If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
—Sun Tsu, The Art of War
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: it’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
I’ve forgotten about Resistance.
It’s often depicted as a dragon, either slowly circling above in the sky, easy to see approaching, or standing right in front of you, belching flames. It’s the ego, the devil, the toxic thoughts—the obstacle you need to get past to pursue your dreams or whatever. To get something that’s important to you fucking accomplished.
But the dragon is a terrible visualization of Resistance, because it leads to the delusion that it’s an external force or that it’s this big obvious thing you can see coming right away.
Unfortunately it’s all much sneakier than that.
To understand Resistance properly, one needs to understand the mind. Because that’s where all obstacles flow from. And from my experience and experiments, the mind makes things appear bigger or worse than they actually are. Because we perceive reality through our minds, any contrary thought that pops up in opposition to a lofty goal or worthy ideal appears as an insurmountable obstacle.
Hence, our thoughts are the sole reason why we don’t do what we fucking want.
So why haven’t I written anything this month? Because of my bullshit thoughts. Here’s a look at my “dragons” this month:
“I can’t write. I have more inner work to do on myself first before I can keep publicly displaying my thoughts and words. I need to heal more so I don’t accidentally put my trauma on display and make the world a worse place.”
“I can’t write. I’m too tired. I’m probably depressed or have chronic fatigue. I need to hold space for myself and take a break from writing until I feel 100% perfect. It’s just the season I’m in right now.”
“I can’t write. I need to organize all the documents and files of everything I’ve written in the past several years. This will actually really help the process of writing my memoir, so it’s okay if I stop writing while doing this organization project.”
UGH. Gag me.
The mind is so potent that when these thoughts were living rent-free in my head, they felt so practical and justifiable. But seeing them written out like this pisses me off so much, because now I see how stupid they actually are. There’s something about writing a thought down on paper that makes it lose its power (in a good way). You’re able to see it objectively, from a distance. (Of course, there’s a way to infuse your writing with intentional energy to make the thought MORE potent, not less, but that’s a topic for another time;)
I remember a couple years ago when I was still on social media, a writer I like named Amie McNee posted that one of her limiting beliefs she had to overcome was that she couldn’t be a writer because she sucked at spelling. At the time I thought that was so fucking lame, like rolling my eyes, thinking, “Some of us have actual real shit to deal with.”
But truly it’s no different, no lamer than my own thoughts. Lame or not, if these thoughts go unchecked, they WILL cripple us.
The thought I struggle with the most when it comes to my writing is all the capital “I’s” that infest my paragraphs. They look like flimsy toothpicks, standing tall but feigning stability. I love memoir and essay style writing, which requires me to talk about myself, or talk about things through the lens of Ally Brennan. And my thoughts love to attack me on this. They call me self-absorbed, shallow, limited, unhelpful, and that I’m not even egoic enough to at least be entertaining. My thoughts say I’ll never be a real writer unless I go back to writing fiction, or that I should be directly helping people solve a specific problem by writing in a topical niche style.
I guarantee that if I actually switched to fiction writing, my brain would tell me, “You’re wasting people’s time with these silly stories. The world doesn’t need them. You should be helping people by writing practical articles, with expert teachings and solutions, not hiding behind these made up fantasies.” Or if I honed in on a specific niche topic and wrote helpful articles on that subject, my brain would accuse me of being a sellout chump just trying to make a buck (because “the riches are in the niches”).
It doesn’t matter which way you turn, Resistance will follow you there. So you might as well do the thing that makes you light up.
And for whatever reason, I love writing sentences that start with the letter “I.”
I guess because I love reading other people’s “I” writing and getting a different perspective on things. I have a lazy eye, like my left eye really sucks and I can’t see shit out of it (no, you can’t tell that I have a lazy eye unless I try to go cross eyed, which I definitely won’t do unless we’re BFF’s). When I was a kid I would walk around the house with a small mirror held up next to my right eye, my good eye, trying to emulate what it would be like to have two normal eyes. I liked the different perspective I saw in this mirror world. I wanted to crawl inside of it. So I like to see different perspectives. The humanness of a stranger. They’re not trying to do anything but tell their story in a meaningful engaging way. I love that I can see pieces of myself in everyone I read, no matter how different they may seem.
And the other thing is that I don’t absorb dry facts unless they’re tied to someone’s personal experience or perspective. It’s why I hated school so much, because I couldn’t make any connections inside of the info dump I was receiving. I couldn’t make the information relevant. If a fact is associated with a person and their story, then I remember it, then the fact makes sense.
These are just small validations I have to give myself sometimes, in order to not freeze up when I want to write about myself. It’s okay, I say.
The thing that REALLY helped me gain some traction on these toxic thoughts was re-reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I first read it a few years ago and then re-read it a couple weeks ago. And now I want to recommend it to everyone on the planet because it sort of feels like an instruction manual for life.
One section of his book covers pretty much every excuse I had written at the beginning of this essay for why I couldn’t write. Procrastination due to fear of facing the blank page. Never-ending “healing” as a form of distraction from the work. He even had his own example of almost not writing The War of Art because it was non-fiction and Resistance told him he was solely a fiction author and should be presenting these ideas through story form, rather than practically and overtly.
I’ve known of the phrase “know thine enemy,” popularized by Sun Tsu’s book The Art of War, but it never seemed like a relevant concept to me until now.
When I left Christianity I was all too eager to shed the existence of Satan as well, the admonitions to watch out for his temptations, to stay on the straight and narrow. But now I don’t think it’s such a bad idea, if you reframe it a little bit. If you desire something specific in life, you literally need to follow a straight and narrow (mental) path to get to it. And now I know there actually is a force, whatever you want to call it, that will do whatever it takes to keep you from reaching that specific desire.
Keeping these two thoughts in my head, that I’m actively pursuing the deepest desire in my heart of being a writer and that a toxic force is actively trying to stop me, it makes it easier to face the fears in my head. I don’t have to be caught off guard anymore. I know my enemy.
And even if my fears were actually true, should that be the reason I stop writing? Obviously not. That’s pussy shit. If I have the ability to sit down and write, then I’m going to sit down and write. Resistance is now futile.