As Cartier Bresson remarked- 'if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not getting close enough.' The single biggest leap in quality for a photographer can be made instantly: by framing the shot, then getting two, three, four or more steps closer. Or just force yourself to get closer than seems comfortable. I was given this advice by a twenty two year old fresh out of college and its invaluable. And it also applies to writing.
Writing requires broad scene setting- at the start of a chapter or section. But we quickly get stuck in this broad distant mode. We miss details and most essentially we get BORED. But the answer is not the zoom. Like in photography, zooming is easy and lazy but you miss the essential reassessment you do when you are CLOSER. what looks interesting from a distance and down the zoom may actually not be that interesting. By getting closer you can weigh the whole scene and decide. You can be closer to everything. You scan that much faster- compare looking through glasses adjusted for close up with looking through a magnifying glass.
When you're closer to what you want to write about- proximity I'm talking about not emotional closeness- you can see more clearly, feel more clearly and smell everything. Things don't have a smell in longshot but they do close up. You know you are in the right range of closeness when you can actually in your imagination start smelling the thing you are writing about.
In Idries Shah's The Dermis Probe he mentions the need of sincerity in the student. Many may have heard of such a requirement before. But here he goes further and unpacks this technical term for us: sincerity- which many mistake for heartfelt desire- in in fact being straightforward and having an instinct or liking for balance. And a big part of balance is the ability to REGAIN ones balance after a fall. (People who make a fetish of saying they are balanced can often simply be control freaks who dislike novelty and change.)
These two requirements- straightforwardness and a liking for balance- work just as well in the lower sphere of ordinary learning as they do with higher studies. When I was at university the student who got the highest marks used to ask the questions we were all too scared to ask because they made you look stupid. However there also exists a kind of bogus straightforwardness "I just don't get it" which conceals laziness and a desire to abolish- which can confuse. But most of us have a nose for real straighforwardness- it is open, interested, not into point scoring, not trying to shut down things that are new or unusual, eager to learn without being taken in.
And this is where the instinct for balance comes in. We can all get a bit obsessive from time to time. When that happens we usually notice and pull back, do something else. But some people are wired strangely. They note the obsession- and do MORE of the thing. They enter on that dry downward spiral that engages and provides a kind of meaning, but somehow in a dulling way. The bore- an obsessive is always a bore eventually- lacks the necessary sense of humour to see the dry well he has fallen down.
Straightforward; a sense of humour when applied to self (always rather easier to laugh at others); an instinct for turning off the tap that is overflowing and threatening to drown oneself- to do less of what makes us mad, not more.
The Japanese approach to learning martial arts, the tea ceremony and calligraphy is different to Western methods of teaching subjects regarded as ‘talent’ based. In the West the tacit assumption is you either start very young, possibly driven by obsessive parents, or you have an innate talent. Teaching is conceived as a kind of coaching. And if haven’t got the talent you’re considered a lost cause.
The Japanese know that talent is rather over-rated. More important is your attitude to learning. So their method of teaching assumes that everyone can learn- whatever their initial talent. Instead of hoping that students ‘pick it up’ by osmosis- as in the West- micromastery routines are devised so that everyone, even the apparently talentless, can learn.
A micromastery can be anything from spinning a basketball on your finger, doing an eskimo roll, or making a perfect daiquiri- it is a small, contained and perfectable thing, an activity in a box that nevertheless points to greater masteries out there.
I am currently writing a book for Penguin about micromastery- if you have a something you think is a good example of a micromastery let me know.
Now and again I am drawn to things that are over-complicated. I revel, for a while, in their overcomplicatedness and then I find myself thinking: this is bullshit! Simplify your life!
I realised there was a connection between meaning and simplicity. The simpler things are the more the meaning shines through. You can connect to excitement and nature with a motor boat; or you can surf in the sea, or swim. But when your motor boat breaks down you have nothing- you may even have to swim for it to save your own life. Simpler things require less maintainence. In the long run it is maintainence 'costs' that kill us.
Here are a few principles:
1. When it comes to making a decision automatically make the simpler choice.
2. Simplify your immediate living space- and store everything you don't use everyday or for a current project. Things you 'might need' should probably be binned.
3. Simplify your food to that which is in season.
4. Use simplicity as a powerful problem solver- just ask yourself how you can solve the problem at hand RIGHT NOW with whatever is to hand. It may throw up some interesting routes to a solution.
5. Imagine completing the project in just one day- see what ideas crop up as a result of this thought experiment.
6. Simplify your interaction with people by just paying attention to what they say. Try to suspend inference and habitual judgement.
7. Simplify your emotional responses to the world. Suspend taking an emotional stance on things. See if you gain in available energy.
I have always found that on a hike or expedition when I have only a few things I am very well organised and tidy...but put me back in a house or apartment! Of course some people can tolerate more stuff than others. Find your own simplicity level- the point at which you begin to get messy and disorganised. It might be quite low. Cut out things/people/events until you find yourself living at this point.
When you cut things out of your life it is easier to see what is meaningful to you and what isn't. When meaning increases in your life so does motivation- you do more because you want to, not because you are forcing yourself.
I think we'll begin to see that making life simpler, restricting information gluttony and 'stuff', will be the 21st century equivilent of the 20th century discovery that most sugar was poison rather than nutrition.
It seems to me that higher intelligence is more likely to reside in curiousity and flexibility than in ability to reason and see the flaws in another's argument, if only because we will wish to continue the conversation with someone who is at least interested in what we have to say.