Saturday, December 10, 2005

No Thought Whatever About Yourself

Isn't this the most ironic statement in Objectivist history: Ayn Rand writes in her journal, "From now on—no thought watever about yourself, only about your work. You don't exist. You are only a writing engine. Don't stop, until you really and honestly know that you cannot go on.... Stop admiring yourself—You are nothing yet." (Journals of Ayn Rand, Pg. 48).

Well, it is and it isn't. It certainly sounds ironic, but that's only because Ayn Rand was not being precise. After all, she was writing in her personal journal, not on a public forum. I can remember being amused by that statement myself. I thought I understood it. At least I assumed that her words made sense in some way consistent with Objectivism. But only now do I really understand what she meant.

After writing fiction for almost two years solid, that is to say, after being up to my navel—no, more like my nostrils—in the confusion, uncertainty, frustration, excitement, disappointment, enthusiasm, doldrums, self-directed anger, unbelievably poor time management, success, failure, and general malaise of the in-betweens, I can say with great confidence that I know exactly what Ayn Rand was talking about. As you wade through the trials of becoming a writer, almost all of them inside your own mind, you simply can't afford to think for even a second that you are farther along in the process than you really are. You can't afford to think that you are worthy of being on headlines, top-ten lists, interviews, book signings, or publicity stunts of any kind. You can't afford to think that someone will actually enjoy reading your stories until those stories are really and truly worthy of publication. And unless you have some really honest friends (which I do, happily), you shouldn't even give their opinions much purchasing power.

If the concept worthy is to mean something in the real world, it has to mean that you won the race—at least one of the many races, anyway. It has to mean that you overcame most of the initial obstacles to your success. You must not only have in your hand the physical proof of your success (a story), but you must absolutely know that the work required to achieve that success came about, not mainly because of luck, talent, fortune, or a happy muse, but because of hard-earned skills. A skill is something that doesn't evaporate when you finish a book and begin to prepare for the next one. It's right there with you from that point on, ready to be put to use again and again and again. It's a tool that did not arise by mysterious forces in your soul; it's something you acquired only by thinking very hard on a problem.

This is an important identification: If you don't know a writing problem inside and out, how can you possibly know that you have acquired a skill to overcome it? Only by understanding the problem will you recognize it the next time and know to reach for this particular solution. This is how a skill is like a tool.

When Ayn Rand wrote those words in her journal, she was struggling with what I think every writer probably faces: the hopeful prospects of youth racing downhill faster than its feet can manage. That orientation might work reasonably well for a young athlete (I don't know), but it's deadly for anyone in a very long-term, mind-intensive career. Brain work is not for Helium-people.