This is an early excerpt from my forthcoming book on writing: The Fire of Creation
I recently re-read the amazing book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” and it got me thinking about what master writers do differently than everyone else. What does it take to do something that will be remembered after you’re dead? What do they do differently from everyone else on the planet?
I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I’ll share a little of what I do know about perfecting your art.
1) Focus on Craft
First off, you have to do the work.
I know you’ve heard this before, but until you really understand it nothing changes.
The steps to mastery are the same for anything in life: Put in the hours. Put in ten thousand hours and don’t stop there. Even that is not enough. Put in as many as you can and then put in more. Whether you want to be an eighty-year-old Kung Fu master with a lightning kick, an artist whose paintings sell for millions of dollars after you’re gone, or the next G.R.R. Martin creating epic fantasy of mind-numbing detail, the process is the same:
You have to keep at it day after day.
The problems of writing can only be worked out by the act of writing. I know you get creative flashes while you’re on your daily walk or when someone is droning on in some boring meeting but the real work is still done at the keyboard. You can’t work through creative challenges by thinking about them or dreaming about them. You fight through them at the page.
Only when you’re waist deep in a scene with two characters arguing about their marriage can you really figure out that perfect nasty line the husband says to the wife. How can you figure out the color of the trees in your battle scene without swimming through the blood streaked mud with your soldiers as bullets smack the ground around you?
Steven Pressfield, author the War of Art and Do the Work, has written extensively on this idea. The truth is, you don’t really need to read beyond the title. It’s simple. Just do the damn work. Seriously. That’s all you really need to know. Once you start doing this every day, the rest will take care of itself.
You’ll learn everything that you ever wanted to learn about writing through the act of writing.
You don’t need another book or seminar or support group. Just write. When you forget it and you find yourself signing up for yet another talk or reading another book on character development, stop and write instead.
2) Forget Marketing
In our modern world of social media and the mad scramble to break through the noise it may seem crazy to just say screw marketing but screw marketing. Go ahead. Say it loud. It’s liberating. What’s amazingly clear in the “Daily Rituals” book is how few of those legendary creators did any marketing at all.
When it comes to writing, your fiction comes first before all else. No exceptions. It comes before everything else in your life. Only when you are done with your fiction for the day should you write an article or an email or head to the mall with your kids.
If you’re writing another article or watching CSI, then that means you’re not writing your next book.
I took a recent look back at my blog. When I started it six years ago, I was writing articles constantly. I’ve deleted more work than some people write. But recently posts have gotten more and more infrequent. That’s not because I don’t have a lot of things I want to write about, it’s just that when I have to make a choice between my fiction and writing another article, I choose my fiction every time. You should too.
Forget pumping out listicle after listicle (ironic I know, because this is one) or getting 20 million subscribers to your blog. The only reason I’m writing this one right now is because I woke up with a burning desire to put this to the page. That’s how I know something has to get written. If I don’t feel that it doesn’t get done.
Now if you want to figure out marketing then go check out Benjamin Hardy on getting a ton of subscribers through Medium. I loved Ben’s article. It’s inspiring but unless you’re a marketer, article writer or a life coach like him, you shouldn’t be pumping out more stuff just to pump it out. The world has enough listicles. If you’re a fiction writer, then work on your art instead. Here’s the thing:
When you write something truly amazing, people will find you.
And frankly, writing so many articles is freaking exhausting. It’s unsustainable. You’ll never be able to keep it up year after year unless you were born with an excess supply of serotonin and dopamine.
When you do write an article, make sure it’s something you really care about and want to share. Like I said, when there’s a fire burning under your ass then get it done. How do you know something is really worth sharing? Because you earned the knowledge through dedicated time and effort. I don’t agree with Hardy’s article on Impostor Syndrome. The world has enough fakers. If the article is something that you know better than anyone, something very few people will ever figure out, then go ahead and share that. That’s real value. That’s worth sharing with others. If it’s not, then keep it to yourself.
I read an interview in Wired about Hugh Howey, bestselling Amazon author of Wool. He went to yet another writing conference instead of working on his writing like he should have been and a woman got on stage and said:
“You stop dreaming of writing. You stop talking about writing. You stop wishing you were writing. And you write!”
