Monday, 16 October 2017

To Plan or Not to Plan – Heather Dyer

I spent a lovely weekend actually having a break, for once. I stayed with a friend (we’re both freelancers) and all we did was:

1. Talk.
2. Laugh.
3. Eat.
4. Drink espresso martinis.
5. Plant a tray of beans.
6. Watch the birds and insects going about their business in the garden. (It’s always nice watching others work.)

As freelancers, it's difficult to allow ourselves to take time off, and we never seem to stop worrying about our goals.

Ellen asked me what I was reading and I told her: Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortless and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity.

Ellen then showed me her bedtime reading: a slim self-help book all about using goal-setting and planning to get everything you ever wanted.

Hmm. How can both of these books be right?

Ellen’s book was full of good advice about listing your goals, breaking them down into steps, and scheduling your time. But there were a few things I took issue with (one being the implication that self-discipline (or was it hard work?) explains why 90% of the people earn 10% of the money). But I found one of the questions particularly interesting:

“If you could realize one of your goals in the next 24 hours, which one of them would make the greatest difference to your life, if you had it now?” 

By imagining how you’d feel if your most important goal had already been achieved, you come right down to this moment, and get a glimpse of how life (and you) might be changed. The right goal is the one that would make the most difference to your life now. (When I tried this I was quite surprised and wondered if I’d been getting my priorities right.)

Unlike Ellen's book, my own book seemed to advocate prioritizing the present moment over distant goals. Worrying about the future is exhausting – and often misguided. The present moment is really all we have, and all potential resides only here and now, so we must pay attention to the situation and our feelings now.

"If what happens now does influence what happens next," says Jon Kabat-Zinn, in Wherever You Go, There You Are, "then doesn’t it make sense to look around a bit from time to time so that you are more in touch with what is happening now, so that you can take your inner and outer bearings and perceive with clarity the path that you are actually on and the direction in which you are going? If you do so, maybe you will be in a better position to chart a course for yourself that is truer to your inner being – a soul path, a path with heart, your path…"

And a book's path too, perhaps?

When I got home, I went for a walk on the beach and was minding my own business taking notes in the sand dunes (as a writer does) when I was surprised by a drone.

It hovered above me, looking straight at me, then flew away again. When I walked back along the beach I discovered that the drone belonged to a group of soldiers from the local base.

The drone got me thinking: sometimes we need to see the terrain ahead, to get an idea of where we’re going and where we are in the landscape. But in writing, as in life, we are foot soldiers.When we're on foot it’s the immediacy of our surroundings that takes precedence. You need to be able to respond to what presents itself. To live and write you need to be in the thick of things, not strategizing remotely.

But can a whole novel really be put together without planning? Can a whole life be lived in the present? If we don’t know where we’re headed, won’t we wander aimlessly, ending up nowhere?

I suppose the answer is balance. As Eckhart Tolle explains in Practicing the Power of Now: "It’s dangerous when we become more motivated by the end goal than by the present moment. When psychological time [thinking about the future] takes over, our attention has been stolen by the future. The Now is no longer honored and becomes reduced to a mere stepping-stone to the future, with no intrinsic value." Then, says Tolle, "Your life’s journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to 'make it.'"

Concentrating on the moment allows us to dig deeper. In writing, digging deep can feel like tapping into the underground river that will carry the narrative along.

So, planning has its uses. Every now and then we might need an aerial perspective to see how far we’ve wandered from the main route. But creative insight happens when we’re paying close attention to the situation now - and letting that take precedence.

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

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