Today I started writing a book.
This morning when I woke up I had no idea how it started. It’s a book about a well-known CEO (alas, can’t reveal the name just now) whose story I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly how to tell. Today in the shower a thought came to me and I wrote it down:
“In English grammar, they have what they call first person and second person. First person is when I talk about me. Second person is when I talk about you. I think grammar may have it backwards. Anyone who has had any measure of genuine success knows that focusing on myself comes second. Focusing on you comes first.
“So here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you my story. But the point is not to tell you my story—it’s to offer whatever experiences and perspectives I can in hopes it may help you work out what your story is, and muster the courage to live it.”
Right now I have no idea if these hundred words are good, or so-so, or awful. That’s not false modesty. I truly don’t know. I have no idea if they will end up being the way the book starts, or even whether or not they will appear in the book at all. But that’s not important. What’s important is taking that first step — that one that takes you off the cliff and into freefall.
That’s what writing is like: flinging yourself off a cliff every day, without knowing if there’s a net there or not.
Living is like that, too.
They’re similar in a lot of ways, writing a book and living a life. Each book starts with a blank page. So does each day. And no matter how long you’ve been doing this (writing, living) you really have no guarantees that this time, you know what you’re doing, and no sure-fire formula for how to do it.
You have tens of thousands of examples before you — books that others have written, lives that others have lived. That’s helpful, but not as much as you’d hope. None of those books is the one you’re writing now, none of those lives the one you’re living now. So you’re still faced with that blank page and the challenge that you’re going to put something down on it that may turn out to be mediocre or worse.
Here is what George Orwell commented while writing 1984, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language:
“The rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.”
Ernest Hemingway (no surprise here) put it a little more simply:
“The first draft of anything is crap.”
I look back at my twenties and thirties as my life’s first draft. There were some good ideas in there, but also an awful lot of missteps and minor disasters, even some major ones. There were moments and episodes that still make me cringe. As far as I can see, Hemingway was right on.
Still, there’s no getting around it. You have to start, or it won’t get done.
I’m deliriously happy with my life today. But I couldn’t have this life with having dove off the cliff and taken a stab at that first draft.
This, I think, is what stops so many people from writing: the fear of putting down something that’s no good. But that’s essential. In fact I think it is the unwillingness to suppress that reflex for in-the-moment self-critical judgment, self-editing, second-guessing, and revising-as-you-go, that smothers most good writing (and perhaps a good deal of living) in the crib. It’s probably the biggest thing that separates those who aspire to write from those who actually do.
In a word: courage.
It takes courage to write a book. It takes courage to live a life. It takes courage to let yourself be vulnerable. To let yourself look foolish. To let yourself fall. To let yourself feel.
Joan Didion wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” I think we live to find out who we are.
There’s no safe way to do either one, but in both cases the result is real — and worth it.