Michael He

July 28, 2021

The Never-Ending Writing Quest

Writing is a way to channel the creative energy but improving one's style and taste is a Sisyphean process. You will constantly be aware of the gap between what you know is good and your actual output. It is a lifelong uphill battle.

As Steven Pressfield notes in The War of Art, "Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated." Resistance will do everything to stop you from closing that gap and kill your unique soul from reaching its full potential. That is its ultimate goal.

My struggle with writing goes back a decade with years of misalignment. In response to my good friend Samuel's reflection on the writing process, here is my plan to stay in the lifelong writing marathon. None of my ideas are original, but I take full responsibility for any inaccuracy. This essay is a time-stamp of my never-ending writing quest in 2021.

The most important step of the creative journey is to believe in your potential and the fact that you are gifted. Everyone is chosen by God, but not everyone chooses God. This leap of faith is more difficult than everything that follows combined. Unfortunately, no one can make it work but you. Sometimes you will take years to get to the other side and realize that crossing the chasm actually only takes an instant. It may be a bitter pill to swallow. But I encourage you to find peace and joy in such reality. After all, this is all God's plan.

Disclaimer: my mentions of God do not mean you have to believe in God's existence; you can view the creative force in whichever way you prefer, but please remember that everything creative is internal.
Now you are spiritually ready to embrace the internal creative flames, I want to give you a firm handshake. The hardest part of the battle is over, but you still need to create certain conditions to further the flames inside you. They are quite frail. So how do you start a fire and keep it going for the night? You build a fire pit, fill it with dry twigs, and keep watching the fire with care. In a similar fashion, you need to stay open to God and his Muses at all times. You must accept them for who they are, not how you want them to be.

Creativity does not listen to your mind. The inspirations never do as you wish. They come and go as they please. The only thing you can do is to stay the course and never stop. You must be willing to pay the price to host these guests, or they will eventually throw tantrums so bad that you want them gone pronto. These rude guests will bang on your door during your sweet dreams, yank open the blanket, and scream in your face like toddlers. There is nothing you can do other than smile and take them in, or they will vanish without a trace. Believe me, that has happened often enough now I just take the sucker punches without putting up a fight.

Fortunately, there are other people who are embarking on this journey just like you. They also put up with their rude but irreplaceable guests and force themselves to smile. Find these people and share your warmth with one another.

Believe. Accept. Commit. Support. This is what it takes to begin a lifelong writing quest, in my opinion. And the results are pretty positive. Since starting my blog this March, I have written over one hundred posts. Some of them are no longer online and some of them are under revisions, but in aggregate I have written more authentic and interesting things over the last few months than all previous years combined. I feel energized to keep going.

Here are some things I do, which I learned from other writers and my own experience. Hopefully they can give you some ideas as well.

Make it easy to materialize your inspirations into words. I use sticky notes and my email draft box, whereas Vladimir Nabokov used index cards.

Do not be afraid to discard any idea, regardless of how much you have invested in the piece. The longest piece I trashed was twelve thousand words. And I’m sure great writers trash their drafts regularly.

Protect your creativity by savoring the accomplishment for 24 hours. To keep going, you must not let others walk over you too soon. First celebrate the little victory and deal with the grim reality later. Writers are pessimistic by nature. You almost need to be overly optimistic to keep writing and you have to condition yourself to do so. 
I will always wait 24 hours before I say anything to anyone about what I wrote, so you want to preserve that good feeling... treat yourself like a baby, very extremely nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman and just be a harsh prick, a ball-busting son of a bitch - Jerry Seinfeld

Do not make unreasonable demands, such as mandatory word count or writing duration longer than an hour. This sounds weird but it makes sense. Have low expectations of your commitment level. When the time is up, stop and feel okay with however much or little you put down on the page. This keeps you going even during the darker times.
You have to have an end-time to your writing session. If you’re going to sit down at a desk with a problem and do nothing else, you’ve got to get a reward for that. And the reward is, the alarm goes off, and you’re done. You get up and walk away and go have some cookies and milk. You’re done. - Jerry Seinfeld
When you don't know what to write, start writing out what you are thinking and feeling in that moment and you will eventually write something interesting enough. Creativity is like a water faucet. You need to pass out the dirty water to get to the clear water. Drill a hole slowly through the writer's block.
Write every day. Low expectations and accepting writer's block should be the activity very low stakes.
And the real enemy in writing is days where you get nothing written. If you write something every day, I don’t care how much or how little it is, it’s going to add up. And over time, you’ll get more done each day. So just make it an absolute rule. The really important thing, it may not be writing for everyone, but just do it every day, get better at it every day. Don’t take any excuses. Do it. - Tyler Cowen
Under-promise and overdeliver. Be realistic. Overpromise and underdeliver equals instant game over. Leave some room for pleasant surprises and no room for demoralizing thoughts.
Being undistracted leaves enough empty space to let ideas creep in and take shape, before you realize whether there is something to act upon. All you can do is to focus and grind whatever sausage that comes your way. Be Okay when you are alone, at least when you write. 
Relax and unwind your mind. Walking, running, swimming, and rowing all give you constant stimulus to process ideas on the back burner. Showers, baths, and massages produce similar effects. These activities sometimes produce the Inspirations directly, but they often accelerate the idea fermentation process instead. Either way, they are worthwhile.

Stay close to Nature. Nature (specifically trees and water) is the life source for the Muses.

Be patient with yourself, your ideas, and your struggles. Some ideas may need years of processing and research to take shape. Some may take only minutes to be pretty good. Similarly, the time it takes to revise and rewrite varies drastically. Some of my favorite pieces have same-day turnaround, while others take months to make any meaningful revision. Novels can take decades to finish. Newton updated Principia Mathematica over almost forty years.

Initiate and reciprocate. Find someone who is happy to read what you write and give you honest feedback. Act on the suggestions. Send your writing companions encouragements. Do the same for them, because they have supported you and will continue supporting you. My sincere thanks to my writing pals.
Have fun with people, especially with your writing companions. Eat together. Share your emotions, ideas, and energies. Be proud of each other's achievements.  And also push each other to do better and be better.

Writing is both single player and multi-player, and you must do both. The never-ending writing quest means you must slay the dragon alone, but you never actually walk alone (not even Kirito). Someone stitched your armor. Someone sharpened your sword. Someone made you sandwiches. Someone treated your wounds. Someone looked after your family and village... These people cannot speed up your dragon-slaying, but without them, slaying the dragon is impossible in the first place. As the Chinese saying goes, don’t forget the people that dug the well when you drink the water.
I wish you a life of fulfillment and happiness. Welcome to the writing life. 

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.