Willpower, Muses, and Other Destructive Myths of Writing
It's little wonder that writing communities have developed a great many stories to explain how stuff works. Among the stuff we try to explain is the act of writing itself. Yet, as with many cultural stories, our explanations have sometimes proven unhelpful or—in the worst cases—downright destructive. Today, I'm going to talk about some of my least favorite myths of the writing community, and explain why they are so prevalent and so damaging.
The Nike Fallacy: Just Do It!
In my recent study of the psychology of creativity, I referred to a great many books. Several had similar themes, one of which was best embodied by The Creative Habit (by Twyla Tharp) and The War of Art (by Steven Pressfield). Both insisted in the importance of consistently practicing creativity, and I follow them to that point. However, when moving from the assertion that creative habits are important to the question of how those habits can be formed, both Pressfield and Tharp fall to the Nike Fallacy.
You know. The Nike Fallacy. "Just do it." It's important, so do it! This is what it takes, so do it!
This type of advice attempts to substitute a what and why for a how. Unfortunately, that does nothing to help writers effectively form habits. Indeed, the study of habit formation has demonstrated that this sort of advice is counterproductive. Human willpower is a measurable phenomenon, and our ability to exercise that willpower is finite. When given motivational lectures and the advice to "just do it!," eager members of the audience will demonstrate a fairly predictable pattern of behavior:
In the short run, they will work very hard, get short-term results, feel very proud, and exhaust their willpower. Then the motivational effects wear off and the positive behaviors will be left to gather dust. People blame themselves for this, which creates a barrier of shame, and the positive actions are attended less than they were before the motivational spike took place.
This is why diets often lead to weight gain in the long-term. Similarly, the Nike Fallacy of writing—that we should just do it—often leads to the temporary illusion of progress, but negative long-term results.
The most effective way to progress is through small steps that you integrate as daily habits, and we know plenty about the psychology of forming habits effectively. But because those changes aren't difficult—because we don't have to exert all our willpower to sustain them, and the change is gradual—it's harder to notice and acknowledge the impact. The Nike Fallacy and magic bullet solutions remain appealing because the effort is visible, even if the long-term results tally to a net loss.
Divine Inspiration: The Gift of the Muse
In the final third of The War of Art, Pressfield makes an interesting move: He argues for the literal reality of angels and muses that inspire us. This concept is by no means new, and Pressfield isn't the only one making such an assertion today. In her popular TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) discusses the idea of offering oneself as a conduit for the muses rather than thinking of one's self as the direct creator of one's written content.
On the one hand, this does something astonishingly helpful for anxious writers: It detaches the end result from the writer's worth. If one can blame the muse for the positive or negative outcome, then failure is no longer as frightening. This is important, because having one's ego on the line creates anxiety, and anxiety blocks the creative process (as I discuss in my article on the psychology of writer's block).
But the idea of muse-ical inspiration also has its downfalls. First, writers have placed their success outside of their personal locus of control. If a work fails, it isn't for any practical reason that the writer can influence: It's because of that darn muse. Learning to embrace failure requires embracing one's ability (limited though it may be) to improve, avoid similar mistakes in the future, and otherwise influence the success or failure of one's work.
Second, this approach has provided a narrative that can actually feed into writer's block. If inspiration isn't coming, it must mean the muse is absent or that you've lost the muse's favor. Again, the solution is placed outside the realm of the writer's locus of control.
And third, this approach has a hidden egotism. Whenever you succeed, you have the chance to say that you're favored by the muses, or gods, or the hidden forces of the universe. The arrogance inherent in this idea is, to me, far worse than simply stating, "I can do this because humans have amazing creative powers, I've practiced mine in this field, I worked hard on this project, and happened to have a bit of luck in the mix." The question of being favored by the muses becomes a problem because of how it connects with one's identity as a writer (which I explore in the next section of this article).
Writers Must Write: The Essential Identity
I'm a writer. Want to know why? I write. I write a lot. I tried to calculate recently just how much I've written over the last decade, and it's somewhere between two and five million words. But do I have to write?
No. Of course not. If I lost the ability to write tomorrow, I wouldn't die. I would need new coping mechanisms, a new life plan, a good therapist, and a lot of chocolate—but I wouldn't spontaneously combust. But I could be happy in another field. I could take up professional watch repair, and in a lot of ways I would be less stressed (I've always found watch repair to be quite Zen). I would have to adjust—but I would be fine.
Yet this idea contradicts a popular myth of ours. As Charles Bukowski says of writing:
Unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it.
Which would be more powerful if Bukowski wasn't an alcoholic who spent most of his life not actually writing. And yes, I have a problem with this because the idea that one writes because it is one's essential nature is arrogant and elitist. But that's not the point. The point is that this myth is also counterproductive.
Carol Dweck's research into learning patterns and mindsets has demonstrated that those who view outcomes as the reflection of their innate identity are less likely to work to improve, less likely to take risks, and more likely to experience negative emotions in the face of failure. Conversely, those who view outcomes as the result of working hard for something are more likely to continue that work and improve throughout their lives.
In other words, writers who can live without writing are more likely to write. And being a writer is not a matter of your essential identity or whether or not the muses have chosen you. It is simply a matter of whether or not you are writing.
If my gleeful attack of these myths resonated with you, I invite you to check out a few more myths I try to take down a peg (specifically about our definitions of success and "good writing"). And, of course, I'd love your feedback and counter-arguments. Do these myths exist in your current outlook? Do they help you in ways I'm not seeing? Are there other myths I'm not recognizing that have proved destructive for you? Let me know in the comments, below.
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