On Writing: The Indulgences of an Aspiring Taoist on His Birthday

About a month ago I started a new phase of my life, working for myself and taking some big new risks, and thirty-four years ago today I was born in a hospital in Ojai, California. I’m pretty happy with how both have turned out so far. There are ups and downs of course in writing and living but it’s important to me that right now at last I’m doing both on my terms.

In observance of today’s occasion, I find myself reflecting on the past and excited about the future. There are some bits of wisdom I’ve managed to refine into guidelines and advice that I don’t always follow but I aspire to. While it may seem a bit indulgent, it seems appropriate, to post and discuss them here and now. It is my birthday after all, and I think an indulgence or two is traditional.

Say Yes More Often

One of the main reasons I walked away from my full-time day job was so that I could explore things I hadn’t even had the time to imagine. Innovation happens in the white spaces of your life.  Creativity needs room to breathe. It was important to me and remains important to me that I create the opportunity to say yes to questions no one had been asking before. I’ve kept busy these last weeks trying a lot of different things, working on new projects and ideas I’ve had or collaborating with others on things outside of my comfort zone. Saying yes keeps me on my toes and keeps me excited about what’s coming up next. No matter what happens, no matter my successes and failures, I hope I never forget that.

Say No More Often

Most office-type day jobs have trainings or seminars or motivational posters that talk about the difference between tactical decisions and strategic ones. What they’re really talking about are short-term and long-term thinking. In the short-term, self-employment/unemployment is terrifying and dangerous. No matter how carefully planned it is and no matter the contingencies, walking away from a relatively stable career is a bad short-term decision but long-term, it’s the only decision I felt like I could make. I had to say no to predictability and a regular paycheck so I could say yes to the rest of it. My time and my potential have to be worth that. So, while it’s important to embrace changes and new things, it’s just as important to say no to the familiar, the easy and the toxic. Sometimes saying no means removing distractions so you can focus on the task at hand. Sometimes it just means creating boundaries and cultivating your own world. It’s always going to be easier to say yes to the wrong things and no to the right ones but success and passion isn’t about easy. Easy is short-term and anything worth a damn takes a bold strategy.

Fail as Often As Possible

There are always anecdotes about how many rejection letters, sometimes for very silly reasons, that writers have received for now-classic manuscripts from agents or publishers. The same stories are told about bands and painters and playwrights and actors and tech innovators and a hundred more careers. For every overnight success that accidentally catches lightning in a bottle there are a hundred more stories of perseverance through humbling failure. Most of us are demoralized by failure. People say they’re sorry when you don’t get that job you interviewed for or that commercial you auditioned for. I feel that. I’ve gotten form letters from agencies that make me wonder if they even spent as much time on my text as I spent printing it or even just double-checking the margins but, to date, my rejection list is too short. I haven’t failed enough. Failure is how you learn to get better. Even if all you’re learning is that editorial interns are shitty barometers of your talent or that it’s certainly not fair or reasonable that all of those other hacks got a break while you’re sitting on the next great American masterpiece. It’s important to take that rejection on the chin, to roll with it and stay in the ring. The only real failure is surrender. There’s a meme for many writers, a grim goal attributed maybe to a quote or two from some famous authors, that you should endeavor to get 500 rejections. I say why stop at 500? Even in the face of overwhelming success I hope I keep failing because it means I’m saying no to the familiar and I’m trying new things. The more often you fail, the more often you’re trying and the more often you’re trying the more often you’re winning. If I’m going to fail 99 times out of 100, give me a million failures.

If You’re Stuck Change the Approach

There’s perseverance and then there’s bull-headed stubbornness. It takes a lot of personal honesty to know the difference. I like to think of myself as an aspiring Taoist and I think a lot about the rock and the stream. The stream doesn’t stop when it hits a rock in the way. It goes around and it wears it down. A determined stream can burrow through a mountain but it will also change course wherever it needs to go reach the ocean. Don’t lose sight of your goals for the rocks in the way. Keep trying and keep failing but, when you need to, go around.

Don’t Let Anything Go to Waste

I save everything I write, every ugly draft, every aborted project and I keep my ideas close. I’ve written a lot of words in my life. I’ve got thousands of pages of text and probably more ideas for stories, characters, sentences and half-complete phrases than I can count. I put them all in a giant reservoir. Some of the best things I’ve written have been made from the remnants of bad ideas. Nothing is completely without merit. You can learn from it, laugh at it and mine it later for something new. Experience is always valuable and there are some things that just need time to develop and grow. I wrote a book called Dowd not too long ago and it’s one of the most personally satisfying things I’ve ever completed. It’s from an idea I had when I was seventeen. The book took fifteen years of slow-simmering and evolution before it made it. There are ideas I’m working on now that could take twenty years before I get them right. Don’t be defined by your failures and your half-baked stories but don’t be ashamed of them either.

Don’t Work Too Much

This is hard for me. I’m a prolific writer and I’m stuffed full of ideas and I want to do all of them right away. Finding the right balance is tricky but critical. Before I quit my day job, I would work all day (sometimes overtime) and then I would write or work on other things for 3 or 4 hours a night and usually at least one day on the weekend. With commuting, household chores and sleeping etc. I ended up with maybe twelve hours a week to spend with my friends and family. I did this for six months until I felt burnt out and exhausted all the time and all of my efforts were weaker because of it. I had difficulty recognizing myself and what little leisure time I rationed was tainted with stress. So, when I quit I knew that I needed that to change. Sometimes it’s important to intentionally not be productive for a little while so that you can go back to it refreshed.

When In Doubt, Stop Thinking and Start Sweating

When I really hit a brick wall, I go to the gym. Exercise is one of the most efficient forms of stress relief for me and a great way to get closer to my Taoist ideal. Anxiety and doubt are the bugbears of an inactive mind and I find forty-five minutes of cardio helps kick them in the jimmy and send them packing. Working on cerebral things all day creates a distance and imbalance with the body. It’s important to have anchors and ways to get you clear from the flood of your own thoughts. As much as I need to take breaks from the laptop for food I also need to get my blood flowing. You might not even realize how important it is until you do it.

When I worked full-time it seemed to me that the things that were most important to me were the same things I was able to spend the least time on. This journey for me has been about flipping that around. Now, I can prioritize the work I’m passionate about, my health and my family. I’m investing in myself and my future. I’m taking a chance that I hope will pay off down the road. I followed the path I thought I had to follow for almost thirty-four years. School then a job and another job and another job ad infinitum. I could have done that for the rest of my life and I might return to that structure if my ambitions can’t seem to pay the mortgage but for now, the only path I need to follow is the one I’ve laid out. It will wind and it will change but I’m not about to let a few big rocks get in my way.

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