After a long hiatus, I’m delighted to report that work on my first novel has resumed and is going well. I’m hesitant to share that with you—progress feels tentative and nonlinear, like I could, at any moment, veer wildly off course and never find my way back. Maybe just writing these words and sending them off into the internet will jinx it. But, for now at least, progress is coming (knock wood).
I credit that progress with two related things: I’m part of a fantastic writing workshop that meets on Saturday mornings to share our writing and hold each other accountable. And, in the course of that work, I’ve come to this simple—some may think obvious—revelation: my book won’t write itself. For a while there when I was stalled, I think that buried deep in my unconscious somewhere was the idea that one day I would wake up to a strike of shining inspiration, and then a brilliant fully formed manuscript would flow from my fingertips.
The Need for Discipline
It’s a common, damaging idea that great work flows naturally. That the famous writers we look up to never struggled through terrible first drafts and slightly less awful second drafts, before sharing their polished and shining seventh draft with the world. All we see is the clean, easy writing, the flawless and inevitable plot structure. I suspect this is true of other examples of greatness as well. We talk about “born leaders” and “natural athletes” and “visionary painters”—as though those people inherited a genius gene that lets them arrive, fully formed, in their brilliance. I’d argue that this is damaging. It’s damaging to budding writers, leaders and people who are muddling through, and to those “brilliant” people whose hard, often messy work gets swept away in a myth of ease.
The Myth of Natural Talent
Part of the challenge is that when a person is great at something, it can look easy to an outside observer. Think of a gymnast tumbling down a mat—it looks as easy as breathing for them. Of course, to make it look that easy they trained for years, suffered broken bones and bloody noses, scraped knees, and dislocated shoulders, endured the everyday muscle aches of pushing their bodies to their limits.
When it comes to writing, there is a romantic vision of a writer struck by the muse, helpless in the face of inspiration. The even more dangerous flip-side of that: brilliant writers only write when that magical and elusive force strikes them.
For a long time I held onto the belief that it should be easy. It’s not. It’s turning down plans to write. It’s mulling things over with my body—on the treadmill, walking the streets, in the shower—and then prying them out of my brain. It’s about as elegant as pulling my teeth out with a pair of rusty pliers. Most days it’s also downright boring — staring at my computer screen. Looking around for long empty minutes while I mull over the next sentence. Resisting the urge to distract myself with the internet (oof that one is hard). Ultimately though, there is a peace in this revelation. It won’t write itself. It’s not easy. But with work over time, it’s starting to add up.
And, I’m applying this idea to my work life as well. Have you ever found yourself avoiding an important task because you didn’t know where to start? Or dawdling because you were afraid you’d be bad at it? Maybe you’ve found yourself stuck, reading article after article on leadership or marketing or selling—taking in the advice of others who have walked a path before you, who have put in the time and have the hindsight required to make it look easy, and can never seem to find a way to apply that advice to your circumstance?
The Work Won’t Do Itself
Sustained action over time is the only path to greatness.Tweet
Think about something that you want to be great at. What’s the smallest first step you can take toward a shitty first draft? If you want to be a more effective leader, maybe that’s swinging by an employees desk to give them positive feedback. Or scheduling a one-on-one meeting with each of your team members. Whatever your goal, and whatever your first step, do that today. Tomorrow, take a step forward from there. Don’t expect your book to write itself—put in the time and effort and let it accumulate over time. One day soon it will be ready to share.