Diving Off a Cliff

April 15, 2014

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.


  1. Adrian

    Write on, John!

    Lately I’ve been struggling with the prospect of starting to write a new piece. What makes it especially scary is, it would be totally original music. Incidental music to accompany a play (if acted) or a story (narrated), perhaps both, so there is some inspirational material. But the music will have to come from the blank page.

    I think your piece today may give me the courage to try… Danke, mein bruder!

    • jdmann

      Willkommen, bruden mein! Man do I know that one well. The idea that some words might help lead to some notes over there cheers me no end. (And I cain’t hardly say how cool it is to know my big brother’s out there reading my posts!)

  2. Doug Wagner

    Thought provoking post John. Making me rethink my approach to writing even now; and maybe life as well.


    • jdmann

      Thanks, Doug — great to hear!

  3. James

    Thanks for the reassurance that the “piece of crap” I am currently committing to paper could someday morph into something worth reading. I’m a big fan of several novels written in the second person. Check out Jay MacInerey’s Bright Lights, Big City.


    • jdmann

      Ha! Having read a number of your someday morphs, my guess is: ayuh. And here’s an irony I know you’ll appreciate: I reworked the content of that blog post probably 9 or 10 times before pressing “publish.” (Does that make it oxymoronic?) Will put MacInerney on my list, right after Laurence Shames! (Waiting patiently for me to finish my current Raymond Chandler binge-read.)

  4. Linda Ryan

    I love reading your writing, John and really love the analogy between writing and living. And it’s reassuring to hear an awesome writer like you admit to wondering if what you’ve written is crap. I seriously ask myself that every week, before I hit publish. Now I will still ask, but understand that crap is in the eyes of the beholder/reader.

    • jdmann

      Hi Linda! One thing: honestly, it isn’t only that I wonder if something is crap, it’s that sometimes it truly IS. And the ability (and willingness) to look with a cool eye and discern what works and what doesn’t, to be a self-editor, is crucial. It’s just that you have to turn that editor-eye off when the actual writing is happening in the first place. I’ll eventually answer the question (and find out whether the passage I wrote is excellent, or somewhat usable, or thoroughly discard-worthy) – but if I tried to answer it now I’d gum up the process of getting it down in the first place. Later I’ll go back to it – and be ruthless. (A lot of words from the first draft of The Go-Giver never reached the press.)

  5. Laura Atchison

    I am jumping off the cliff here because you have inspired me withe your honesty yet again John. The opening line of my new book. Which actually isn’t the book I was planning on writing. Maybe. “I am not superwoman. I’m thinking if I keep telling myself that perhaps one day I will believe it, because right now trying to take care of everyone’s needs and everything on my to-do list really isn’t doing much other than exhausting me and making me frustrated I cannot do it all now. Or maybe it is more about changing the definition of superwoman from someone who feels they can save the world all by themselves regardless of what happens to themselves to someone who lives a super extraordinary life with amazing friends, a connection to her inner wisdom and one who recognizes they can make a difference just by living their passion and saying no once in a while…..”

    • jdmann

      Hi Laura ~ Personally, I think you are superwoman. But even Superwoman feels vulnerable about her first drafts. (Her willingness to show up with them anyway is what makes her super.)

  6. Laura Atchison

    John, thanks for thinking I am superwoman! I love your definition.



  1. Journal of John David Mann » Blog Archive » Your Dog Is Right - [...] Contact Me « Diving Off a Cliff [...]
  2. Journal of John David Mann » Blog Archive » That Excruciating Joy - [...] working on that book, the one I started in the middle of April. I’ve assembled two months’ worth of…

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