I interviewed Hugh Howey myself later and I asked about what happened there and he said:
“She shamed me. That’s what happened. She shamed the entire room of us, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I realized that the only thing preventing me from writing a novel was myself. I was getting in the way. Mrs. Todd slapped that person inside of me, knocked him down, and I stepped over his lifeless body and got to work.”
Paste those words up on your monitor. Look at it every day. Let it shame you too. And get to work.
3) Kill the Time Thieves
You need to take control of your life and to do that you have to take back your time.
Time is all you have in life.
If you are not making as much time to write as possible, then it doesn’t matter how many listicles you read or how many seminars you show up at or how many writing groups you join. This may sound simple, but without making time nothing else matters. Without it you won’t write. If you don’t have bricks, you can’t build a house. You can’t write a book by thinking about it, talking about it, or wishing it would happen. You must physically write. Move your fingers on a keyboard. Grip that pen until your fingers go numb.
Doing that means taking back your life. That means getting things out of your life that don’t matter like you’re Ripley blowing the alien out of the goddamn airlock. Take back your time however you can. Cancel extra-curricular activities, turn off the TV, and stop drinking so your brain is mush for your late night writing session.
Maybe you’re thinking that tons of great artists were drunks and drug explorers. An unofficial count of the artists detailed in “Daily Rituals” shows that about half of them were serious drug users. This is no surprise because mind-altering substances help you get out of your own personality silo and see the world from someone else’s eyes. If you can only see the world through the eyes of a suburban house dad, then you can’t get into the head of a hard boiled detective or a serial killer.
If you use mind-altering substances, then you better learn to use them wisely. If you’re working a job and you have kids and responsibilities and you can only write late at night, then drinking so you’re dead tired when you get there means you’ve wasted your only chance. You cannot create when you are barely able to keep your eyes open and you’ve exacerbated that with half a bottle of wine or a joint.
Do your writing and then get drunk or stoned.
What I’m really saying it take back your time and protect your time. If you only have a few hours late at night to change your life, then you better make the most it. Don’t screw this up. There are no extra innings in life, no reset button. Once your life is over, it’s over.
So take back your time by any means necessary. If that means lying, then do it. If that means being an asshole, then do it. Have to fight with the significant other? No problem. Kids need to find another ride to their friend’s house for movie night? Here is the cab money. If you have to sneak out of the last hour of your job and plug some words into Evernote, then do it. I am not kidding about any of this.
Writing has to become the focus of your life. Everything else is in your way.
Get rid of distractions. They are eating up the only chance you have. Take back your life from all the time thieves that surround you. Time thieves are the real demons in life.
As Pressfield said in his books (Ok maybe you should read them) demons are not here to defeat you. They’re here to bog you down in a war of attrition, to keep you from doing what you really want to do.
Demons are your friends and family, the TV, movies, late night drinking with co-workers. Demons are always in disguise. They don’t want to beat you. They want to tie you up just long enough to run out the clock.
And here’s the worst part: they think they are doing a good thing. A demon never thinks they’re a demon. They always think they’re on the side of the light. They believe that socializing and whiling away your time together and idle chit-chat about politics or the game last night is an actual honest-to-goodness use of your time. They believe it matters. They need to believe it matters. It doesn’t. Not if you want to do something great, that people remember.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a time for friends and family and drinking and fun.
That time is after you’ve written today.
Remember, in this game, you get no credit for yesterday. You start fresh, with a clean slate every day. What you did yesterday means nothing. Wrote 3000 words last night? Great. Today write some more.
For some artists this may even have to go further. You may have to extricate yourself from a true demon: a nightmare of a job that saps your will to live or a partner who is not only unwilling to support you on your journey of creativity, but actively belittles you, tears you down, and destroys you.
You have to get out of there as soon as possible.
How? The best way is the fastest way. Tear it off like a Band-Aid. Just slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. In short, get out. Now.
4) Write What You Know
This is a tremendously misunderstood writer’s maxim. Most people take it to mean only writing about things they already know. Instead, I take this to mean something completely different. Research. Figure it out. Do it, as you are writing, not later. Don’t just crank through a whole section of your book when you have no idea about the setting or the people who live there. You’ll only have to re-write it.
