A few weeks ago, one of my readers sent me a beautiful email about her aspirations to become a writer. I saw so much of my younger self in her. I asked her if I could turn her email into a newsletter.
Matt Damon once told an interviewer that when people tell him they want to be an actor, he tries to talk them out of it. When the interviewer asked him why he said, “if I can talk you out of this in conversation, you’re not cut out for this because it’s so hard.”
Even though I’d never try to talk someone out being a writer, there’s a great deal of truth to what Matt Damon said. It is hard because the writing life is one in which nothing is guaranteed, and anything is possible.
It takes bravery and courage to express your fears and concerns, and I commend Arianna for doing it. Exposing your insecurities is a profound act of vulnerability. She was even brave enough to let me mention her by name.
I don’t have advice, only observations. This why I encourage you to read this with a caveat that I share with members of our prime community: Consider the possibility that everything I’ve said here is total bullshit. It might be for you.
How will I write a book when what I’m taught is to look at the world through the lens of a rational money-making machine rather than a writer conveying emotions?
The only reason to be a writer is that you can’t imagine doing anything else. Writing can be like a cruel lover. You pour your heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into the blank page, and it gives you nothing back. You can’t help but wonder why bother?
You have to be a writer before you can become an author. Most of my writing doesn’t see the light of day. Those of who you read my writing know about my books and articles. But you don’t know about the millions of words that nobody has ever read:
- The 63 Page single space autobiography about my life at Berkeley, which I wrote in 8 days
- A memoir about my first job, a startup where everyone ate Indian food for lunch, and only one shitter.
- Summer of Srini: a web site about my drunken nights, ridiculous antics, and the guy who tried to beat me up at the hometown buffet
We didn’t have blogs or social media when I wrote those things. You wrote purely for the joy of writing.
So don’t worry about how you’re going to write a book or the money-making machine. Express your emotions in the pages of notebooks, blogs that nobody reads, and any surface on which you can write.
Lao Tzu said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And the journey of a writing life starts with the first words you put on paper.
Is what I’m studying going to ruin my sensitivity and make me unlearn to look at things creatively?
Our creativity is not something that someone can give to us or take away. It’s something that’s always within us. Whether it’s the degree we get or the job we hate, every experience gives us seeds to plant for the stories we tell.
The creative life, much like the creative process, isn’t linear. We don’t know how each of our life experiences will impact us down the road. With each step forward, the view changes, and the most insignificant experiences of our lives at the moment can serve as the most informative ones in our future.
Without the mistakes we make, decisions we regret, and experiences that didn’t live up to our expectations, we’d be short on material for our creative work. These things are all just ingredients for your soup, material for making meaning and making art.
Getting an MBA didn’t seem like it would prepare me for my life as a writer. But if I hadn’t gone to Pepperdine and Studied in Brazil, I might have never learned to surf. And surfing became the creative fuel for my writing life.
Where can I find the time?
We like to imagine a mythical date in the future when we can sit in a quiet room, retreat to a cabin in the woods, shut the door, and put pen to paper. But as Dani Shapiro said in her book Still Writing, “Life Doesn’t Pause to make room for our precious writing time.”
If you have the desire to write, you don’t find the time. You make the time. You make the time in those brief moments of solitude before the rest of the world wakes or after they go to sleep.
Make it a habit to put words on paper. Carry a notebook. Then write…
Five minutes. One sentence
10 minutes. One paragraph
30 minutes. One Page
Write shitty first sentences, shitty first drafts, and bad books that nobody will ever read.
Do it again and again and again until you’ve filled the pages of your first notebook. Keep going until you have a stack of notebooks.
What can I tell people when I have made the great mistake of choosing the wrong degree?
We all make the best decisions we can with the information we have.
Robert Greene once said to me, “no experience in life should be thought of as wasted.” You are not defined or limited by your degree or any other label society places on you.
The road ahead is much longer than you might think it is when you’re 20. You also don’t owe anyone any explanation for your choices, regardless of how they judge you.
Before I became a published author, one of my relatives told my cousin Rama that my career was a waste of my education. She’s officially off the guestlist for the wedding I’ve yet to plan.
Throughout life, you collect data points or dots. And you probably don’t have a clue how those dots will connect in the future. As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking backward. But you have to collect them going forward.
In my last semester in college, I was in an environmental economics class. The professor explained how to use a utility to function to maximize the amount of milk you can get from a cow. It confirmed that I chose the wrong degree.
There have been times when I thought I should have studied writing or journalism in school. But studying economics has taught me to see my creative career through both the lenses of business and art.
You might choose the wrong degree, but it doesn’t prevent you from living the life you want to live.
How can I compete with great writers who all graduated in literature and aspiring ones who study great books all day and may attend top universities like Oxford?
You can’t compete with the greatest writers in history. And if you try, I can almost guarantee that writing will evolve from work you love into a job you hate.
In Jesse Browner’s memoir Making Peace with the Road Not Taken, he says, “When we accept that our future is not ever what we envisioned it to be, but what we make of it upon arrival, we allow ourselves to move forward and accept that there is not one true future ahead of us, but multiple futures, just as there is not one past but multiple pasts behind us.”
The future I envisioned was one in which I wrote best-sellers and had multiple book contracts. But after reading the letter I got from my publisher the other day, I had to make peace with the fact that my future won’t be the one I envisioned.
I’ll never be as great a writer as Ryan Holiday, Mark Manson, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others whose writing has achieved critical claim. And in my mind, I’ll always be the red-headed stepchild of Penguin Portfolio.
On my best days, I’m an average writer who writes a lot. Occasionally I write something worth reading. Most of my writing is for An Audience of One. But I write because I love writing and because I would go insane if I didn’t.
I feel like a fraud, and I feel like I lack the basics, even though understanding people and conveying emotions is second-nature to me.
We’re all frauds
Sharukh Khan is a beloved Indian actor whose more famous than Brad Pitt everywhere other than America. In an interview with David Letterman, he said, “I’m an employee of the myth of Sharukh Khan.”
The person you read about in my writing is a character I play on the internet. I’m an employee of the myth of Srini Rao.
But I’m honestly just making it up as I go along. I’ll leave you with these words from Cheryl Strayed.
Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant, beautiful crazy talented, tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that, they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.
So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
Arianna, I hope you’ll do the same.
p.s. I really enjoyed writing this, and if you have questions similar to Arianna’s leave a comment below, and maybe you’ll make a cameo in our next newsletter.
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