At the conference I attended last week, one of the presenters recommended editing as a technique for achieving focus in one’s artwork. While I know the value of reviewing and culling my activities, I often forget that doing too much – and the requisite switches in attention – takes enormous amounts of brainpower. Even a tiny task, like making a phone call, can take a disproportionate amount of energy when it’s an interruption to my workflow.
Attention is like the stainless steel thread I bought last week: fine and shiny and flexible, but easily snapped under tension. As I consider the breadth of my work these days, I think it’s time for some editing.
In the writing arena, I come by my editing prowess honestly. Long ago, I studied journalism, learning to shape words into tight, information-conveying constructions. My professor, Ken Atwell, taught me the crafts of brevity and clarity, plus a keen appreciation for the AP Stylebook.
After thirty-some years of practice, I barely notice the process of editing. I just write and refine until the piece is right. Pushing SEND prematurely isn’t permitted.
Editing outside of writing is a far greater challenge for me, but I would do well to learn to apply some of those skills to the rest of my life.
A couple of nights ago, I dreamt of moving into a home overcrowded with furniture. There was barely enough room to maneuver between the sofas, recliners and coffee tables. In the dream, I got rid of a recliner and felt immediate relief. (Precisely the right reaction to dumpstering an ugly old recliner.) Every excision of a piece of furniture in those dream rooms set something free in me.
Here’s what I know: with enough space to literally or figuratively walk around it and see the shape of the thing, whether of furniture, ideas or tasks, I can better understand what the next action might be, or when I’ve reached a conclusion. The more complex the problem, the more space it needs, which is why I’m feeling somewhat stuck on the Kevlar® kimono project. The sparks that push a small project forward become a dull, thudding pulse on larger, more complicated problems. Action becomes fuzzier and more daunting.
Travel always points me toward a simpler life. When I go away, I create an artificially compact version of my belongings and responsibilities. Coming home, I very often feel overwhelmed by the larger reality of my life. My latest return has been the same, but with an added layer of chaos – a house project – so my discomfort is more acute than usual.
One of the other speakers at the conference was Nathalie Miebach, an artist who creates fantastic sculptural baskets that map scientific data about weather patterns, tides and poles, astronomy and oceanic currents. Just for fun, she takes night classes at Harvard so she can understand the data. (I highly recommend you look up her website or her TED.com talk.) The pieces aren’t models: instead, they make abstractions more concrete and understandable on a visual level.
For a similar reason, I recently made a time grid and mapped out how I spend my hours, and learned that most of my waking hours are spoken for. I don’t have a very particularly acquisitive nature regarding objects; instead my tendency is to collect projects. Insidiously, it seems I’m a hoarder of obligations and a spendthrift with time.
So I’m contemplating what I can jettison, and then how I can preserve that margin. Pockets of time could be tucked into the spaces of my days like empty mason jars, something hard to push against when I feel the tide of activities flow like water into my hours.
As appealing as that image is, I really don’t know the answer, except to keep paying close attention to the data and trying to plot out solutions.
On the flight home, I sat next to a young father with his two-year-old on his lap. I practically swooned at the young boy’s blond head and rag-doll pose. As the child slept, he threw his arm over his head, connecting the smooth back of his hand with my bare arm. It felt like the arcing touch of a lover, and perhaps that burst of electricity is what results when nothing but that exact moment can hold your attention.