the scary thing about writing and what should actually scare you

Writing is scary. Does the fear fade with experience? I don’t know. I’m only a few years back into writing as a full-time profession. It was scary the first time around. It’s even scarier now. Ask me in a decade—I’ll be the Renfield-looking guy arguing with a lamp post. For now, I’m just terrified. I’m starting to suspect that the fear factor involved in writing is intrinsic. That if I’m not scared, I’m not writing.

Everyone wants to be a writer in theory—it’s the shift to practice that’s tricky. I have a theory about this: in your brain, your ideas always sound great. It feels like they’re so convincing not because you don’t challenge them but because you challenge them badly. You are your own best straw man. In your head, your ideas feel like they hold up under scrutiny but that’s because the inside of your head is the last place you should be scrutinizing them.

It’s like singing in the shower. In the shower, you’re Meat Loaf. Then it’s karaoke night in front of your co-workers, and all of a sudden: you’re Meat Loaf.

When it comes to ideas, your brain has fantastic acoustics.

Throughout my career, I’ve every now and then had the opportunity to talk to people who have nursed a particular book idea for years, even decades. These are people who have spent a good portion of their lives convinced that they have a brilliant book just waiting to be written down.

I can’t easily convey how confident this particular type tends to be, unshakably convinced of the originality and incisiveness of these grand ideas. And the size! These are huge, YUUUGE ideas. They’ve been talking about The Book, the one they are going to write, for so long, to everyone they’ve ever met—well, they’ve simply never realized that they’ve been repeating the same few things over and over again, like Joe Gould with his secret.

It’s when they finally try to make the book happen and they start talking to me about it that things fall apart. Once they actually pin the butterfly with words, they realize there’s no butterfly. They’ve been clutching used Kleenex for all those years. Who knows where the metaphorical butterfly went, it flew away years ago, IT’S JUST A METAPHOR. The point is, what felt so much like a book or even a series of books in reality barely merits a blog post once freed from the confines of their heads.

Kids: Don’t let this happen to you. Just write it down, whatever it is, however big or small it feels, ugly as the process can be. Because this goes both ways. Some of our grandest-feeling ideas are quickly and easily expressed and don’t amount to much, sure. Sometimes, though, what feels like a small insight unfolds and unfolds and unfolds as it’s written out until you’ve unearthed something remarkable.

This is why I’m suspicious of writing that isn’t scary. Writing should never feel like transcription of the ideas in your head. It should feel like opening a door without knowing for certain what’s going to come out.

The brilliant Vanessa Van Edwards, author of Captivate, says that if you’re anxious about a social situation, you can reframe that anxiety as excitement and anticipation. Right before you head into that networking event or step onto that TED stage, she says, tell yourself, “I am excited!”

I still avoid all social situations if I can help it. But when I’m nervous about writing something down, I say, “I am excited to write!” It helps. “My body is making a lot of adrenaline right now and that’s because writing is terrific fun and not at all awful! I have no idea what I’m about to write and it’ll probably be crap and I’m way past deadline and THAT’S OK! Hurray words!”

Here’s what should scared you: talking about your work-in-progress with people. The first rule of Write Club is: don’t tell people about your book. The second rule of Write Club is: don’t tell people about your book.

Within the moist confines of your mind, your ideas ferment. You know what fermentation does: it makes all kinds of stinky gas. That idea-gas builds up in your mind, creating discomfort. Once you start talking about what you’re going to write at some point in order to relieve that discomfort, you’ve got a problem: Premature articulation. Very embarrassing.

Let the ideas ferment in the swampy darkness of your mind. What you want is a gassy, farty brain full of stinky, stinky words. It takes time.

Have you ever had the experience of talking to a friend about the book you want to write and having this amazing conversation about it? You come away feeling very pleased—how brilliant you were in that conversation. Firing on all cylinders. “There must be something to this idea after all.” But then when you go try to capture the magic of that dialogue on the page, it’s like clutching at a dream after waking. All the sparkle has been squeezed out of it. The book is dead. You killed it. You’re a book-murderer.

Don’t fall into this trap. Let things stew. Let them stink and swell inside your head. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, when you have a great idea, it can feel almost impossible not to tell everyone all about it. Take that energy and reframe it. See it as the build-up of gas, or magma, or whatever other seething, stinky, bubbling metaphor you like. Watch the indicator rise into the red with excitement and anticipation, and remind yourself that there’s only one proper way to vent the pressure. Write it down, write it all out, fearlessly.

lies, damn lies, and big idea books

I’ll start this by saying that coming up with stuff is hard. By “stuff,” I mean: ideas, assertions, advice, findings, etc. The juicy bits that get called out in bullet-points at the end of a chapter or summarized in those business book summaries for “busy and successful executives.”

