Organizational Tips for the Ambitious

Let’s say that you’re a nonfiction writer intending to write a self-help book organized around seven principles. You will have your organizational challenges—every book presents organizational challenges. But now imagine that you’re a novelist intending to span the whole history of Savannah by following five families for three hundred years. Imagine those organizational challenges!

Both writers will be challenged. But the ambitions of the novelist may make his organizational tasks so very difficult that he will ultimately be forced to pare his book down, say to three families and two hundred years. Can’t we see an outcome like that looming on the horizon?

That isn’t to say that the first author will have it easy. It is quite real work to turn what you know, what you have available to you, and what you still need to create into a wise and useful principle. In fact, that may be its own grand ambitiousness, to suppose that a practically limitless amount of raw material can be molded and shaped in such a way that it hangs together as a single principle.

It would be ever so much easier for a creative person to organize things if they didn’t have to hang together! You could do a little character sketch of Bob and a little character sketch of Mary and a little descriptive piece on one of those classic Savannah squares and a little atmospheric piece on the mugginess of a summer day in the South—and if you didn’t have the ambition of turning all that into something beautiful and coherent, you would be done! Ah, but you do have that ambition. So, you must live with your own intentions, say aloud so that you are clear on the matter, “I am ambitious!” and settle into the amazing task of organizing sparks and the wind.

Nor can there be some one-size-fits-all principle to apply, like “reduce and simplify.” First of all, such a principle would run counter to our very ambitiousness! But, second, it simply won’t do. Consider our nonfiction writer, his seven principles, and his organizational tasks. Whereas the novelist may need to lop off two families and a hundred years, the nonfiction writer may need to increase his number of principles—because by increasing them, he will need to write less about each one, which may be exactly what he needs to do in order to produce the best result.

We can employ no mantra like “Simplify!” or “Reduce!” We simply have to embrace our ambitions and deal with the thing at hand. If the thing at hand is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the thing at hand is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. If it’s a symphony, it’s a symphony. It is our job to put the disciples and the notes where they belong. And that’s our ambition! Let us smile at such grand notions—and get to work.


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