Writing, listening, and meditation are the most transformative processes that I know.
Why? Because if you pursue them, they might destroy you.
I don’t mean that that they will destroy you physically. I mean that they might destroy your most cherished ideas about yourself.
I’ve written before about writing as crap detection. In addition, I’ve echoed Paul Graham’s reflections on the differences between speaking and writing—and how speakers can get away with saying nothing of substance as long as they establish rapport with an audience.
Yet it’s so easy to forget these things.
What if you discover that you ultimately have little to say about the topic on which you claim to be an expert?
I’m here to warn you that this can happen if you genuinely pursue the path of writing a book. Even if you’re successful. Even if you’re making money.
Writing is the medium par excellence for exposing gaps in logic and evidence. If you’re a speaker, you can often fool your audiences. But you can’t fool the blank page (or screen). Incoherent statements will stare back at you in all their unvarnished glory.
Seeing this can be devastating.
It can also be liberating, because discovering what you don’t know is the beginning of wisdom.
This is why my favorite quote on writing comes not from a book about writing but from a book about meditation—The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise by Karlfried Graf von Dürkheim. Though he wrote about Zen meditation practice (and unfortunately in a sexist way), most of what he says applies to the practice of writing as well:
Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring….
Thus the aim of the practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered….
Only if we repeatedly venture through the zones of annihilation can our contact with the Divine being, which is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.
To write honestly is to pass through the “zones of annihilation.” It is to be “assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered.”
And if you’re willing to undergo all that—to see whether your ideas can survive the purging fire of editing—then you can emerge with something that’s firm, stable, and worth sharing with the world.