There’s something singularly depressing about snail races. Yes, that is a real, actual activity that people engage in. Google it.
Anyway, I think they’re so sad. I mean, sure, it’s kind of cute to see a bunch of chubby little gastropods sliming their merry way toward lettuce, but the whole thing is a perversion of their true strengths! Snails aren’t supposed to be raced.
Of course, that’s the point of the whole snail-race establishment. It’s meant to be ironic. But there’s a deeper life lesson dwelling within the unsuspecting (and mucus-y) wake of our shelled little friends.
Certain things aren’t meant to be rushed. It’s not in their nature. And when you attempt to race them to the finish line in spite of this fact, you get an ironic, vaguely disturbing scene that’s unlikely to produce much success.
Have you ever tried to sell tickets to a snail race? Yeah, it’s not the greatest investment. Writing is similar, in many ways. Here’s what I mean.
Who Are You Racing, Anyway?
Us writers — and creatives in general — tend to feel a perpetual sense of movement toward…well, toward something. And underneath that mindless urgency is an unspoken feeling of being in a race against other, nameless figures who seek to ‘beat’ us at the creative game.
It’s pretty stupid if you think about it. But that’s the thing — most of us don’t think about it. We simply feel rushed without knowing why or considering the feeling in any deeper way. Introspection?! Who has time for that when you have a self-imposed-yet-not-actually-solidified-deadline to meet?!
We go about our work with the sensation that someone somewhere is beating us at writing. That a-hole is out there out-writing us, out-creating us, and all-around stealing our hopes and dreams right out from under our noses.
Except…they aren’t. That mystery figure who’s always doing this writing thing better than you? They don’t exist.
You feel inadequate as a writer — your ideas suck, or you can’t execute them properly, or your work will never sell — so your mind forms this faceless ‘other’ as a way to protect your sensitive little artist’s heart.
Well suck it up, buttercup, because this is a race no one can win. You sure can lose it, though. If you give up on your passions or your work suffers because of your own self-hosted competition, you’ll have lost something precious: your true potential.
In our competitive society, it’s easy to feel like there has to be someone you’re trying to outdo. The wonderful thing about being a writer is that there isn’t.
I suggest you make the choice to stop formulating rivals out of thin air — it’s only going to distract you from your real work. Self-doubt? Now that’s something worth beating if you want to succeed.
We Don’t Have A Finish Line, And That’s Both Awesome And Terrifying Beyond Belief
In many fields and industries, success is clearly measurable. It comes with fun things like titles and immediate pay raises, and if you’re really lucky you might even receive a useless but fancy-looking plaque to hang in your office!
Writers rarely have such milestones to work by. Our measurements tend to be less tangible, more self-directed, and sometimes they make no sense to anyone outside of our own bizarre selves.
This can create its own kind of stress — people as a whole tend to do better when they’re given structure. In a career path that doesn’t have a built-in structure, our own attempts to create it can easily go awry. Trying to build a writing career by using measures that really belong in a corporate skyscraper can result in untold suffering.
And also some pretty sh** pieces of boring writing, if my own experiences are any indication. C’est la vie, right? Learn this lesson well and early: you can’t approach writing the way you’d approach a 9–5 job. This is a direct contradiction to a lot of the advice I’ve seen touted on blogs and videos out there, but I’m saying it anyway.
Writing — art — isn’t a 9–5 job, even when it’s your full-time career. It just isn’t. Being consistently creative depends on factors far less predictable than the “hard” skills you see in the ranks of accountants or marketing consultants (whatever those are). We tend to try and measure ourselves by the same things other people do…but that’s a recipe for disaster.
All of this doesn’t mean you can’t create structure, but it does mean it’s easy for us to equate “structured work” with “racing headlong toward a non-existent finish line in a fruitless attempt to feel in control.” Personally, I’ve found this approach to be pretty f***ing useless in the long run.
Instead of thinking of milestones, I find it’s easier to bank on basic strategies. Even then, you should try to balance “rules” with guidelines. Work with the element of surprise and learn to create on your feet. Most importantly, do your best to block out the concept of other professionals’ milestones. They aren’t yours and they never will be.
You’re a creative, and that comes with a whole slew of unique, annoying challenges to overcome. Racing toward the finish lines that other fields live by will result in a whole lot of sprinting without much to show for it.
We’re Playing Chess, Not Competing With Usain Bolt
There’s this familiar saying that comes to mind when we’re talking about creative pursuits: “we’re playing chess, not checkers.” Personally, I’ve found that most of us writers and artists have to go way beyond that.
It’s more like, “we’re playing chess, so why the f*** are you over there on the starting line with Usain Freaking Bolt next to your dumb a**?” Yep, that’s where I was at not that long ago. When I took off my cleats (is that what racer people wear???) and put on my…chess suit (???), things started to make a lot more sense.
Creating, writing, whatever you do with all those ideas bumping around inside of you — these activities are not built to be athletic or predictable. They’re built to be unique, surprising, and complex.
Stories are meant to be told, not raced. Ideas have to be formed and strategized, not shoved head-first as soon as they so much as begin looking like an actual piece of work.
I’m not in a rush when I work. Deadlines be damned — that’s what my overall strategies are for. Those are the routines and habitual actions that keep me more or less on track as far as clients and time limits go.
Ultimately, even those strategies come second to my ability to think and create based on where I am at any given moment.
It’s an eternal act of evaluation, this work.
If our work was as simple as getting from point A to point B, maybe all the well-meaning “just do it” writing advice out there would actually, you know, help.
Alas, it largely misses the point, in my humble experience. That’s not to say it’s useless. Not at all — much of our common advice has many pearls of wisdom hidden beneath what may turn out to be a faulty paradigm.
But still, a lot of ‘gurus’ are asking you to be an athlete, when you’re really trying to become a strategist. An aficionado, if you will. A purveyor of pieces on a board called “that sh** people pay you to do.”
You aren’t competing with anybody, you’re trying to outsmart the challenges presented to you at a given time.
Challenges like, “how do I get this company to pull its head out of its own a** and actually forge a brand?” or “why does this character have to act like such a douchebag when it would be perfectly reasonable for them to be a saint instead?”
Writing is all about answering questions, one at a time, until you create something amazing.
So take off your gym shorts and put on that chess suit. Stop running in circles and start making the moves that work for you. You’ll be doing yourself and your audience a huge favor.
This rambling article could be summed up in one elegant phrase: slow the ever-loving f*** down, writers, and give yourself the space you need to do great work.
Seriously. Most of us aren’t in anywhere near good enough shape to be racing down a track. I mean, have you seen my posture? It’s a chiropractor’s nightmare.
If you were meant to race to some fancy finish line, you wouldn’t have been born a creator. Our work is infinitely harder and a whole lot more interesting than following a formula toward success. And while rivals and competitors can be useful in the corporate arena, our work is far more collaborative than it is competitive.
Next time you’re sitting there feeling like you aren’t getting there fast enough with your creative work, stop yourself and think of this train-wreck of an inspirational essay. Why are you in a rush? Who is telling you to race yourself forward at the expense of your own passion, joy, and inspiration?
Once you find that person, smack some duct tape over their mouth. Wait, that’s too kinky. Just tell them to f*** off. Then enjoy being a wild, un-raced snail, a natural being made of creative slime and a hard, unyielding shell of chaotic creativity. I had to find a way to finish with a gastropod metaphor. I did my best, okay?
Anyway, stop stressing yourself out and go put some words on a thing. The rest of the world can wait a while for the wonderful things you are going to create, I promise. It’s going to be more than worth it.