Doing

I’m getting sort of stressed, realizing how much stuff I need to do in order to live a truly minimalist life. I have far too many clothes, books, DVDs, appliances, cooking utensils, gadjets. All of these are destroying my chances of happiness. They are keeping me from Getting Things Done and focusing on the One Thing that Matters, or even figuring out what that One Thing is.

Getting that Zen thing down takes a lot of effort. Maybe I’ll look for another article to read.

Recently I’ve read a lot of articles and a couple books about minimalism, organization, getting things done. All of this gives me new ways to spend my time without really producing anything. I can take in a lot of advice without really changing anything inside me.

It may be that enlightenment is approaching, because I am finally beginning to understand what I already know: life isn’t about Getting Things Done; it’s about Doing Things.

Proponents of GTD will say, “Of course. That’s what GTD is all about — getting the time and focus to accomplish what’s important to you.”

But that’s not exactly what I mean. What I have learned about myself is that a sense of accomplishment is less satisfying to me than the accomplishing. Getting there is better than being there.

Wordsworth said, “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Ask yourself which is more important: the emotion or the recollection — or the resulting poem? For me, the the poem is less important than the emotion and its recollection. The act of writing is more satisfying than “having written.” Working on a story — getting ideas, inventing characters and scenes — is not a chore that must be finished so that I can mail out another box of pages. It’s just what I do.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie Harvey is Veta Lousie Simmons’ explanation of what art is:

I took a course in art last winter. I learnt the difference between a fine oil painting, and a mechanical thing, like a photograph. The photograph shows only the reality. The painting shows not only the reality, but the dream behind it. It’s our dreams, doctor, that carry us on. They separate us from the beasts. I wouldn’t want to go on living if I thought it was all just eating, and sleeping, and taking my clothes off, I mean putting them on…

The ‘dream’ is the artist’s recollection of powerful emotion. But a large part of life is mundane — eating and sleeping and taking our clothes off. It’s laundry and dishes and running copies and grading papers and shopping for groceries — things that never get done. But that’s what life is — not making lists of things to do, not checking them off and adding them to tomorrow’s list. Life is doing things.

If I spend all my time organizing my priorities, adding contexts to my agenda and checking things off, I get nowhere. It’s like people who read a lot of books about nutrition and dieting, but never lose a pound. Get up and move!

When I began writing seriously, my children were very young. Kids need a lot of attention, and I never felt I had enough time to write. While they slept or were at preschool, I wrote. When I wasn’t writing, I was looking forward to it. I had no thought of ‘getting it done.’ Getting published wasn’t even on my radar. I just wanted to write, the way my kids liked making things out of Lego and taking them part again just so they could build something new. I took my story apart and put it together many times just for fun.

There was no internet. I didn’t know any writers. Research meant going to the library. The only distraction I had was life — getting the kids dressed and fed, driving them to school, giving them baths, reading to them.

Now that my sons are grown and no longer live with me, I have more time. But I don’t write more; I get less done, and enjoy it less. I think it’s because my expectations have changed. I’ve gone from writing purely for fun to seriously thinking I could publish something. Writing has become a list of tasks: finish the next chapter; re-write that dialogue; read another article about scene structure; do some more research. There are lots of places I can go for advice, support, information, critiques. These are a new kind of distraction.

Other people may work in different ways, but I am finding that having one simple goal — to write — is better than much advice and planning.

If a writer finishes a novel, but nobody publishes it, is it still art? I think so; as long as it truly is a spontaneous overflow whose origin is in real life — including the mundane parts — and not just a checklist of things to get done.

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