I can tell you exactly how to write books that matter, but first we need to agree on some basic tenets, regarding the purpose of writing. Otherwise, you may resist some of the strategies I’m about to share, due to things you’ve been told, and things you believe. You’ll feel them when they come up, like tapeworms writhing in discomfort, twisting in your intestines when you read things that feel untrue for you. Like cat parasites or zombie cicadas. They are altering your behavior.
By 1770 BC, the Egyptians had a symbol for zero in accounting texts. The symbol nfr, meaning beautiful, was also used to indicate the base level in drawings of tombs and pyramids, and distances were measured relative to this point, as being above or below. So that’s what this message is: a baseline.
I can’t possibly hope to change your beliefs about art and literature, but I want to make you aware of them, while giving you a new framework with which to overcome some of the inherent challenges you may encounter during the creative process.
So we need to talk about not just what to write but how, and I’m not talking syntax or structure, I’m talking mood, intent and awareness. What you believe will impact how you feel, and how you feel will impact whether you write well, or whether you write at all.
If you’re new to book writing and haven’t yet experienced the soul-crushing effects of writer’s block; if you just want quick and dirty writing tips without a historical overview of the creative process and the necessary anxieties that come with it; if you’re determined to write your book your way and immune to harsh critics and negative reviews—then you might want to skip this step and come back to it once you’ve Suffered For Your Art long enough to be ready for a change.
One of my favorite books is Divine Fury, which is basically an academic study of the history of genius. The most fascinating thing was that, once upon a time, the state of genius was perceived to have physiological symptoms that resided in the body. Today we might associate these with a manic episode: wide pupils, sweating, bold declarations, god-like confidence that the universe was conspiring in your favor, that you had a divine mission that must be fulfilled, and it had to be done now: no time for bathing or sleeping or eating or anything else, there was only the work.
I’m sure you’ve felt some version of this yourself, what is more commonly known today as being in the flow or in the zone; when time flies and you’re productive and immersed in the creative process.
“We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand.” – Robert R. McCammon
This reckless enthusiasm and inspiration is important, because it’s what actually prompts the work. Without the faith that you can do this, that it matters, that you’re not wasting your time, the work may go unfinished.
This is why a priest prescribes rituals, why magicians or musicians have a practice. Some days, the magic or muse appears and fills the work with supernatural fervor. Some days, it doesn’t. But the more days you can sit there and do the work, the less you need to rely on supernatural entities: or more precisely, the more you come to realize that you are the supernatural entity, it resides inside you, and you can tempt it out with rituals that shift your mood and mindset.
But what happens when doubts and fears steal this enthusiasm from you? How do you keep going when you’re feeling stuck, lost, inferior, worthless?
In my opinion, all creative fear is based on two basic insecurities:
- Are you good enough? (quality)
- Your true worth (value)
The interesting thing is, these two critical fears are universally experienced, while also being universally discounted or ignored: the common advice to authors is to just keep writing. If all you have is the magic, the sensitive, feeble flicker of your capricious inspiration, then the solution is avoidance. You put your head in the sand, duck into your writing cave and ignore whether your writing is any good, whether it has any value, because that’s not why you write anyway, right?
You might consume memes about courage and persistence and perseverance, but that’s a trap: courage is a limited resource that needs to be constantly refilled. Courage belongs to those who know they are lying to themselves; the painful anxiety of forcing yourself to do the thing while also recognizing that somehow, eventually, the other shoe is going to drop. An infernal deferment of practical considerations in favor of artistic ones, a bold negation and refusal of the final reception, deliberate as a sword, ferocious self-protection, bent on survival.
3 ORDERS OF WRETCHEDNESS
When I was finishing my PhD in Literature, I came across a list of books Herman Melville had on his bookshelf at the time of writing Moby Dick. One of them was called the Genius of Solitude by William Alger. I couldn’t find any modern reproductions, so I spent months typing out and editing an old badly-scanned copy, and discovered a unique theory of the creative anxieties most authors face.
Alger begins by referring to the competition that forces internal doubts: motivated by external rewards, but threatened by revealing reflections.
“The endless multiplicity of competition in modern society, at every point a prize, at every point a glass — tends to force us inordinately on our own notice. If we could but gaze at the prize alone, and break or blink the glass!”
Then he identifies the roots of creative unhappiness; what he calls the “three orders of wretchedness.”
