“Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” –Steven Pressfield
People have asked me what drove my decision to become a full-time publisher.1 It’s my main goal for 2013, but writing and taking photographs certainly isn’t a safe way to make a boatload of money. (A dinghyload, maybe?)
Here’s one reason: I needed a cure.
I reached a point in my life that made me stop, observe and notice a very important thing: Not writing makes me sick. Not photographing makes me sick. Not creating makes me sick.
Interestingly, and despite the perils of sickness, there’s still such a thing as writer’s block. My experiences with it influenced my decision more than you’d expect.
I know that some smart people don’t take writer’s block for granted. Seth Godin popularly compared it to talker’s block:
“No one ever gets talker’s block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.”
Turning Seth’s argument around I’d say: Sure there’s talker’s block. No doubt about it. You’re suffering from it when you merely use language as a means to get through your day: “Good morning; Yes Sir!; I’d like fries with that.” You’re suffering from talker’s block when you’ve got nothing left to say because your world view, your beliefs and your emotions have been shaken by an experience that’s beyond your current filing capabilities. Death, grief, terror, paranoia, love, ecstasy, enlightenment, pronoia: All of these are classic ingredients for a well-pronounced talker’s block.
Not to mention the thorough existential boredom that has large parts of the Western world by its balls these days. Oh sure, we’re babbling all day long. We’re writing emails, sending text messages, chatting for hours on our cellphones. But do we actually have anything to say?
Remember your primary school teacher: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It’s the same line of thought that leads to writer’s block.
(Time to close a long parenthesis.)
The Worst Possible Reaction to Writer’s Block
So yes, there is such a thing as writer’s block: The creeping feeling that whatever it is that you’d like to say won’t really reach your audience, no matter the way you express it. Or, the more severe condition: Not having anything to say at all.
People who raise their eyebrows when they hear somebody complaining about writer’s block are right about one thing, though: The worst possible reaction to writer’s block is to stop writing. Seth Godin’s assessment: You can always write something. And he’s right, of course. But until we not only agree with him but really get it, some time can pass. It certainly did in my case. (Learn from my mistakes, if you may.)
Over some harsh time, I basically didn’t write at all. I’d prepare the occasional post for The Friendly Anarchist, but it was a slow and painful process. Nothing seemed good enough to me, nothing made my heart smile. The results most certainly reflected that. But I didn’t learn from that at first. I just kept drowning further, writing even less.
Have you read the novel Cloud Atlas? (Spoiler Alert! The movie will do, too.) Remember how notary Adam Ewing gets poisoned by his alleged friend Dr. Goose aboard the vessel to Hawaii? How he’s convinced he’s getting a cure when in reality he’s slowly killing himself by taking more and more of the poisonous “treatment” he decided to believe in?
This is exactly what happened to me: The more I distanced myself from writing (in order to get my head clear), the worse I got. And just as the novel character, I was convinced that I’d have to get worse first in order to get better later. Turns out that was a bullshit believe.
The less I wrote, the harder it seemed to start again. The less I wrote, the less did I believe I’d have something to say. The less I wrote, the more senseless the whole idea of writing appeared to me.
Thankfully, just as Ewing got saved by a real friend, the liberated slave Autua, I got saved by either a stroke of luck, time or coincidence. Or maybe it was a Muse, the marvelous and powerful Goddess of the Lost Writer. Whatever the case, at some point I noticed that whenever I actually wrote something I felt better. Often, I’d get bitten by the writing bug. Even when it wasn’t aimed for publication, the mere act of putting words onto paper (or the screen) made me happy. And inventive. As I wrote, new ideas lit up, new connections were being made. Almost magically.
This was the moment when I started to write regularly again. Mostly for myself, at first, but I wrote nonetheless. I made it a regular practice once more, and I made sure to make time for that practice on every single day.
The Joys of Habitual Drug Use
The power of habit itself is neutral and can be both helpful or destructive. While my personal experience with bad habits is probably bigger, good habits are, without doubt, insanely useful. They help us navigate the complicated times in our lives and they reinforce positive behavior. (No matter what we understand by that.)
Over a couple of weeks, I probably wrote a whole novel of reflections and thoughts. As it turns out, some of these reflections and thoughts weren’t completely stupid, so I could turn them into post ideas and chapters for my next book. And the more I wrote, the better I felt about it: Writing was becoming my daily drug once again. A laptop and a text editor make the perfect addiction.2
So is that all? Writing feels good, I’m addicted, I needed a cure – and therefore I write?
Not really. I’ve written two books already. I even sold them (thanks to all of you who supported me!). But there’s something deeper behind it all: I’m a curious person. To some degree, all the writing and thinking and photographing and philosophizing is just an excuse to go out there and learn stuff. To experience new things, visit new places, meet new people, make up new thoughts.
In the words of Buster Benson:
“You can’t express until you’ve explored. The best way to explore is to begin expressing.”
Writing and all kinds of exploration reinforce each other. In his post, Buster notes that introspection, exploration, goal-setting, strategizing, experimentation and “finding fit” all are different modes of work, ultimately leading to “executing”, generating output for others to see. It’s a connection that got clearer and clearer to me in recent months.
My question is: Where can I take it?
I never aimed at building a huge audience. I prefer my niche and feel blessed by the privilege of knowing many of you through personal email and even meet-ups.
I’m curious to see what happens once I take it all a bit more seriously, though. More dedicated. With more time and more focus. Once I integrate all these different modes of work more consciously. And my main question is if there’s a way to make writing a “job” while still living an interesting life.
Could that possibly work out? We’ll see later. But the game is on in 2013. As quoted at the top of this post: “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.”
Sure, there are many distractions. Many things to take care of. The desire to wait for ideal conditions.
But at some point, maybe all you need is to jump right in and see what happens.
The transition is only just beginning.
Next up in The Transition series: The Money Question.
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- Or writer. Artist. Call it whatever you want. I’ve yet to order my business cards, but might eventually just go with the good old dilettante label. [↩]
- This is probably a blogger thing: We get addicted. Unfortunately, many of us become addicted to money. Those of us normally become boring rather quickly. Others become addicted to writing, though. Addicted to telling stories. Those, they are pretty interesting. Check out people like David Cain, Patrick Rhone and Chase Night. [↩]