In one of our earlier sessions, my therapist introduced me to the term “righting reflex”, which pertains to the urge some of us have (often coded as a “male” urge) to solve problems. A reflex that spurs us on to try and “right” a situation that we see as “wrong”. This is where you get those conversations where, to be super stereotypical, a woman is telling a man about something that’s been bothering her, and his response is to immediately start running through a “have you tried this” checklist. It’s great in situations where the problem is, uh, the problem – less so where the problem is that the person presenting it hasn’t had anyone to just hear them. And often they have tried X, Y and Z, too, so the checklist can become patronising as well as dismissive.
I bring this up because I finally finished Everything Is F*cked by Mark Manson, and while I think I got what I needed from it just slightly after the halfway point, it was a thought-provoking read all the way through. His thesis that treating people as ends in and of themselves, never just as means to an end – well, that’s the concept that ruined my Bad Guys momentum at the start of November, but right now it might just be the concept that helps me get back on-track.
Because it has helped me to more clearly recognise that my “righting reflex”, when it comes to my writing, tends to be treating myself as a means to the end of “getting writing done”. And this dynamic is at the heart of everything that is wrong and ineffective about my attempts to get myself to write, in all their various incarnations. I’ve said before that I feel uneasy trying to manipulate myself into writing, and now I better understand why.
But the key question is, now that I do know this: does this actually improve my writing habits?
Well, I don’t know. On the one hand, I do think that not being a manipulative asshole to myself is a better writing habit than being a manipulative asshole to myself. On the other hand, just being nicer to myself doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be doing more writing. But, that’s not the point, is it? If I’m only being nice to myself in order to make myself write more, that’s just more manipulation, treating myself as a means to an end, and that’s defeating the purpose of this whole taking-therapy-seriously thing. I’m supposed to be nice to myself for its own sake.
And therein lies this potential solution! Because what’s behind this drive to always be writing? Well, it’s to produce the stories that I care about telling, to get them out of my head and into the world. The problem is that, when I set out to write these ideas, often I end up “tripping up” – I’ve recently identified this as being the inevitable result of working with ideas that I haven’t tried out yet and having to wing a lot of it, which is fair enough; but when it comes to having an awesome idea that you want to get down in writing, there is nothing more hype-killing than watching said writing go completely wrong as you write it. It’s not just that it’s going wrong: it’s that you’re the one making it go wrong. Hope turns to despair, and it becomes very easy to not only give up on yourself in that moment, but in future moments when the writing-bug bites you and demands that you scratch the itch it leaves you with.
This, I now realise, is what’s behind every regret I’ve ever had at feeling inspired to write but “sitting on it” and not following through with the feeling: the assumption that I’ll mess it up. I’ve assumed in turn that, in order to counter this regret, I need to develop a habit of pouncing on these moments of inspiration when they come and throw caution and fear to the wind. I think I’ve been right to assume that … to a point. Because there’s another side to the fear that keeps me from following through, and that is the hope that I have for what I’m going to achieve by doing the writing I feel like doing. And, very frustratingly, it is hope, even more than fear, that has been letting me down.
Or that’s my thesis at the moment and here’s why:
Hope is sort of the cornerstone of Mark Manson’s thesis in Everything Is F*cked, specifically how, according to him, the things in which we often invest our hope are doomed to failure. He has many things to say on the subject and I’m not going to try to cover them all here, so instead I’ll try to sum it up in a context-specific example: in these moments of inspiration, I’m hoping that when I sit down to write out an awesome idea I’ve had, I’ll be achieving the feeling of satisfaction and gratification that comes from having the idea itself. In short, what I’m hoping for is not really that I’ll get the idea “right”, it’s that I’ll receive instant gratification as a reward for doing this writing. I’ll be rewarded for my writing with something that isn’t the writing itself, but a feeling about the writing.
In essence, I’m hoping that my writing will be the means by which the ends of instant gratification are met.
And for those of you who are fellow writers, you know as well as if not better than I do that, by and large, writing is a terrible method for achieving instant gratification.
So what has been happening to me all this time is that 1) I’ve been doing less writing than I might have been if I knew all of this before now, and 2) I’ve been doing less writing for the wrong reasons. If it was just that I was bad at words or something, then that would be a straightforward (if infuriating) problem that I could address. But because it’s a bunch of psychoemotional crap that I couldn’t parse on my own, well, it didn’t get addressed.
Until now! I hope. And speaking of hope: look, I’m not trying to sell this book to you or anything, but while I am certainly wary of being too excited about the solutions it offers, I would be lying if I said they didn’t make sense – at least enough sense to try out with something relatively “safe”, such as writing.
