When I was in graduate school studying poetry with the world-renowned poet Galway Kinnell, he said something to me that I’d like to say changed my life. But it didn’t.
“You know what the problem is with your poetry?” Galway asked, then answered before I could, “You’re good at too many things.”
It didn’t seem fair to blame my competence in life for whatever inadequacies he saw in my poems. And because I had no idea how to apply this insight, it has hung in the air for me like a Zen Buddhist koan ever since.
Admittedly, at the time I had five part-time jobs that amounted to more than two full-time jobs, on top of graduate school. I was teaching poetry to undergrads, running the NYU Creative Writing Department’s reading series, running the volunteer teaching program at Goldwater Hospital (and also teaching there), and in parallel working as Kinnell’s personal assistant.
At this time in my life, I saw taking care of everything and everyone else as a kind of penance I paid for my right to exist. And I was doing a mighty fine job of it, I might add. I was also quite proud that I had a range of marketable life skills beyond writing poems that allowed me to provide well for myself.
20 years later, my life looked about the same, with the volume of responsibility and pressure about 2.5 times greater than what could safely make its way through the hose. There was too much of everything: work, pets, stuff, mothering alone, handling a household alone, volunteer commitments, friends in need, colleagues in need, deadlines, pressure.
I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t leaving the house. There was little pleasure in my life.
One of my most incomprehensible excesses was my yard. Having lived my entire adult life in urban apartments, I did not know how to cultivate the earth. So, I took a food gardening class. There I learned that all of the baby carrot starts weren’t going to make it—but that’s ok, no one expects them to.
A time comes when a certain number of carrots must be pulled from the earth so there is enough room for the rest to thrive. Too many carrots crowding each other as they grow amounts to no edible carrots.
My lifelong stampede of more and better was stopped in its tracks with this concept of pruning.
I finally understood what Galway was once trying to tell me. A life of too many things (even wonderful things) starves the poem, the carrot, the tree branch. Cutting back is the path to thriving.
My life, my poetry, and my heart all needed more of me than I had ever been willing to give. I set out to learn how to give it.
As I made room in my garden beds for the vegetables to realize their full potential, I looked for ways to prune my life practices, as well. I budgeted, tracked, and conserved money. I whittled my clothing to a capsule wardrobe. I set a limit to the number of hours I could volunteer weekly. I honored my office hours and left the phone home during my forest walks. I cleared all work devices and temptations from the spaces where I played with my son.
Slowly, eventually, poems rose up out of the clearing ground. And even those needed to be pruned. Six possible writing projects were distilled to a single, definite writing project.
As I became more intentional, aligned, simple, and singular, I started to sleep again. I started to smile again. I started to sleep with my laptop again (I know—terrible sleep hygiene, but I needed my poems that close).
What I learned along the way is that being good at many things is fine. (Sorry, Galway: that’s not the problem.) But giving my attention to so many things that I move none of them forward is no longer an option.
I want a life of passion and purpose. I want to do the writing and parenting and living I am here to do. The path to more of what matters is less of everything else.
Are you good at too many things? What could you do less of – so you have more space for you most essential work? I’d love to hear! And I’d love to help! Join me in Salem, OR on February 19 to clarify a single purpose for your writing and publishing life—and chart your course for getting there!
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