Maria Popova at Brain Pickings muses about “James Baldwin on the revelation that taught him how to truly see” and includes her amazing gathered observations:
“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras wrote in 1984. Many legendary artists can trace their creative path to a single moment of revelation in which they were suddenly able to see the invisible dimensions of the world — for what is art, after all, if not “a dynamic contemplation” and what is the task of the artist if not to see beyond the seeming realities of the world?
For Patti Smith, that revelation was a glimpse of a swan when she was a little girl; for Virginia Woolf, a gardening epiphany; for Pablo Neruda, a hand through the fence of his childhood home; for Albert Einstein, his first encounter with a compass.
Such small items to trigger lifelong work! I can’t recall what drove me to wish to write in the first place, as a teen, nor indeed what motivated me to give up lucrative day jobs to take it up again later in life (with such dim prospects, as has been demonstrated). But I’m still vulnerable to the effect of small moments. A while ago I posted about Pedal Pete (see “What then in the presence of greatness“). If I hadn’t recorded that sequence of my thoughts, it would have been lost in the soup of mind chatter, but I did, and it still strikes me as revelatory. It says something real about people (for me, how to write characters) but also about time’s arrow (the old saw of “live for the day”). It says more but what?
My stack of index cards is virgin, untouched. After 3 writing days in Suffolk, 3 in Como, those cards are meant to be covered with plot points for Chapter 5. Why a day’s deficit? Travelling dramas and a fall haven’t helped but the main reason is the following photo. Who wouldn’t be a bit languorous under a 27-degree Italian sun?
Celebrating my 60th a year ago, I improvised a vague, seemingly silly notion of a Big Decade. Now I wish I’d thought of it a couple of decades earlier. The idea is quirky, geeky and probably suitable for just one person – me – but I can say it’s a real blast!
No jogging companion. 1,151 kms. Another perfect running day but could barely move for some reason. Slow and slow and slow. Dodging gelato-licking tourists and pigeons, I tripped over a seat and fell, a bruise and some blood. 10 kms but a pace of 6:16 mins/km compared to yesterday’s 6:05. For some damned reason, I couldn’t stop grinning.
Now I understand why people have always loved the Meditteranian climate. 4 PM, blue sky, balmy without humidity, 1 km down to the Lake, then 4 kms along the superb waterfront, dodging tourists, return the same 5 kms. I only snapped the first town part, not the lake part, because a young Italian man caught up with me and insisted on chatting for the next 8 kms. 22 years old, he forced me along at a pace I haven’t run since Melbourne, and by the end I’d managed 6:05 mins/km instead of the 6:20 or 6:25 I achieved in Wales. Wrung out but happy.
The other day I tried to summarise what I reckon Smarter Faster Better is about. What should I do? I hereby exhort myself to work on five of his eight points:
- My “morning cave” idea – rising early and working, nothing else, until noon – has added much to my efforts. It fits nicely into Duhigg’s Motivation chapter, giving me control in a meaningful context. Don’t ever stop!
- Each morning, tell stories about the day, before, during and after, a la Duhigg’s Focus chapter
- Follow his Goal Setting chapter and religiously use a To-Do list that goes big and small
- Ramp up the fever! Get emotional, be as desperate as I should be to finish the book, switch tack to edit from another angle. This is the kind of approach Duhigg says, in his Innovation chapter, works for highly creative groups
- Be bolder in turning my over-voluminous research data into useful book knowledge, using my pen, plot points and index cards.
Of course just writing such earnest thoughts down won’t guarantee they happen, but I’m enthusiastic.
Duhigg writes so sweetly, so clearly and with fine narrative control. Smarter Faster Better could be summarised in many ways but let me muck around a bit and rephrase it in gonzo terms.
First, you can see where he’s going with his eight chapter headings: Motivation. Teams. Focus. Goal Setting. Managing Others. Decision Making. Innovation. Absorbing Data.
How do I sum up these eight in my terms (I guess I’m modifying Duhigg’s points somewhat by restating them, so if you want a Cliffnotes summary, get one or read the book)?
- Boost motivation by taking control and invest everything with meaning
- Lead teams by establishing safety
- Tell yourself stories to boost focus
- Fill To-Do lists with both “stretch” goals and small measurable actions
- Manage others by trusting them
- Explore probabilities all the time
- Create by getting inside yourself, ramping up desperation, and critiquing from a wildly different perspective
- Change data into knowledge by writing it out yourself
There is something rather captivating about all this but what does it mean for me? I’ll reflect.
Late afternoon, still light and balmy, in the sumptuous hills of the Brecon Beacons. I headed downhill, through the busy town, over a bridge and then had 3 kms along a narrow hedge-lined road. Same in reverse. A bit faster, back to 6:20 pace. I felt light and my left foot was just fine. The pub awaited.
Reminding me I’m no athlete, 150m ascent and descent a couple of days ago. Slow but marvellous.
Charles Duhigg is a splendid writer of stories that impart “how to” advice. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive has just come out. For two reasons, these days I’m inclined to gloss over such books: there is an aspect of the journalistic style that can encourage a suspicion of slickness; and I’ve come to a middle-aged person’s aversion to general “do this and that” advice, preferring to trust my own evolving process (hey, call it a big year).
But this once I’ll look for clues on how to get to the end of Chapter 20 by the end of next year. in reality, I need to synthesise smarter, work faster, and somehow write “better.” His book is apt. So I’ll jot down the takeaways from each chapter as pithily and provocatively as possible, and ask at the end what might help.