for that play, Wednesday to Friday to work on the novel. You get the idea. None of the projects receive my undivided attention and as a result none receive the full force of my skill. For example at present I have these projects in the hopper as it were: Glyph a novel; INFJ, a personal essay; The Men of Plato’s Cave, a play; a column for my monthly “Memoir Notebook” which I owe my publisher; a collection of poems/prose poems called The Pocket Oracle; a revision of my overly-ambition doctoral dissertation, a book called The Eight Leaves, and to be frank several other smaller projects yet named or classified.
I have too much on my plate. I can’t even see my plate, nor the table it rests upon. I don’t know where to start.

No Ken Wilbur
As an academic I spend nine months of year interacting with hundreds of students, their work, their worries, their issues, complaints and praise. It’s exhausting work preparing for classes, lecturing, grading and counseling students. I only get time during this period to write a page in my journal, if at all. Rising early to work on my own craft is a non-starter especially this semester with a class load of five classes the earliest beginning at 8 a.m. I’ve never been one to write much at night. My key time is morning to mid afternoon.
The semester’s end always finds me anticipating the coming months with its empty mornings and fewer students (I teach in an online MFA program that runs in the summer). It’s time for me, and my writing. But what to focus on? What of the dozen or so projects do I dedicate myself to over the summer? In the past my summer break was suffused with writing projects and ideas kept cropping up like gladiolas. I couldn’t stem the tide as it were, every idea was interesting and challenging and something worthy of my time. Unlike the during the semester, when a laser focus is required, the endless days of summer were for exploring and invariably summer after summer I would end up too far afield and I would know this when I began to read and write about the philosopher Ken Wilbur. The irony is that Wilbur champions integration of all knowledge fields — mental, physical, spiritual, political, into one personal and global approach. Books like A Brief History of Everything and The Eye of Spirit were so enticing I fell into a quagmire of loving everything, and in the end discerning nothing personally. Egads.
So, for this writer: No Ken Wilbur.

The Cure
Pure and simple, the writer needs to drop out, turn off, and tune in — to butcher Timothy Leary and perhaps even Ram Dass. The writer needs to actively decide, and this choice can only be made if the writer stops what she or he is doing and do nothing.
Just for a short while.
And think it through.
For me this means for the first two weeks of the summer break arriving next week, you won’t find me plowing through my novel or whipping through a rewrite of my dissertation. You’ll find this writer staring off into space. On purpose, for a purpose — to “discern the vital few from the trivial many,” as Greg McKeown suggests in his latest book Essentialism.
I never thought I would be quoting or following advice discovered in a business book (long story, for another entry) but McKeown’s book provides another reminder that writers can’t have it all. Choices must be made. The writer must spend the time, serious time, to explore, evaluate and eliminate projects that are simply not for right now, and instead choose the vital and compelling one.
What is essential to me, might not be what’s essential to you. That’s what the time is for, discerning, choosing what to let go, and what to give all your attention.
The right thing to do for the right reason at the right time, McKeown offers.
The only cure for noise is quiet. The silence will speak, eventually, and the writer will know what is essential and what is not.

The writer with focus pours all of the concentrated energy onto the page.