Discard your thirst for books, so that you won’t die in bitterness.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
A former colleague of mine recently called me “a member of the anti-publishing brigade.” I resent this assertion. If I’m in any brigade related to the publishing industry, it’s the one where you stand in a chain passing buckets of water. Some people just don’t want to be helped.
Alex Honnold is a free solo climber, the world’s best. You know that scene in The Princess Bride where the Man in Black ascends the Cliffs of Insanity without a rope? That’s Honnold’s version of “Netflix and chill.”
(After I wrote the first draft of this, I learned that “Netflix and chill” doesn’t mean what I’d thought it meant. So it turns out I lied in the subject line.)
As I learned in this article about Honnold at Nautilus, people struggle even watching video of him climbing these sheer faces because it nauseates them. For most of the duration of his epic climbs, one missed toehold and Honnold would plunge to instant death.
Honnold insists he feels fear, but, well, the rest of us were skeptical. Scientists finally put him in an MRI machine and confirmed their suspicion: Honnold’s amygdala, the part of the brain that signals fear to the rest of the body, was quiet as a dormouse in the face of the most disturbing or frightening stimuli they could throw at him. (No, this is not normal, even for free solo rock climbers.)
In the article, the scientists speculate on how much nature and nurture contributed to Honnold’s neurological unflappability. But they don’t doubt that nature had a lot to do with it. The fact is, Honnold wasn’t built like the rest of us, along a number of spectrums; his conscientious training and personal development just took him the rest of the way.
Important to note Honnold’s bias in all this. He didn’t realize he was built differently. He had no idea that other people experienced the world differently. He really did think that whatever twinges he felt up on those ledges were “fear” as most of us define fear.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the option to put top performers in an MRI at will—yet!—but imagine you were an aspiring rock climber. You don’t know anything about Honnold’s abnormal brain. You just see a guy who’s much, much better than you at doing this particular thing, and more important doesn’t seem to have to deal with the challenges that you have to face every day in becoming a better climber. What works for Honnold simply does not work for you.
Now imagine that Honnold spent half his time giving hugely popular TED talks about facing your fears. Imagine every time you opened a magazine there was an interview with Honnold about his punishing training habits. Imagine our society venerated Honnold as a paragon of virtue.
This is the toxic situation writers face today. There is so much advice out there from and about the Honnolds of the writing world: blogs, newsletters, talks, and social media posts espousing the beliefs and behaviors of highly successful bloggers, authors, speakers, and other thought leaders. We’re being told, explicitly or not, that to succeed is to be like these people.
“If all the other writers jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” “I dunno, Ma—what kind of conversion rates did they get? Did they A/B test different bridges?”
Of course, we listen. We want to develop our skills. Sometimes emulating a professional’s habits can help. Most of the time, it’s just exhausting. I think this “advice” destroys more potential writers than any other factor.
Well, relax. As you know if you’ve been reading the Maven Game for any amount of time, the last thing I would ever give you is useful advice. If anything, my mission is to insulate you from the advice of others.
This brings us to Pokémon. One of the curious things about Pokémon is that while every breed of Pokémon looks and acts exactly the same, each one has a different temperament. Every Pikachu shoots lightning bolts out of his electrical cheek pouches, but one might be cowardly, another friendly, another aggressive.
We love to read about the daily rituals of authors, how so-and-so gets up at 4 a.m. to write 5,000 words before breakfast every day of the year. But that’s so-and-so. Your other favorite writer knocks out 500 words when it suits her and, while she’s only written 3 books to the other guy’s 10, those are 3 of your favorite books.
What about your temperament? Forget the kind of writer you’d like to be and start paying attention to the kind of writer you are. When you look at your own work, what makes you happy about it? Which turns of phrase delight you? When you’re busy writing, which parts of your process light you up, and which parts make you want to go to med school?
Be present to your inner writer. Pay attention to what writing is like for you, what works and doesn’t work for you. Write it down in a work journal at the end of each writing session and pay attention to the patterns you find you when study it. Otherwise, you’re vulnerable to the advice of others.
In the early days of the A-list bloggers, a few drew hordes of visitors because they were shockingly, disturbingly confessional. They would reveal all kinds of personal details about not only their own lives but the lives of their spouses and children as well. They’d complain about their bosses and employers in public.
These were real people using their real names! Weren’t they afraid of losing their jobs? Many writers started to feel pressured to start oversharing because it clearly translated into online popularity.
Eventually, many confessional bloggers came to regret what had clearly been a foolish practice—once the consequences arrived. Others began to appear in mainstream media due to their online fame. Once they were outside of the frame of their own lenses, we were able to see that the “raw and honest” picture we’d been given was anything but, or simply that these people had no healthy boundaries to lower in the first place.
Meanwhile, the endless confessions wore out their welcome with readers.
This is an extreme example but a synecdochal one. (It’s a word if I say it is; I’m an editor.) Writing is a whole-brain practice. You bring every aspect of yourself to the page. The tips and techniques that work for others offer you small rewards and vast dangers. It’s like trying to land a jet blind-folded while mission control talks you down, except the guy at mission control thinks you’re in a two-seat Cessna and you’re actually piloting a Boeing 747.
“Press the big round button on the left.” “You mean pull this small lever?”
No cookie-cutter approach will do.
If you don’t write like someone else does, that’s OK. That’s normal. There is no normal. You’re not like other people and so of course you don’t write like other people.
The reading ecosystem changes constantly and there are endless niches within it where you can find your place. While media companies can adapt and rebrand (and hire new writers) to cling to some idea of mainstream viability, individuals can do nothing sustainably but create work native to themselves. You simply have to keep moving and making until you’re where your readers can find you.
When you’re at home with yourself as a writer, you’ll know it. Until then, relax and return to your practice.