1. I have nothing to live for! (purpose)
The first challenge is finding a worthwhile purpose or goal. The meaning of life, if there is one, is to make life meaningful. As Goethe writes: “Wouldst lead a happy life on earth? Thou must, then clothe the world with worth.”
According to Alger, the true zest of life is an absorbing object. He writes, “Happiness is the successful pursuit of an aim.” But this leads to the second challenge: how do we choose?
2. If I could wish, I could do! (plan)
How do you know which project has merit? How do you find time for creative pursuits, when you’re already overwhelmed with responsibilities? Maybe you feel driven to some greater purpose, but you have no idea what it is or how to get started. According to Alger,
“The greater the number of the interests a man carries, and the greater the number of external relations he sustains, the more delicate and arduous becomes the problem of harmonizing them, fulfilling his duties, and satisfying his desires.”
Unfortunately, there is no universal cure for indecision, and nobody can tell you what to do with your life.
However, any decision is better than indecision. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Given the importance of #1, the best advice is to choose something that fascinates or excites you, and commit to it.
3. Why should I wish? I could not do! (skill)
This third one is the most frequently met by creatives: the disparity between our personal ability and our creative vision. Skills are developed over time, and budding creatives are commonly frustrated by their inability to express, communicate or capture their ideas.
Mastery takes time and determination. Many writers give up too early, unwilling or unable to bear the harsh truth that they aren’t as good as they think they are; that they aren’t able to do this, or aren’t really cut out for this. In order to become proficient at something, first you must produce badly. This can jar uncomfortably with the ideal of ourselves that we have, when our best efforts are so far below our ideal ambitions.
“Unhappiness results when the imagination outruns the heart. When great faculties have no correspondent desires to animate and use them; also when great energies have no adequate motives and guides.”
I also love this quote, which might resonate with you if you’ve ever had trouble expressing your ideas to your own satisfaction: “Her soul was a noble engine filled with insufficient fuel and fire and the incongruity produced agonizing want. Her spirit was effusively expansive: her nerves scantily furnished. The aching voids of defective vitality continually recalled her attention, and every meditation ended with vacancy and death.”
JOY, VALUE, CRAFT
In a response to the 3 Orders of Wretchedness, I’ve developed a simple framework that I hope will serve as a remedial potion, meant to instill a temporary path through the wild uncertainties of the creative process.
Purpose: Joy (motivation)
What energizes you
Plan: Value (market)
Respect your readers
Skill: Craft (mastery)
Practice your craft
Other books will tell you, you’re either a hack or an artist. That if you write for money, you’re selling out your creative soul, your worth, your value. I won’t name them, because I don’t want to encourage such filthy literature.
According to this unfortunately common stereotype, the artist is the literary purist who writes from their soul’s private voice; while the hack is the skilled manipulator who writes books readers love to buy. That it’s better to be a starving artist than it is to be a celebrated hack; and somehow egregious to write good books on purpose and get paid for your writing mastery.
This limiting mindset assumes you cannot create quality on purpose, only on accident; that the value of the work is in the process, not in the end result. It’s bad advice, nearly guaranteed to failure—both in terms of financial renumeration, but also in terms of objective quality, which will be verified by a pile of rejection letters or a stack of brutal, negative reviews.
The false dichotomy between a hack and an artist have no place in this book, so I’ll replace them with a more suitable pair borrowed from the Tarot tradition: the fool and the magician.
A fool has a dream, but no map, no plan, just hope and boundless enthusiasm. He sets off in any direction. It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t know what he wants. He’s counting on help, and filled with courage.
A magician has a specific goal and experience; she’s aware of the difficulties, but she’s prepared and ready to adapt. She’s counting on herself, and filled with confidence.
Everybody begins a fool, and it’s not meant as a negative term: there’s incredible power in chasing your joy. But at some point, you may decide you want more. This will lead to a determination to harness your creativity and use it effectively, with purpose and intention, by providing value. This quest may be difficult, but with practice and experience, you will improve your craft to the point of mastery.
A good book awakens the reader’s mind, is stimulating, is thought provoking, is magical. But you do not get to dictate how this magic happens, or if it happens at all. The strategies in this book will help you narrow the gap, but only if satisfying readers by providing value is your goal.
My hope is that this three-step, confidence generating framework might help us agree on a very general, shared intention: choose joy, aim for value, practice your craft. You don’t have to accept it right now, but I may refer back to these concepts later on.
PS – this is an excerpt from my book on writing.
If you’re curious about William Alger’s full treatise on the art of solitude… here are some notes.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.