(Actual busy and successful executives are the ones who read the most actual books, business or otherwise, in my experience. Lazy online MBA students looking to crush it with their first startup, on the other hand…)

Coming up with stuff is only hard for genuine-article experts. Any dude with a rented lambo and a GoPro can start a YouTube channel for “winners who want to dominate and/or win” and start firing off world-class life-coachery. It’s easy. You just read lots of best-selling business books (or summaries) and start parroting the juicy bits with the occasional “dude, you just gotta…”

To the YouTube dude—and it’s not just YouTube, and it’s not just dudes—there’s a real or feigned naïveté. “I’m just trying to help people here, so it doesn’t matter who came up with this first.”

A while back, an author friend discovered that a would-be “thought leader” had copy-pasted my friend’s entire (well-known, best-selling) book onto his own website. When confronted, the guy said, “Yeah, that’s because I’m your biggest fan and I’m trying to help people. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Well, first he deleted the whole site and denied ever having done it, but my friend had already archived all of it and documented it with lawyers. So then he said the other stuff.

Experts, people who’ve invested a lot of effort in learning stuff and building a wheelhouse for themselves, they know what’s been said in their area because they’ve read most of it and they know how much work went into figuring out what’s already been figured out. They know they have to bring something new to the table. Sure, some ideas are universal and can be expressed in many ways, but you also have to come up with your own stuff.

Often, this comes down to science, some form of experimental research. If you’re familiar at all with the replication crisis facing behavioral psychology (and lots of other areas), you can see how much nonsense even well-intentioned scientists can get up to in their hurry to publish. If we were really doing science, research journals would be 99 percent negative findings. “This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work…” Right? But nobody cares about an experiment proving that chocolate doesn’t cure cancer.

Let’s take a single example. I could offer so many. But let’s start with just one: Ever heard the finding that judges are tougher in their sentencing before lunch than after because they’re hungry and no longer able to deliberate carefully and fairly?

Read this excellent article debunking the finding.

Sure, it might just be the researchers’ lack of understanding of how statistics work. But let’s be honest here. These people go to science school. The truth is, they need to publish and it’s hard to come up with stuff.

Science nowadays is difficult and slow and boring and it only gets worse as we figure more and more stuff out. Back in the caveman days, you had all kinds of things you could discover with a little effort. Fire, the wheel, buttons—heck, you could get credit for inventing jumping jacks, or that thing where you press your fingers to your palm and say “pfft.” And they say, what’s that, Og? And you’re like, I’m pretending I have web shooters. And they say, what are web shooters? And you’re like, what Spider-Man uses. And they’re like, who’s Spider-Man? And you’re like, you’ll see.

Even during the Renaissance, you could get away with being a chemist, a mathematician, and a pretty good painter in the same lifetime. “One day,” people would say, “you’ll be considered a true Now Man.”

In today’s world, genuine invention is rare—wonderful, but rare. And yet, we have books to book, talks to talk. Tick tock TED.

Boy do I savor myself some schadenfreude when a best-selling, TED-talking expert (whose book I lost at auction) gets called out on some bullshit. But the truth is, I’m a hypocrite. I have not a leg to stand on. I’ve already falsified data and I haven’t even talked a single TED.

It was the summer of 1995. TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” were on the radio. If you were lucky, you went to see Apollo 13 and The Usual Suspects. If you were unlucky, you also went to see Congo and Judge Dredd.

As a high school junior, I thought I’d major in chemistry. So, that summer, I attended a pre-college science program at Syracuse University. For several weeks, we worked with DNA, lasers, bacteria, and circuit boards. A guy came in and delivered a whole PowerPoint about how animal research wasn’t such a big deal—if it wasn’t done on a pet. Because ethics. Something. Who was that guy?

When we weren’t busy “slinging beakers to the max,” as the cool kids in 1995 would say, we were “kicking it new school” (more cool kid lingo) in the Syracuse computer labs while surfing on the “World Wide Web,” which was basically Compuserve with photos.

Near the end of our session, we were divided into groups and told to design and run a simple experiment on campus. On our own.

The other members of my team were pretty checked out by this point, so I took the reins. I had the idea to test whether the amount of food on a person’s cafeteria tray corresponded to their height. (This may have been a subconscious attempt to justify my eating habits at 6′ 3″.)

We quickly ran into problems. For one, we had no standard metric for measuring the amount of food on a tray, especially at the speed folks were heading to their tables. For another, we were absolutely useless at eyeballing heights. No time to re-design the experiment. We just stood there at the end of the cafeteria line for half an hour gathering “data.”

Back at a computer, I showed my compatriots how to create an Excel spreadsheet with the “data” we had “collected.”

