Or read what you want to write. It seems obvious, right? But like any advice distilled into a pithy phrase and passed around until it loses meaning, there’s more to it. The horizontal champions will tell you it’s about market research – figuring out what “works” so you can make readers happy with the same product. Writers with more artistic aspirations take this advice to mean distilling the essence of the greats. I don’t dispute either, but I’m here to tell you something different: it’s about distilling your own essence.
Here’s where I’m tempted to use another scene from The Holy Mountain, the one where a dude poops in a jar and the alchemy apparatus turns it into a turd of solid gold, but I’ll refrain. Moving on…
In the wake of the growing phenomena of online mobs dragging people to the pillory, often for the most ridiculously minor offenses, I’ve been thinking about what we can all do to be better than this, and the answer is we all need to go the fuck outside. This is not an original observation, of course. Viktor Frenkl made it a century ago in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Therefore, I’m going to let the man who survived Auschwitz do some of the explaining:
Anger is an addiction. Righteous indignation is a disease. This is how I came to see my own online behavior as I got into comment slapfights and fell for endless streams of rage-inciting clickbait. Rage is a poison in the brain, an infectious one that poisons the air around you, like smoking. Isn’t it about time we all quit?
Imagine a dude bashing himself in the head with a laptop. You ask him why he’s doing that, and he says, “Because people on the other end are idiots!”
You point out, “But you’re the one smacking yourself in the head. If you keep doing that, you’re going to turn yourself into a jibbering idiot.”
He replies, “But I need to smack myself in the head. I keep trying to get information, and other people keep being wrong, so I need to smack myself to get their wrongness out of my head. There’s no other way, so I’m going to keep beating myself until other people stop being wrong.” And he turns his brain to jelly.
Do you see how ridiculous this is? Maybe you do, but you still don’t stop. Fine, we all get like that sometimes. Every one of us has to make a concerted effort to not keep poking at our sores. It’s there. It’s being sore. It’s maddening. And you don’t like it, so you keep poking it, but the only thing you’re accomplishing is making yourself more sore. You rub yourself so raw that even the tiniest grain of sand feels like a hot knife in the wound.
Mastering any skill is a long process filled with learning, practice, and failure. Without learning, all practice will do is ingrain bad habits. If don’t practice, everything you learn will fall right out of your head. And if you never risk failure, you’re hobbling your learning. You need all three, otherwise you plateau.
The slow climb to mastery mountain usually starts with a gentle slope. As you rise in skill, you’ll meet many hikers along the way. At this point, everyone’s a dabbler. There are no real stakes involved. This part of the climb tends to be fun, unless some jerk is hiding in the bushes throwing stones at other people. At this stage, harsh criticism is neither welcome nor helpful – we’ll come to that later.
If you keep at it, you’ll reach the competency plateau. The work is still fun and comfortable. Your skill may even make you money at this stage, because it’s finally good enough that people will pay for it. You’ll have much congenial company here, but don’t fool yourself: most people resting on their laurels aren’t going anywhere. There are three types of people who climb no further:
1. Dabblers are the people who’ve tried something for long enough to figure out they didn’t like it enough to continue. They’re often distracted by far more attractive mountains on the horizon, so they climb down and make the slow ascent up some other track. However, all mountains look blue on the horizon. If you turn from them as they turn to muddy grey, you’re turning away from reality to chase a dream. If you want to turn a dream into reality, you need to grasp the jagged rocks ahead and start climbing.
2. Hobbyists are perfectly happy staying on the plateau because they’re doing it as an escape from their real jobs. Hobbyists are generally chill, so it’s best to leave them to do their own thing. Again, harsh criticism is often not welcome here. Hobbies are great, so don’t come down on someone for not taking something seriously because they’re just having fun.
3. Hacks either keep to themselves, turning out a decent living with competent work, or are pernicious “gurus” who offer to teach you how to climb the mountain ahead, even though they’ve never conquered it themselves. Beware the latter, because he is either a dunce who doesn’t know how awful he is, or is out to scam you. Though, if you only want to learn how to be a competent hack yourself, he has much to teach you. He’s this guy: