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problems of the practical polymath

Though, like many others I am drawn moth like to the entrancing flame of polymathy I am aware of the many pitfalls associated with too great a celebration of polymathy. First, the word itself is a bit of a mouthful, but that aside, the real heart of it is that polymathy is a pretty slippery concept. I have defined it elsewhere as demonstrable expertise in three or more areas covering the wide terrain between what is generally thought of as art, science and practical/physical skills. It isn't just about being a head person, you need to have some body skill or manual skill too. Not for nothing did the old rulers of turkey insist that the king have a real trade such as carpenter, carpet weaver or mosaic maker. Professor Richard Gombrich once suggested I train as a plumber whilst writing poetry- and I probably should have done it!

Polymathy is slippery, but practical polymathy less so. I think of being a 'practical polymath' as a pretty good identity and 'party hat' to wear. You go to a cocktail party or some other gathering of humanoids in search of oblivion/company and tell people you are a polymath- they read this is a 'bit of a wanker'. But say you are a 'practical polymath' and things might progress in a more interesting direction. I hold there is no point in revealing yur profession/identity unless something fun/useful/interesting comes of it. Better to get a laugh by saying you are a pig rustler than the sorry silence that accomapnies a real admission of one's trade. In italy people feel Ok being introduced by their chosen identity- thus a cloth salesman can be 'the poet' and a dustman can be 'the philosopher'. brits and yanks are more lieral minded, poor souls, so craft yor identity well, make sure it works.

Practical polymathy is about acquiring micromasteries. That is, small, definable lumps of skill that can't be taken away from you. It is also about recalibrating what you know in terms of micromasteries. Thinking of it in this way. It is then about using the synergy that occurs when you have moe than one micromastery.


more on resonance

Your best writing is always about the things you hold dear. Oh, sure, you can rant and hate on something and get a good funny article or poem but it all runs out after a while- and often the haters are using the tool they hold dear- words and rhymes- as the 'subject'- but in the end cleverness devours itself and leaves that monotonous dulled feeling behind. Whereas resonant images are the gift that keeps giving. When you hold something dear you can return again and again for inspiration and material. Get used to thinking and identifying 'stuff you love'. Become like a foodie with their somewhat over the top interest in flavours and ingredients- search out the good stuff. And much of it will be in your past- places you have seen and people met and things experienced. Or it could be a story or image from a book or movie that has simply grown over the years incubating in your noddle waiting to be used. Cultivate these images, work on them, play with them: they are the essential building blocks of the dream that becomes your book, story, novel, film.


find your resonant images, places, things

When you want to write you often use only the surface of your mind. You might imagine you are connecting to what others want or are interested in but you are really only connecting in a superficial way. You need to gain access to the resonant images that lurk - not beneath- but off to the side somewhere- somewhere warm, unrushed, with a direct line to what you hold dear. Our resonant images almost chose us, and it doesn't matter a jot if you chose to think about them like this. But if you use them to steer by your writing will suddenly be relevant and connected in a real way to what the world wants and does.


changing the world, again

People have a good idea and they immediately want to either join an organisation or start one. Or they want to start connecting with people by writing blogs, articles or posting on facebook, making podcasts, writing books. I’m no different, periodically I imagine building a worldwide network of like minded people doing my bidding by remote control with annual conferences in palm springs or some other natty resort…but this is the way the world works- meaning everything from the Ford motor corporation to Billy Graham to the scientologists to Oxford University…in other words there is enough of this stuff going on already. No need to start another one- because the fact that something is an institution- a power structure- far outweighs the differences between it and other institutions. Am I really suggesting there is no difference between an august university and a nutty religious cult and a maker of fine automobiles. Well, kind of. People talk about changing the world- well that’s how you change it- through institutional amplification of usually a single person’s relentless singlemindedness. The world is changed- but it isn’t. It’s just different. And that world changer just gets disillusioned and goes off like Che to die in Bolivia repeating their earlier triumphs. The desire to change the world is not really a worldly impulse, it is really a desire to break through to some dimly perceived parallel reality, another world, or a world behind this world, that only tangentially connects at certain bridging points. A world suspected by many. Of course this transcendental impulse is very easily perverted by desire for attention, wealth and power- hence all the half cocked ‘doing good’ organisations that end up doing the reverse of their original intention. Or doing something but not quite the grand thing they had in mind and still not quelling the original impulse- which can only be served by looking for those bridges and not assuming you can build one or repair a broken one.



Common Sense

I read today of a man who predicts we will all become brains uploaded to software living in a world of robots...and people in merely human bodies will be marginalised. Apparently he has paid to have his brain cryogenically stored- frozen- until this great development happens. What happens if the brain freezer company goes bust? This happened and a lot of would-be supermen lost their chance. But what interested me is that this futurist believs he has constructed his model of the future using basic science and common sense...

It's a tricky word nowadays. It used to mean...common sense. Now it can be code for right wing politics, lack of empathy, lack of perception- the very opposite of what it originally meant. Quite a few sophisticated people sneer at the very idea of common sense; strangely these people are also the ones most likely to embrace the idea that we are 'all equal'. They think that the term has become hopelessly hijacked but still people use it, less sophisticated more common people perhaps.

Mostly it now means- 'what I find obvious'.

Maybe a word that still finds common support is 'sane'. Obviously a man who thinks the world is going to end up like the matrix but without even the dance rave in Sion is not quite sane- however much he thinks he has common sense.

People want their kids to grow up sane with the ability to regain sanity quickly after the inevitable upendings life provides. Do sane people have common sense- yes, the old style low key version that stops you from completely falling on your face.

If common sense is used to support extremism it becomes uncommon sense. It may even be right- fleeing Hitler's germany in 1933 probably looked a bit extreme to most people- but it was uncommon sense.

Regain sanity quickly, use common and uncommon sense.


Hero or victim?

As theatre maestro Keith Johnstone puts it. 'A victim is a man in a hole. A hero is a man in a hole trying to get out.'


Beginner's Mind- a course for writers

Beginner's Mind is a zen concept referring to the unsullied state of mind, not riven by greed, ambition and imagination, a mind fully plugged in to just LEARNING. It's the mind of someone beginning a study of something- they don't know enough to start 'criticising' and taking a stance on things. But very shortly they will get sucked in to all the politics and received opinions that surround every subject from flower arranging to...writing.

This course- 23 and 24 July 2016  in Bridport, Dorset, UK aims to send the participants back to that earlier stage, before they even thought about writing or being a writer, maybe back to the first words they ever wrote- strangely enough mine were pure fiction 'On Saturday I went fishing with my Dad.' Only years later did I actually go fishing with my Dad - but then I find fiction writing can very often be a kind of precognition- yet another example of the varied and strange powers of Beginner's Mind. And maybe not that USEFUL, however, what is, is the ability to scythe away all the accumulated detritus that drags your pure and powerful creativity down.

If you suspect there is a lion caged within you waiting to explode with creative energy, the exercises and experiences of Beginner's Mind wiritng course may be for you.

More information at