When I come to something I don’t know, I stop and figure it out. In my current work about a Chinese civil war, I came to a point where my characters retreated into the mountains and met the people who’ve lived there for thousands of years. The only problem was I didn’t know a damn thing about who lived in those mountains in Yunnan province.
So I stopped. I read some obscure, scholarly anthropology books on the indigenous people in southern China’s mountain ranges. I consumed them ravenously. I found some incredible photographer’s blogs and I stared at the faces of the people in those pictures, dreaming about their lives and their hand made smoking pipes, each one unique and treasured their entire lives.
When I got back to the story, I knew exactly who those people were. I didn’t have to guess or make it up and then go back and fill in all the details. So if you don’t know, no problem. This is the age of information; go figure it out. But don’t skip that step.
Don’t pretend to know. Know.
Once you start down the path of the artist, the things you value in your regular life: a career, aggressiveness, quick thinking, forcefulness, being on time, have very little place in the creative world. Well, being on time still matters, but the rest of that other crap should be forgotten as quickly as possible. Instead, little things you have never thought about matter a great deal. For example, you need to re-learn how to breathe.
Breathing is essential as you write. It’s probably something you’ll skip or gloss over. It seems simple. What could be simpler than breathing? In regular life you don’t think about breathing. In creative life, make it your primary focus until you get it down perfectly. A Zen archer cannot hit his target without breathing perfectly. You can’t get to the place where you mind shuts off and you write in a torrential flow until you learn to control your breath.
Here’s how to do it right: breathe from your stomach.
Do this all day. You spent your whole life breathing little weak mousy breaths from your chest. This is completely wrong.
Push your stomach out like you are a 300-pound fat guy. Keep doing it.
Every time you forget, remember it again. If you find yourself breathing from your chest, stop it. This will cleanse your mind of useless things like your schedule and bills to pay and yet another thing that came undone that needs fixing. You cannot focus on your art when you are scattered into a million shards, thinking about so many things. You have to turn off your mind. Your mind is another one of your enemies. It is in your way.
The thing is, when most people realize this, they will do absolutely nothing to correct it. It will just pass through their consciousness and wind up forgotten on the side of the road a few days later. Don’t let that happen to you.
6) Find a Quiet Space
You also need a place to write that is away from everything. Coffee shops and other public places suck. They will have to do if you have nothing else, but you need a quiet place with no people milling around and making noise to distract you.
I know what you’re thinking again. You’re thinking J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a coffee house. Great. I guarantee you she did not do that by choice. She did that because she needed her kid to fall asleep and that was the only place it happened.
No, no, you think, I like coffee houses.
What you like is distractions.
What you like is feeling like you are not alone in this thing. You are alone. Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best is a lonely life.” At its best. This is not a team sport. If you want to drop into the depths of the creative spirit, if you want to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes, then find a warm, safe, quiet spot.
What Rowling’s example demonstrates is not that quiet is not essential. It demonstrates that you write no matter what. If you don’t have ideal circumstances then you do whatever it takes to keep writing anyway. That’s what she did. She did not use her child or her lack of a room of her own to skip writing. She did not wait to get started. She made time. If you still think she liked writing in coffee houses so much then ask yourself if she wrote her second book in one after she was a millionaire? No. She wrote it in a quiet room in her house.
Of course, if you have no choice but writing in a noisy room, then do it. Jane Austen had to write in a noisy house because society was not enlightened enough at the time to give women the space to be anything but a mother or a cook. She wrote anyway and you should to but if you have the choice find a quiet place away from everything.
Test this for yourself. If you truly like writing with noise all around you after you’ve had a chance to do it in a clear, perfect spot, than so be it. But I say turn off the TV. Invest in some noise canceling headphones, good ones, the kind that put out their own white noise and blot out the world around you. They’re not cheap, but they’re worth it.
Writing is an inward journey. It has to be quiet. The slightest distraction will rip you right out of your flow and slam you back into reality. Any distractions need to be cut off mercilessly.
