I was Twitter-tagged as part of a 100-people experiment involving Hugh MacLeod. I was delighted to take part.
If you want to be a writer, or any other kind of artist, cartoonist, blogger and bestselling writer Hugh MacLeod has some advice for you.
It’s easy to tell somebody to get into The Zone. Much harder to live it. But fight like hell to get there, regardless, every friggin’ day, or else you’ll never make it.
The idea of the artist as a fighter, a warrior, permeates Steven Pressfield’s excellent book THE WAR OF ART:
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
The Resistance is the enemy. The Resistance is procrastination, distraction, self-sabotage, a friend’s negativity, hurtful criticism, or anything else that keeps you from making art.
The irony is that you can never escape Resistance, because the presence of Resistance is a sign that you’re moving toward your true work:
The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance. […]
The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.
Is he scared? Hell, yes. He’s petrified. […]
So if you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign. It shows you what you have to do.
To grow as an artist is to learn how to battle the Resistance every day — and win.
Both MacLeod and Pressfield are referring to the necessity of ‘deliberate practice’ or deep practice: the kind of focused, goal-oriented practice that pushes us to the edge of our abilities and beyond. This is the kind of practice that puts us in The Zone, that relaxed, alert, highly focused state of mind in which we lose ourselves in our work. Put together 10,000 hours – and more – of this kind of practice and chances are that you will have achieved a level of mastery at whatever it is that you do.
Because the road to mastery requires so much time and effort, it’s important to love the process itself (instead of caring so much about the outcome). So when you’re fighting all the forces that would have you lead a conventional life, bog you down in mediocrity, and prevent you from entering the Zone…you’re fighting from a place of love.
Love and war: you bring together two opposites, and the strengths of one help you in the domain of the other.
What are you fighting for?
You’re fighting for a remarkable life. You’re fighting to be remarkable, to offer the world something remarkable, because that kind of life has to be earned.
You’re fighting for your voice to rise above the fray and the clamor.
Your voice is you. It is the stripped down essence of you. It is your brand, your signature, and your art.
A fully developed voice is a distinctive voice: a fan will recognize it five miles off.
And a fresh and original voice is what people are constantly searching for. It’s what editors are hoping for every time they pick up a manuscript. They want a great story, and but more importantly they want a great voice. Story, as one editor pointed out, can be revised and reworked. But the voice is either there, or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, no editor can magically summon it into being.
I recently came across the phrase “point of differentiation” as applied to relationships: your point of differentiation is your clear sense of self, the things you cannot and will not change for anyone.
Your voice, your art, is your point of differentiation. It marks you apart from everything and everyone else. It conveys an identity.
Your true voice is passionate, authentic, and original. Passionate and authentic because it is you, consistent and truthful and fighting for what you believe in; original because it is composed from your mind and personality and influences and experiences and everything else that goes into the unique creation of you.
To find your voice is to know who you are.
To succeed as an artist, then, requires mad skills earned through deliberate practice, combined with deep self-knowledge.
To speak — truly speak your truth, your art — requires the ability to listen.
The book HALF THE SKY talks about the effort to reduce the spread of AIDS in Africa. “Four different strategies were tried in randomly chosen areas, and the results were compared to results in control areas. Success was measured by pregnancies averted (compared to the control areas) since they presumably reflected the amount of unprotected sex that could also transmit AIDS.”
Training elementary school teachers in AIDS education did not reduce pregnancies. Neither did encouraging student debates and essays on condoms and AIDS.
What did work?
Providing students with free uniforms. This encouraged (and enabled) students to stay in school longer, and the more educated the person, the less likely to become pregnant.
But “by the far the most cost-effective approach was also the simplest: warning of the perils of sugar daddies.” Schoolchildren were shown a video informing then that older men have much higher HIV infection rates than boys. Few students knew this, in a culture where teenage girls “often become the baubles of middle-aged men” in search of a better life.
This success came about through listening to the local culture and responding to it in a sincere and genuine manner. It was not the result of blundering into a new place and stamping some pre-existing opinions on it.
Before you speak, be sure to listen. And learn.
Part of that listening needs to be to yourself: your inner, intuitive voice. You need to fight for the silence in which that can happen.
When you’re cut off from your inner voice, you get trapped in a world of surfaces, where the image is taken for the truth. You’ll believe what other people want you to believe, the masks and manipulations and distortions they present as reality. They’ll tell you what you want…which is what they want you to want. They’ll tell you who you are….which is who they want you to be.
Your inner voice, composed of hunches and dreams, gut feelings and intuitive knowledge – the communications of the subconscious – is what tethers you to the reality behind the surface, the truth behind the image. Your inner voice is also your point of differentiation: the art you need to make, the story you need to tell (instead of the one you think you should tell).
Because your inner voice, your insight and opinions, are inconvenient for them and don’t fit into their agendas, there are people in your life who would snuff that voice out. Who would replace it with their own, so that you are no longer you, but merely an extension, an echo, of them.
Fight them like hell.
Life is too short to be someone’s echo.
You are your voice. Your voice is your art.
Through art, you make yourself a gift to the world.
And that is something worth fighting for.