One of my newfound passions is listening to non-fiction audio books (And podcasts! Oh, how I love On Being). My husband and I were on a road trip this summer and I took a chance, after a failed attempt a few years before to listen to one of the Game of Thrones books a while back. For some reason, I can’t follow along with fiction, but non-fiction turned out to be my jam. I especially love books read by the authors, when, of course, the authors have zest and charisma (whatever you do, don’t listen to any of Eckhart Tolle’s books. Those things = snorefest).
I’m currently into anchor man Dan Harris’ 10% Happier – it’s an absolute must-read (or, listen-to) for anyone considering meditation but who, like me, is ambitious and doesn’t want to lose their edge. (Anyone else afraid meditation will make you too chill about the dog-eat-dog world of publishing, or cause you to lose your creative zing?). What’s great about it is that he approaches meditation in a really thoughtful, methodical way, using himself as a guinea pig. His work as a journalist has taken him to a lot of interesting places (the Iraq War, pentecostal churches, and Deepak Chopra’s weirdness), and he’s been in a unique position to talk to some of the leading experts in the field.
I like his wryness, irreverence, and forthrightness – I totally trust that he is not bullshitting me. I think you might like this, too (especially where he goes off on shady wellness and self-help characters). During his chapter about a meditation retreat he took (which is spot-on and just like the one I took this summer that creatively unblocked me), he mentioned something the teacher Joseph Goldstein said in the Q and A portion of a dharma talk. (P.S. Dharma Talk = Buddhist sermon) Harris had gotten the courage to challenge what Goldstein said about how the students shouldn’t worry about things IRL, saying that it’s just not realistic to not worry about your job, your health, or other pressing concerns that might come up in the real world because you can’t control the outcome. Because Harris approaches everything with a healthy dose of skepticism and the keen ability to home in on bullshit that he’s honed as a reporter, he pointed out that this just isn’t a helpful approach to real life.
Goldstein admitted that, yes, of course, shit happens (my phrase, not his), and that it’s okay to grapple with the stresses of life, to, as Harris says, “worry, plot, and plan,” but only up to the point that it’s useful. He said the thing to ask yourself when you’re trying to be mindful about your response to the stresses of life and you’re finding yourself worrying is, Is this useful?
Harris talks about this as his Eureka moment during the retreat. It wasn’t about enlightenment or cool moments when he felt one with all things, it was this simple, practical question about how we relate to the concerns of living. Is this useful? I find this to be helpful in thinking about my relationship to my career. Of course I worry about sales, about how many followers I have, or how much my publishers are doing to promote my books. I worry about reviews and invites to festivals, I worry about the work itself, I worry about books I have on submission. This is normal. This is what it means to be a functioning human being: we recognize areas in our lives where we need to improve, to shift, to switch things up. We track our progress and our failures and deduce what our next steps will be. But these gymnastics only work up to a point – they are only helpful to a point. After that, you’re just adding gray hairs and taking years off your life. So what is that point where worrying stops being useful?
I suppose this looks different for every writer, but here are a few scenarios from my own life:
Scenario: Advanced reader copies of my newest book are about to be sent to reviewers:
Useful: How will this book stand out from others? Will it be sent along with a thoughtful letter from the publisher, or put in snazzy promotional packaging, or just stuffed into a box with a million other books the publisher wants them to review? What efforts can I make with my publisher to lobby for my book to have more visibility? In what ways can I boost the book’s profile on my own via social media so that it gains the attention of booksellers and librarians so that when they DO get the advanced reader copy of my book, they’ll want to open it?
With this line of thinking I’m occupied with practical concerns, actionable ideas that I need to consider and possibly implement – this is all part of doing my job as a writer. This is useful. Unless, of course, these thoughts are accompanied by a feeling of panic and grasping (thinking any of these things will actually make me happier and more fulfilled if they happen). If I do end up doing any of the things above–such as reaching out to booksellers on social media–doing this mindfully would mean that I don’t go into a manic tweeting frenzy or get depressed when no one re-tweets me.
Not useful: What if the reviews are terrible and no one buys my book? What if they don’t review my book at all? What if the sales are so bad that the book gets remaindered a month later? What if the book doesn’t get awards or on lists? Does that mean I’ll have to, as Dan Harris worries, live in a flophouse in Duluth?
With the above, I’m concerned about things way out of my control, worry about things that haven’t happened yet, hypothesizing about my apocalyptic future. This doesn’t help me. There isn’t anything I can actually DO, none of this is in my control, and worrying about it just sends me into a tizzy so that I can’t write or sleep or anything. NOT useful.
Scenario: I’ve finished the (shitty) first draft of a book
Useful: What about this book is working? What isn’t working? What ways can I deepen the characters’ intentions? How can I shake this book up so it’s not cliche and overly plot-driven? What am I trying to say here? Is this book reflecting my hopes for it? What kind of revision plan do I need? Who might be able to help me whip this baby into shape? What research do I need to do to make the world more believable?
Here, I’m getting my hands dirty with the work. I’m looking at it honestly, fully recognizing it’s a first draft and that all first drafts are shaky – it’s just me telling myself the story at this point. I’ve got lots of actionable items and I’m grounded in my story.
Not useful: Is this the worst book ever written? Will I never be able to sell another book because the sales of my last book were bad so, like, is it totally pointless to invest any more time than I already have in writing this? What if my agent hates it and refuses to sell it? What if it sells, but gets horrible reviews?
Again, in this scenario, I’m worrying about things way out of my control. I’m obviously giving into fear, totally concerned with everything BUT the actual work. This is all publishing drama, right? There is nothing useful about this line of thinking. It just makes me feel bad about myself, and creatively depleted.
As you can see, a mindful shift in how we worry gives us the freedom to make mistakes, to be okay with uncertainty, and to take things “bird by bird,” as Anne Lamott says. Mindfulness doesn’t mean you are super chill about all things and you don’t ever lift a finger because you trust the universe. Mindfulness means being aware when you’re verging on non-useful, non-skillful ways of being. Worrying unnecessarily has no benefits whatsoever, and it takes up bandwidth that could be better used writing more great books.
Bonus! There’s an excellent website for 10% Happier that features a free online 7-Day Intro to Mindfulness Meditation course led by Harris and Goldstein! Goldstein is a top-notch teacher, one of the best out there, and part of the group of people that helped bring meditation to the USA in the ’70’s (read: he’s the real deal). And Harris is already a super-accomplished dude who isn’t trying to use meditation to up his already stellar profile, so you’re not getting a snake oil salesman (ahem Deepak). He just really finds it helpful and the reporter in him wants to share the story–at least, that’s the vibe I got. Check it out and tell me what you think. This is an amazing resource and could be just the thing you need to get your booty on the cushion.
As always, I’m here to answer any questions you have about meditation and the writing life. You got this.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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Pssst: Gorgeous Art by Robert Carter