stop trying to drink the ocean

In Norse mythology—I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s collection in particular—Thor and his brother, Loki, confront the troll Útgarða-Loki. In one of a series of humiliating defeats, Thor engages in a drinking contest with the troll. Útgarða-Loki empties his horn with a single gulp. Thor, however, despite quaffing three times with all his divine might, finds that his own drinking horn is still full. How can this be? Thor is crushed. Maybe he’s not cut out for this god business. Luckily, the troll admits to deceit. One end of Thor’s drinking horn had secretly led to the sea. Thor had, in fact, been trying to drink the entire ocean. His divine thirst hadn’t drained it, of course, but he had managed to create the tides in the process. Thor’s self-esteem is restored.

Give yourself a break. You’ll never know the rules of the game you’re really playing. Your troll will never admit to deceit. Even in major league sports, with millions of people watching and millions of dollars at stake, cheating happens all the time. Recently, it was discovered that the Houston Astros have been stealing signs for years. I can’t find the link, unfortunately, but one sportswriter reached out to the pitchers, eight or more, who were fired after losing to the Astros during this period. He wanted to know how they’d felt to discover their careers had ended through no fault of their own. I think we can all imagine.

Think how stacked the deck must be in less-scrutinized arenas of competition. Book publishing, for example. A friend of mine worked with an author on his first book. He had a front-row seat to that author’s aggressive and spammy marketing tactics, ethically questionable even by the lax standards of trade nonfiction. The book became a massive best-seller. Afterward, my friend asked the author if he’d be willing to do a podcast interview telling other authors how he had achieved his success. The author cheerfully agreed. So, what was his secret? How had he turned a middling platform and a tired subject into fame and fortune?

“I did it just like anybody else, I suppose,” this would-be Útgarða-Loki replied. “I worked really, really hard on writing a good book. I blogged regularly. And, of course, I updated social media with useful content.” In other words, the usual bullshit so many aspiring authors imitate only to find that, somehow, the drinking horn remains full.

In the words of the great sage Queen Elsa, “let it go.” Stop trying to drink the ocean and start enjoying the ale. The New Yorker recently profiled the sculptor Charles Ray.

Each of his sculptures involves a lengthy process of thinking and tinkering, over the course of which its materials might change, and its scale might shift. “I spent three years looking at details on a sculpture that I was working on, including a toenail,” he recalled. “And I asked [my wife,] ‘Will anyone ever notice the slight changes I’m making to this one thing, the subtleties?,’ and she said, ‘No, but the meaning in these details adds up over time, like an ecosystem.’ “

The problem isn’t that a handful of authors cheat and lie and manipulate to soak up all the attention. The problem is that you’re trying so hard to control the uncontrollable—it’s exhausting for you and ruinous for your work.

If you’re anything like me, part of you hopes to use the remaining days of 2019 not to relax but to tackle all those important-but-not-urgent things you’d hoped to achieve this year, your own writing front and center. Sure, open up that document and get some words down during this respite from day-to-day demands. But don’t let your writing project become another New Year’s resolution with some lofty goal resting on factors outside your control. Face the page. Sweat the details. Enjoy the process. Leave the aspirations and the machinations to the Astros and Útgarða-Lokis of the world. True satisfaction lies in making the “slight changes” that add up to an ecosystem.

See you in 2020.

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