Lessons from Bamboo

Yes, I'm on Retreat, which means that I should be rising with the sun and greeting it gladly with new work on my hands and a song in my heart, right, I can see how you might think that but at the moment all that can wait because I was up rather late last night and am just managing to open my eyes. You people have some interesting "angles" in this "reality" thing you seem intent on conning me into...


Anyway, suppose you had a thicket of bamboo that you needed to trim back for pedestrian access. You could get out the electric hedge trimmer and just mow it all down, but it would jam and make you use ugly words, so then there's the chainsaw option, but mercy, all that prep and fumes and noise...

So you do what you've always done and that's to take the limb lopper and the hand pruning tool and get to work.

The first thing to understand about this metaphor is that the original impulse — to get out the chainsaw and just whack it all to the ground — is what I'm going to name our Superhero Impulse. You level your laser eyes or ultra hammer or whatever at the problem and KWOOMP! it is solved.

Isn't it pretty to think so?

Leaving aside the truth that at any moment you can go get the chainsaw and just raze the place, let's look at the slower, quieter approach.

Bamboo thickets grow willy-nilly, all entangled and messy, so the Superhero Impulse is not very useful.  You simply can't start at the outside and nip a stalk at its base and keep nipping until the thicket is gone. For one thing, that large clump of leaves that obscures your view of the very first stalk... it's from a stalk somewhere in the back, pushing and shoving its way through the other stalks to get its leaves out to the sun.

Which is where you are.

So instead, you follow the leaves and their stalk a little way back, and then snip! there's a pile of leaves at your feet. Now you can see which stalk needs to be clipped next, and so on and so on. Eventually you will be able to reach out with the limb lopper and snap off those main stalks, but to do that you have to shape and reshape the thicket layer by layer, revealing more of its structure as you go.

This is the way Making the Thing That Is Not works. Whether it's a poem or a musical work, or a painting or the next chapter in your book, the best thing to do is to acknowledge your Superhero Impulse and then let it go.  Far better, if slower, to blop it out there in some gormless shape and then start shaping it up bit by bit, uncovering new layers and structures as you go.

Soon, eventually, ...


... with all the extra stuff shorn away, you have made a path.