Rules for Writing – Rule #6 – Thou Shalt Do It Before You’re Ready to Do It

It took a few weeks for me to recognize that I was encountering the same concept—this idea that we must embark on a task, a project, a journey, before we feel we are ready—in a variety of areas of my life. With an inevitable confluence, many of the articles I was reading and many of the podcasts I was listening to, echoed this same idea.

Typically, I assign the concept of doing-before-knowing to my attempts at living a more present and mindful existence. One of the tenets of Buddhism, upon which a mindfulness practice heavily relies, is that you are ready to be mindful right now, you have what you need right here, there is no amount of training or preparation that can give you the inner resources that you don’t already possess.

In writing, doing-before-knowing can manifest itself in myriad ways depending on the writer. Maybe it means writing a novel before we’re ready. Maybe it means writing a character with a different ethnicity. Maybe it means finally writing that epic, book-length poem (God help you.)

Specific to writing—because it overlaps so with academic work—you can research yourself into paralysis. And, sorry to break it to you, but you will never know everything about your subject. There will be holes. Those holes—however small—will betray themselves in your work. Yeah, try to fill them, try to know what you can, but here’s the thing:

Writers are illusionists, enchanters, conjurers – not founts of encyclopedic knowledge.

Think over the most influential authors from your own life, and although you may well have learned a thing or two from them, that’s just a happy accident, because what we carry with us still is the residue of the spell that they cast upon us, the way they transported us, transfixed us. Tricked us into seeing our lives in a tweaked, technicolored way.

Do we need to climb a mountain in order to describe climbing a mountain? Experience helps, sure, but a litany of mountain-climbing details without artistic intervention is going to make readers want to gouge out their eyes with a crampon. The gimmick is to make the reader believe she is climbing a mountain, and there is no number of mountains you can climb that will prepare you to do that.

Practice instead the subterfuge. But be wary, for here, too, lies another trap. We all carry with us the ever-running ‘Rocky Montage’ where we locate our inner tiger-eye and overcome our fear and train and train and train AND THEN we go beat Clubber Lang in the ring. Sure, we all need to hone the fundamentals and, yes, there is validity to practice—because we will get better the more we do something—but remember: Clubber Lang putting the hurt on us is an essential part of the journey. We evolve by the surviving, the overcoming, not by what we knew before the match started.  

Attend to the skills of writing, pay attention to the details, learn what you can upfront, but if we want to write works that will transport readers—and these are the only works worth writing—hone how you incant, how you mystify, hone how you conjure that spell.

The ability to do so is already within you.