On the subject of hope, Manson basically argues that hope is what causes us to treat people – both ourselves and others – as means to ends. We are nice to certain people, do things for them, put ourselves at their disposal, in the hope that they will reciprocate in a way that we want. Classic stereotypical example: the “nice guy” who makes himself friendly and available to a girl he’s interested in in the hopes that, eventually, she’s going to realise that what she’s looking for has been here the whole time and will want to “upgrade” their relationship status from platonic to romantic/sexual. It’s not just that this manipulative, deceptive behaviour is despicable because of the emotional harm it can cause (which is plenty good enough of a reason to condemn such behaviour, to be sure), but is also despicable in and of itself because it is a way of reducing another person to a means to an end, rather than treating them always as an end in and of themselves. And while this isn’t a specific example that Manson uses (he does give a fairly similar one involving a married couple), the gist of his message with Everything Is F*cked is that it is not fear, but hope that serves as the justification for people to treat each other – and themselves – in such manipulative ways. Obviously there’s more than one way to interpret this: you could say that it’s fear and wanting to keep other people at a safe emotional distance from us that leads us to treat them like objects rather than subjects; maybe hope-bashing just isn’t your thing and, hey, fair enough – bur for my purposes, this way of thinking about hope has helped me to get a grip on this specific problem of mine: what I hope to get out of writing, and why I never seem to actually get it.
Well, not never, but nowhere near as much as I set myself up to expect. And that’s the problem, because every time I set up those hopes only to see them dashed by my own efforts to achieve it, it perpetuates a pattern – and expectation – of failure that I associate with my efforts to write. And, as a self-proclaimed writer, this is not ideal.
So you can see what the solution is, right?
Rather than hoping that my writing will prove the successful means to some tangentially-related end …
I have to place my hope in writing for its own sake.
And “have to” is very harsh wording, and I’ve also had this brainwave about being hard on myself (the most common observation that my therapist makes about me during our sessions) and how I really don’t have to be such a harsh taskmaster and, hey, it’s all connected. But one step at a time – and this step I’m quite excited to take.
Hopeful, you could say.
Which is actually very scary, and now that I have a new insight into the “mechanics” of hope – or hoping, I guess, is a more accurate way to talk about it – I’m very wary and skittish about all of this … but I also think this makes sense. Writing for its own sake. Not as in “don’t ever feel excited about what I could achieve with my writing”, but as in as far as my hopes are concerned, keeping them focused on the writing itself.
Because, like, I like writing. It’s enjoyable. It’s an awesome feeling to be In The Zone with writing, regardless whatever it is that I’m actually writing – the proof of that is in the fact that both Wolf Gang and Bad Guys were really satisfying to be writing, even though when I went back and read them they were not, content-wise, particularly “good”. And no, it’s not always a natural high, but that’s fine – my hope is for writing, not good writing, or even fun writing. Not to exclude those things, but to include the possibility for really shit writing, dull writing, writing that is an absolute slog to get through – because that’s all real. That’s all part of the process. It really just depends, and if there’s a way to predict what experience of writing I’m going to have in any given session, it’s a skill I don’t have. Though thinking about it, I don’t know that I’d actually want that skill if I could have it.
So, that’s that. I’ve spelled out my thoughts about how I’m going to make future writing attempts. Rather than trying to “correct” my “bad” writing habits, my “lack” of motivation or whatever, I’m going to try placing my hopes somewhere not just “practical”, in terms of “not getting my hopes up” or whatever – but exactly where all the rest of my attention is going anyway. It just makes sense.
And hey – if this transforms me into the Ubermensch, all the better. But that’s not the point. The point is that, as far as I can figure, it’s the right thing to do, something worth doing for its own sake. So I guess there’s only one question left …
Is writing the right thing to do?
And answering that question – that’s writing. The process, the discipline the way of life; answering that question, differently in different situations, is writing. Is this new, enlightened, means-in-and-of-themselves way of thinking to to cause me to suddenly become more productive than I’ve ever been? Well, if I’m right about all of these assumptions and theories, then it’ll at the very least eliminate a lot of the toxic garbage habits that stop me from writing a lot of the time, and therefore it stands to reason that I will get more writing done. But how much writing?
The thing is, again, it’s not the point. And this is still pretty shaky for me, because this is a very radical break from the mentality about writing that I’ve sustained and maintained faithfully for almost two decades – and not just about writing.
But if it works with writing?
Well, let’s find out. I haven’t written anything besides this blog post this week, but I’ve got a writing session with my co-writing friend in the morning, and I plan to stress-test this theory then. I have some stuff that I’m excited to write, that I hope I’ll “get right”. I’m going to try taking that enthusiasm and keeping it to serve as a compass to direct my writing, to take it as the sign that, yes, writing is the Right Thing To Do (in this instance), while fueling the writing with … well, writing. For its own sake, whether what I end up writing is “right” or not. Will it work? Will my “righting reflex” be “cured” with this revolutionary new treatment that I found in a totally-not-a-self-help-book that I paid actual money for and am therefore statistically likely to have an unwarranted level of emotional investment in? Will I go even further beyond and become the uberest mensch to ever transcend humanity’s need for emotional validation?