Tell your family to stay out. Hang a big sign on the door that says do not enter. Push them out if you have to. Yell at them. Plead with them. Cajole them. Bribe them. Whatever. Just get them the hell out of your writing space.
7) Take Your Hand Off the Steering Wheel
“Through unconditional surrender I have mastered the universe. By releasing all control, I am in perfect control. Controlling nothing, I control everything. Only by taking control could I lose control. -Jed McKenna, Spiritual Warfare (The Enlightenment Trilogy Book 3)
Anyone who’s been at this long enough understands that great writing does not come from you but through you. You are simply the conduit.
If you ever want to write something that truly matters you have to get over the idea that you are writing it. You have to let go.
I often think of Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet when I mistakenly begin to believe that I am in control of my creativity. In his poem “On Children” he wrote:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
Meeting the creative spirit means surrendering absolutely. Understand that you work for her, not the other way around. Every day before I begin my writing, I say a little prayer to the Muse. I say it with absolute sincerity and a belief in something greater than myself.
Trust the Muse. She will give you the hard work that must get done. Listen to her. She is always right.
If you’re refusing to change a scene because it is too hard or would require changing too many characters or take too many rewrites then you are not working with her. You’re not listening to her instructions. You are cheating yourself and your readers.
If something needs changing in your story then change it, no matter how hard it looks. In the end, it will only make your story stronger. You must surrender to the Muse’s absolute will and trust that she knows better than you. Ride into the abyss on her winged back. Soar over the flames and let her plunge you into them. She will tell her story through you.
Maybe you thought you were the director? You are just in the way. The spirit has the pen and your only job is to filter it as little as possible. She has a plan that your tiny little monkey brain cannot understand. This is not an insult to you; it is just a fact. We are specks of dust in the universe and the creative spirit was around before time began. It knows how to set things in motion that make no sense to you now, but make perfect sense later.
Let me give you an example from my own life.
When I started writing my current book, I took the names of my characters from Chinese mythology. I grabbed these names before I knew much of the plot of my book, much less the book’s themes. Of course, as I wrote, the themes slowly began to emerge as they always do. One of them is “things fall apart and come back together again.” In other words, life is cyclical.
A year later, I took a trip to China and picked up “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, an ancient Chinese masterpiece, to read on the journey. I didn’t think much about it. On the plane ride I flipped to the back cover and realized I’d taken the name of one of my main characters from this very book. I certainly didn’t remember doing it. I’d just scanned Wikipedia for Chinese myths and didn’t think much about it once I had the names. And yet, as I casually opened the book and read the first line my mouth dropped open. It said:
“The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”
In other words, the very first line of a book I hadn’t read, that I took my character’s name from just because it sounded good, turned out to be the central theme of my book before I even knew what the central theme of my book ever was.
This is how the creative spirit works in your life if you let it.
That is when you know you are aligned with her plan. She sets things in motion for you to discover that are simply not coincidence. The chances of my picking a name from that book, with just that theme are nearly impossible.
And yet it happened.
The creative spirit is not bound by the same rules you are.
I can’t explain that. I don’t need to. Nor do you. You can ascribe some mystical aspect to it or call it coincidence or post-quantum mechanics. I call it a spirit and it may be or it may be some algorithm in the math of the universe. It doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that this is how creativity works through you. It has a plan that you cannot see or understand. You just have to go with it.
I can give you a thousand other examples. This happens to me in small ways nearly every time I write. I get the exact thing that I need at the exact time that I need it.
8) Writing as Spiritual Pursuit
The great writers of the past saw writing as a spiritual pursuit, even if they didn’t call it that. Notice I didn’t say religious, I said spiritual. Don’t get them mixed up. They are not the same. A true artist knows that progress in the spiritual world is the same thing as progress in the physical world. They are the exactly the same.
Note that I did not say success. I said progress. Progress and success are very different things. Success follows progress, not the other way around, ever.
You can have much progress without success. Progress is the little victories every day. It is finding time to write even when you are tired. It is working through an impossible scene for the tenth time when you thought you couldn’t do it. Progress is slow and steady. It is made every time you touch the keyboard.
To make progress you have to make real changes. You make changes by taking action in the real world.
