immolate yourself in your writing

When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do.
—Shunryu Suzuki

I’m not a highlighter per se, but when I read the above quote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I wanted to score it deep into my brain. Yes, I thought. I want to be a good bonfire. I want to burn myself completely in my work.

It’s wonderful training for this, helping others write books as a ghostwriter. Nobody wants a smoky ghostwriter leaving traces of themselves behind in what they do. Ghostwriting brings clarity to the writing process I’ve grown to appreciate. For example, you never would have guessed that I was the one who wrote the last four Harry Potter novels. Right? Those read exactly as though J.K. Rowling wrote them all by herself. As, in fact, she did. But if she hadn’t, and I had, you never would have guessed—because there was no smoke.


I continue to find it paralyzing when I’m writing “my thing”—if you’ve figured out what my thing is, you’re way ahead of me—which may be one reason these things are written so infrequently. Tell me to write someone else’s thing and, well, things suddenly open up.

Recently, I picked up the sax and clarinet again after many years. I’ve got an embouchure like a French Bulldog, but it’s coming back with practice. I write for half an hour, run a few scales, write another half an hour, play a polonaise, and so on. I find this rhythm helps sift my ego out of the writing process even further. My work area feels less like a stage and more like a kitchen: stir some soup over here, grill a steak over here. It’s no longer about me in the spotlight; it’s about what’s cooking.

I found this quote in the excellent A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries. In 1856, Degas wrote:

It seems to me today that if one seriously wants to create art and make a little original corner for oneself, or at least keep for oneself the most innocent of personalities, it is necessary to strengthen oneself in solitude. There are too many scandals. One could say that paintings make themselves like stock-market games by the meddling of people eager to gain a profit. One thus has as much need to predict the disposition and plans of one’s neighbor in order to create as these business people need others’ funds in order to gain a sou. All this commerce sets one’s spirit on edge and warps one’s judgment.

Many of my clients and writer friends struggle with this.

It seems like the moment an idea parallels to yours exits someone else’s mouth, they’re instantly dubbed an Instagram star/TEDx speaker. The longer you’ve been nursing your idea, the worse this can be. It’s one thing to find inspiration in the shower only to discover once you’re dry enough to use an iPhone that your brilliant title is already on Amazon. It’s quite another to crank away at your masterpiece for two years only to see it summarized in a million-hit viral video a month before your pub day.

So, rather than concentrate on our work, burning ourselves up completely in our ideas, we write with an ear to the ground. As though we’re ready to stop typing the moment someone else even coughs in the general direction of our thinking. That way no more of our genius will be wasted than absolutely necessary. Thank goodness, we’ll think to ourselves when we find someone else working along similar lines. Now I can quit.

This is not how a bonfire burns.

Solitude, then. “Ignore everybody,” per the cartoonist Hugh MacLeod. Just go off in the woods and don’t come back until you’ve done your thing, damn the consequences. If your stuff somehow gets out there while you’re ensconced, so be it.

“Hey guys, it’s me, Jim! I know it’s been a while. I locked myself in my basement for the last year to write a dystopian thriller about a senile, narcissistic imbecile who somehow gets elected President of the United States and kicks off a nuclear war with North Korea. Here’s the twist: he starts the war with a tweet! It’s a hip, modern take on T.S. Eliot, ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’ Except not a whimper, a tweet. Get it? Guys? Where is everybody? Why is my skin glowing?”

Yes, solitude is easy to advocate. We laud solitude in others. The problem is, it’s hard to take credit for your solitude if you don’t break it long enough to tell everyone you’ve gotten rid of your TV or quit Facebook. We eagerly read interviews with people on press junkets telling us about all the solitude they manage get and how undisturbed by the opinions of others they’ve learned to be.

“How wise that Instagram star/TEDx speaker is to make one of his assistants transcribe only the most important e-mails using a fountain pen, seal them with wax, roll them up, tie them to the leg of a carrier pigeon, and deliver them to his writing room atop the castle keep. All of us should be so wise!”

As always, the right way is a middle one. (I do read the occasional book on Zen.) No, you can’t shut yourself up in a cabin. Yes, other people are going to write what sounds like your book and talk about what feel like your ideas. Yes, you have to just do your best to burn yourself up completely in your work. Your stuff is your stuff in a way that’s almost invisible to you. Some kid writing reams of Harry Potter fan fiction may think he’s nailing Rowling’s voice but he ain’t. He’s doing his own thing. (OK, it isn’t some kid, it’s me, and in my version Hermione gets with Neville instead of that jerk Ron.)

Ideas aren’t gems to be collected. They’re caverns to explore, and they don’t belong to you alone. I’d thought I’d coined Moldawer’s Law: that authors tend to be the worst when it comes to their own domain. Productivity authors never finish their books on time, relationship authors inevitably have multiple divorces, and, yes, you wouldn’t believe the tempers on some of the most famous Buddhist authors out there.

Turns out Richard Price got to Moldawer’s Law first. I found this in Chop Wood, Carry Water:

On the subject of Esalen’s unimpressive record in using the methods it helped to popularize for its own problems, Richard Price wryly cites what he calls Esalen’s Law. The law, he says, is that you always teach others what you most need to learn yourself. Its corollary is that you are your own worst student.—Walter Truett Anderson

Can you imagine if I wrote half a book about Moldawer’s Law only to see Price giving a TED talk about it? Here’s the thing: if I was worried about it, I’d never have written anything. Fact is, if I dig for ten minutes I bet I can find a Greek or Roman philosopher spouting essentially the same thing millennia ago.

Let go of what other people think. Don’t say something original; it doesn’t exist. Say your thing your way for this time in history and let all the rest go. Burn yourself up in your work and leave no smoke behind.

Sure, maybe someone will get “there” first, but if you’re lucky somebody else will be halfway through writing what you just wrote and you’re going to ruin their day, too.

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