The Most Powerful Choice A Writer Can Make Is to Give Up

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I drove to the Sequoias and found the biggest tree on the planet. It was a spiritual journey. I asked the biggest tree in the world, General Sherman, what I needed to do to be wildly successful as a writer. “Give up” was the answer I got. Damn trees.

The power of not wanting it

The trick to this gig is to make it look easy. Of course, it ain’t easy. There seems to be a rub here.

All great human feats have tis in common. Olympic gymnasts have to twirl through the air inhumanly fast — all while keeping an expression on their face like me chilling on my couch. It’s something we are programmed to respond to—skill without effort.

Any dip on the street can want success. Look around — how many writers do you know who want it. It’s all they talk about. They are Gollum, and they want the precious. It’s not a very attractive outlook. Next thing you know, you’re devouring raw fishes (we needs it).

How do we be like Frodo? As far as I can tell, Frodo’s gift was that he had the most powerful object in the world without wanting it too bad. Sure, he had his moments — but even Gandalf feared touching the ring.

When you don’t want something — that’s exactly when the universe decides you’re ready to have it.

How to stop wanting the exact thing you want

I don’t know! I don’t think anyone knows, really! It’s something to do with flow-states. It’s more of a feeling in your body than words in your head. When you start to rise above your own desires, you know. I’ve felt it literally twice (not to brag).

It’s that feeling when you’re learning to ride a bike. It suddenly balances under your body after falling over a bunch of times. You go — what the hell? You feel as if you’re defying gravity. This damn bike should fall over! But one day, it doesn’t.

The boring answer is “keep at it.” Boring, but true. There is something magical about trying again and again — day after day. For a long while, I wanted to ride my bike too much to be able to ride it. One day, it clicked. I “gave up” on the process of riding a bike. And now I can’t even remember what the hell was so difficult about riding a bike in the first place.

Tiger Woods changed his swing

There is something mystical about the fact that Tiger Woods changed his swing mid-career. For most people, you keep the same swing your entire life. Why mess with success? For Tiger, he wanted to know what his swing was really made of. He took it apart just to put it back together again.

As writers, we have habits. We can lean on them — or we can take them apart and see what they’re made of. We can make ourselves worse for a little while for the sake of making ourselves better in the long-run.

I try little changes in my writing all the time. Sometimes, I google things like, “What is an adverb?” even though I should know that by now — I’ve been writing for years. It doesn’t matter. I write best when I have a beginner’s mind — which allows curiosity instead of rigidity.

Celebrate 1% improvements

I spent too much of my youth being all dark and nihilistic. It’s an understandable outlook (especially for writers) but not a helpful one. I used to think that tiny improvements were hopeless — after all, it’ll take 100 years to get there at this rate.

I didn’t understand that 1% improvement over time will create a very sudden “click” if you keep at it. That’s why it’s important to celebrate those 1% improvements without doing the math in your head, “At this rate….”

Today, you can finally learn to place a comma before “and” in the middle of a sentence with two clauses. That’s enough for today. That’s 1% better than yesterday. That’s a win, and it’s worth celebrating.

Give up — not on the idea of getting better or on the idea that it might “click” one day. Give up on the idea that you’re going to make it click when you decide. You can’t force something to click.

Give up on romanticism

If you fancy yourself Hemmingway, you’ll be stuck. If you think there is something magical about writing, you’ll lose the magic. If you love your babies, you might have a hard time killing them.

It’s better to think of yourself as a craftsman. Sure, you can take pride in a stool you built — but if the legs are uneven, you aren’t going to claim that it’s an artistic “choice.” Just fix the damn legs, Steve.

Writing is an art, but us writers should pretend it’s not. The art happens while we’re busy hammering nails, so to speak. Art has very little to do with the artist.

I’m not the one doing it

I started trying to “catch” myself creating things. For example, when I was in a Zoom improv, if I said something that made everyone laugh, I would backtrack in my mind and try to “see” what happened, in my head, exactly. What I learned was terrifying.

I didn’t do it. I had no idea where the funny line came from. I just spit it out. My ego had absolutely nothing to do with it. Why is that terrifying?

Because I can’t “make” it happen. Good things are created without my control. I happen to be sitting in the passenger seat while it goes down. I don’t know for sure if I will ever be able to do it again. I have to have faith.

My ego does a funny thing right after I say the funny thing. Even though it knows it had nothing to do with it deep down, it thinks, “… I did that… I’m funny…” And then when it’s my turn to speak again, it tries to show how funny it is and takes the wheel. Never goes well.

Remind your ego to give up. Humble it with the knowledge that nothing good was ever created from ego. Go easy on yourself when you notice that it’s impossible. Keep trying until one day; you’re riding the bike.

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