In 2020, Brandon Sanderson, an epic fantasy and science fiction writer, delivered an excellent keynote called The Common Lie Writers Tell You. This session was a map of achieving difficult things disguised as writing advice. You can watch the video here.
The first thing that jumps from this video is the lie we usually hear “you can do anything if you just set your mind to it”. In Sanderson’s words:
Some things are simply impossible, and even for the things that are possible, luck plays a bigger role in accomplishments than any of us wants to pretend.
We would like to believe that skill, talent, or determination are the hallmarks of a breakthrough. We need to understand survivorship bias, our natural tendency to learn only from successful individual survivors. Surely, they figured it out. But do we truly know how much of what made someone successful was talent, competence, or grit, and how much was money, connections, power, or luck? And so, we might want to try to be realistic about what we can do to achieve our dreams.
Sanderson rephrases “I can do anything” as
I can do hard things. Doing hard things has intrinsic value, and they will make me a better person, even if I end up failing.
Making Goals that We Can Control
After winning a writing contest in high school, Sanderson was determined to become a famous novelist. For ten years, he wrote novels that publishers rejected (“too long”, “not dark enough”), so he wrote novels eleven and twelve like George R. R. Martin (“well, he’s selling”). By his admission, these books were dreadful. Sanderson ended up with a life crisis because he wrote twelve novels, but nobody published them:
What am I doing with my life? Writing all these novels, having them fail, getting rejected. I try to write what I want. People tell me it’s not good enough. I try to write what they want. They still get rejected, plus they are terrible books.
Doing some soul-searching, Sanderson determined that his goal of becoming a famous novelist shouldn’t have been his primary catalyst. He sincerely enjoyed writing, as everything else just faded, and he entered a place of pure creativity that he loved. Thus, his main goal became
I’m gonna get better with every book. I’m gonna write the books I love, and I will be doing it my way.
Sanderson’s thirteenth book was The Way of Kings, the first book from The Stormlight Archive, that became a bestselling. The whole message of this series is “journey before destination” (or, in Sanderson’s case, writing books for himself, not for awards or fame).
This attitude integrates nicely the stoic dichotomy of life (some things are in our control, while others are not) that seems to run strong with another famous writer, John Grisham. As I wrote in Life Lessons from John Grisham’s Writing Habits, Grisham also had multiple publisher rejections for his first novel. Unfazed by dozens of publishers’ rejections, Grisham worked on his second novel.
Practising stoicism is not giving up on dreams, aspirations, or desires but merely realizing that it would be wise to drop the attachment to our thoughts on the outcome.
Sure, we all may want success in our aspirations, but it is wise to accept that some things are in our control while others are not. We would gain more if we focused our time, attention and efforts on variables we can control. Could Grisham or Sanderson influence the publishers’ decision? No. They could only maintain their attitude regarding writing, so they continued writing.
My name became a brand, and I’d love to say that was the plan from the start. But the only plan was to keep writing books.
Sanderson strongly disagrees with the narrative that people without an overwhelming compulsion to write should not try to be writers. According to this theory, we’re not real writers if we procrastinate instead of writing. He thinks this concept is damaging.
Writing is tough…and I’d rather be playing the Nintendo Switch, let’s be honest.
I love writing, but even I have a hard time sitting down and writing.
We should not feel bad that we have to hack our brains to make ourselves do the things we want to have done and figure out what makes us do our work. Some of us respond well to sticks (punishments), carrots (rewards) or deadlines. Sanderson’s thing is keeping track of his daily word count in a spreadsheet.
I’ve gamified writing for myself, that’s how I make myself do my writing. Find out what works for you. Don’t feel bad if you want to play video games instead. Maybe you want to read books instead of writing them… You just have to figure out what makes you do what you want to do.
Sanderson writes immense books (his latest novel in the Stormlight Archive was 460,000 words, one and a half more than the entire Hunger Games series combined). And how to write such enormous books? “Word by word by word”.
This insight is quite similar to Anne Lamott’s advice in her fascinating book about writing, Bird by Bird. The title comes from a family story about Lamott’s brother. He was assigned a school project about birds. As children do, he procrastinated and delayed starting the project until the end. Now, with the project due the next day, the boy sat at the table and cried. Where should he start? Will he ever finish the project? Lamott describes their dad telling the boy: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
If you look over Sanderson’s website, you will see a progress bar on all his ongoing projects. The man is truly a writing machine, creating unique and impressive worlds and background threads woven throughout books from different series, with the occasional Easter eggs.
He is also a gold mine of inspiration for those who want to become more productive. Simply look at his review of 2021: managing writing, translations, YouTube projects, and video games. Of course, he has a team behind him, but remember how Sanderson started: writing books for a decade with no success.
Also, if you are interested in storytelling, I wholeheartedly recommend checking the free creative course from Brandon Sanderson.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/brandon-sandersons-framework-to-achieve-hard-things/