You can’t change by standing in the same place that you are in. You have to actually change. You have to do something. If you want to be a writer, then you have to write. If you want to be creative, then be creative.
Let me give you an example of a person who really embraced their creative potential. My friend, Nadia Aly, who I interviewed on my blog, was living a typical American life. She worked at big companies like Google and Microsoft. She made a great living, but she hated it. She looked around and could not understand why everyone was so proud of her, because she was miserable.
Then her friend died in a motorcycle accident.
It slapped her awake.
She realized life is too short so she quit and took off running to get as far away as she could. She spent a month figuring out her life and then she embraced what she really wanted to do: start a scuba diving website and company.
Now she travels the world going to exotic places that look like postcards that most people will never see. Interspersed between people’s useless crap on Facebook, I see her wonderful life. In between my friends and family’s little e-cards, their pictures of their pets and family are far away islands that Nadia sees because she took her camera and went there, herself, physically, in the real world. That is a creative life. That is spiritual progress. Creativity is not a weekend retreat. Your job is not to slide into the end of your life with a perfectly preserved corpse but to burn up like a meteor.
Make Jack London’s credo your credo:
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
9) Plunge into the Abyss
“Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream…
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void…
It is knowing, it is knowing.”
– Tomorrow Never Knows, The Beatles
Creativity is a kind of madness. It’s a searing fire. And you have to plunge into it.
After you’ve done all of the things we talked about here: taken back your time, dismissed your distractions and demons, found the perfect writing spot, then the real adventure of writing begins.
The first hour of any writing session is usually a complete waste of time but if you stick to it and don’t browse Facebook and read another listicle you will get to the real place where art comes from.
To do that, you have to let go. Surrender. You rational mind will jabber at you. You have to get it to shut up and turn off. It will remind you that you have to call Bob and do the dishes and pick up Jenny at daycare. Your mind will cycle and spin and get in your way. Just hold on. Stick around long enough to get to the good part, which comes after that first hour, when the distractions of the day burn away and you plunge into a place where time disappears.
This is where true creativity lives. Your mind falls away. Your fingers dance without you having to think about what they’re typing. You’re in true flow. You’re free. This is real freedom. Beneath you is the Void. You stand on nothing. Look into it. Be afraid. Be ripped apart but above all: keep going. This is where all real art comes from.
All things come from this abyss, this place beyond self and time: the psychopath stalking children in the night comes from the same place as your loyal dog that you cuddle in the darkness. Down in the Void is everything that you ever wanted to create, as yet unmade and waiting for you to unleash it. Your characters and plot are down in the fire, unborn, waiting for you and only you to free them so they can terrorize reader’s minds or make them weep with joy or teach them what real love is and how to find it.
Real creativity comes from beyond the mind. Peel away the layers of yourself. Become other things. How can you think like a monster if you’re a suburban house dad? Let go. Turn off your mind. Art is meditation in motion. The suburban house dad is gone. He dies in the fire of that first hour of worry and distraction. Out here in the whiteout, he is lost. You are not you anymore. Other people lurk down here and you will bring them to life by embracing them, by becoming them and putting their thoughts and feelings on the page, not yours. See through your characters’ eyes.
This is the white-hot center of the volcano. Volcanoes erupt and melt the world. The creative Void melts you. Let it. Here is where you do your work, hovering above this swirling chaos, this shimmering surge of sulfur and flames.
And then all of a sudden, it’s over.
You’ll be done suddenly. You’ll run out of gas, complete a scene, run into a problem that you can’t fix today.
That’s all right.
You don’t live in the abyss: You just visit there.
When you come back, drink a little water. Stretch. Take some deep breaths. Walk a little. Spend time with pets and family. Now is the time to let them back into your quiet room.
Come back to Earth but understand that you are going back there tomorrow. And you are going back there every day for the rest of your life. Consistency leads to mastery. Every day pick up the pen again.
There are no real secrets in the world. We just wish there were. The answers that the great writers of the past understood are right out there in the open for you to see too. You just have to open your eyes and you can see them.
Write every day for as long as you can. Never give up. That is how mastery is achieved.
One step at a time.