Naturally, our numbers amounted to nothing but a bumpy line that went straight into inevitable academic failure and a career in pharmaceutical sales.

I knew that getting my research team to continue helping me with this half-baked project would be a reach—this camp, after all, was something they’d chosen to do in lieu of sitting in front of a PlayStation all summer. Motivation levels were low; I had to act fast.

“Let’s just fix the numbers,” I said. “Make it look better.” Even as I proposed it, I wasn’t sure how the idea would go over. I’d never cheated before, not once, but I knew cheating was rampant at my high school. I was curious how this particular group of disinterested collaborators (and, in theory, future scientists) would react to the idea of outright fabrication.

They expressed precisely zero misgivings.

Ten minutes of Excel later, we’d found a strong, though not suspiciously so, correlation between height and lunch food volume. Later that day, we won a $50 gift certificate for our remarkably intuitive finding. (In the end, most didn’t even want to schlep to the campus store to spend it. I got an orange T-shirt. It’s a Syracuse thing.)

I didn’t go into chemistry, and from that day I just assumed that “real” scientists figure out how to do science properly. They didn’t just run out of time and decide to fudge things. They planned things out carefully and did their work with consistent professionalism, pride, and integrity.

Then I turned into a grown-up and realized that we’re all up against the clock, and coming up with stuff is hard, and yeah, we all feel pressured to find that finding and move on to the next thing.

I don’t know what to tell you. Don’t. Don’t do it. Come up with stuff. I mean, look around. 2017 is no 1995. We desperately need some stuff.

do you have the art spirit?

If we’re friends on Goodreads—friend me, I’d like to see what you’re reading—you may know that I’m (slowly) wading through Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. Don’t interpret my glacial pace with this one the wrong way. The book is just full of gems. I keep putting it down to make notes for a post. At a certain point I just had to give up. Go read the damn thing along with me. It’s about painting, sure, but if you squint it’s about writing books and about everything else you might want to create.

I picked the book up—in Portland’s legendary Powell’s Books, naturally—because David Lynch always points to it as having played a pivotal role in his own development as an artist. What’s good for David Lynch is good for me, except for cigarettes, transcendental meditation, and buttoning the top button of your shirt without a tie, of course.

Henri was an art teacher a century ago. This first excerpt is from an address he made to students of the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia in 1901:

I know men who were students in the Academie Julian in Paris, where I studied in 1888, thirteen years ago. I visited the Academie this year and found some of the same students there, repeating the same exercises, and doing work nearly as good as they did thirteen years ago.

At almost any time in these thirteen years they have had technical ability enough to produce masterpieces. Many of them are more facile in their trade of copying the model, and they make fewer mistakes and imperfections of literal drawing and proportion than do some of the greatest masters of the art.

These students have become masters of the trade of drawing, as some others have become masters of their grammars. And like so many of the latter, brilliant jugglers of words, having nothing worth while to say, they remain little else than clever jugglers of the brush. Jugglers of words. Yes. This is a big problem. Do you have something to say? Worry about that first, especially on your first draft. Technique is utterly secondary. Usually, phenomenal technique on the page has a lot more to do with revision—i.e. quantity thereof—than with any innate ability to write masterfully on the first go. Get it down and get to the point.

From another essay in the book:

Insist then, on the beauty of form and color to be obtained from the composition of the large masses, the four or five large masses which cover your canvas. Let these above all things have fine shapes, fine colors. Let them be as meaningful of your subject as they possibly can be. It is wonderful how much real finish can be obtained through them, how much of gesture and modeling can be obtained through their contours, what satisfactions can be obtained from their fine measures in area, color, and value. Most students and most painters in fact rush over this; they are in a hurry to get on to other matters, minor matters.

This is the same advice I give every one of my authors. Figure out the big pieces and get them sorted first. The rest of the project will figure itself (relatively) easily out if you get this right.

One last, and then I’m done:

It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him. This model is wonderful in as many ways as there are pairs of eyes to see her. Each view of her is an original view and there is a response in her awaiting each view. If the eyes of a Rembrandt are upon her she will rise in response and Rembrandt will draw what he sees, and it will be beautiful. Rembrandt was a man of great understanding. He had the rare power of seeing deep into the significance of things.

Hint: the model is your idea. Get it?

During nearly every first editorial discussion, an expert (who isn’t a total phony, anyway) will express the concern that some aspect of his or her book has been “done before.”

What authors don’t understand is what Henri expresses here. The idea is wonderful in as many ways as there are pairs of eyes to see it. Different readers need to hear the same idea expressed differently. You are not Malcolm Gladwell. (Unless you are. Loved that thing you wrote about ketchup.) You can’t write like Malcolm Gladwell, nor should you want to. Write like you. Cultivate the “rare power” to see deep into the significance of things.