“This is to say, I am exerting every ounce of self-mastery; but I have lived in solitude too long and fed too long off my “own fat”, so I am now being broken, as no other man could be, on the wheel of my own passions. … Unless I discover the alchemical trick of turning this muck into gold, I am lost.” (A letter from Nietzsche to F. Overbeck, December 25, 1882)
There’s a special kind of hell all writers must face. We may not face it every single day, but it is an inevitability, and how we deal with it when we do face it will either make us better or worse from our time with it.Rest assured, it is always there, there’s no getting around it or avoiding it—it is a hell that sits right outside our rooms and just outside our minds.
Its name is muck work, and our dealing with it is what separates a successful writer from an unsuccessful one.
Back before reviews and magazines accepted online submissions, I’d have to print out twenty paper copies of my short story, double-spaced, margined, and clipped; prepare twenty manilla folders, addressed and stamped; and clip twenty SASEs to the manilla envelopes. Before this there was the researching of all the possible magazines and reviews; the editing down of them into a group; the tiering of them down further into Pay and No Pay; and the researching of all their separate guidelines involving when they’d be open for submissions, their page/word length specifications, what specific genres they accepted, and finally the tone and strength that were reflected from the magazine’s own pages. Then, I’d finally succumb to the tortuous submission cycle itself—sending out, waiting, following up, getting rejected, rinse, and repeat.
That’s muck work.
Between point A and point B is not a straight line, it’s muck work. Muck work keeps the half-assers, the on-the-fencers, and the dilettantes far, far away. Did you know that LeBron James spends over $1 million every year on conditioning his mind and his body for basketball? That’s muck work. That’s why he’s still miles apart the best player in the NBA. He does the muck work. He doesn’t take the path of least resistance. He seems to jump out of his comfort zone, bleeding, sweating, battling himself and others, and hurting for his craft. Most of every other multi-million-dollar player would just buy another Lamborghini.
The path you’ve been walking all these years bends and comes to a fork. You stop. On the right side, the side farthest from your heart, is the scenery you’ve seen this whole time, full of lush wheat fields, sunny meadows, and blue skies. The bend to your left, the side closest to your heart, winds rougher into scary-looking forests, murky horizons, and darkened skies. You look at the path to your right. It looks fine and cozy, it is comfortable. But something doesn’t feel right. You look back to the path to your left. It’s scary, almost terrifying. Most of it screams Get Away. But somehow, a small voice whispers to you Come. You hesitate.You see shadows for animals, hear the cries of some wild animal in the distance, and feel the air growing colder and heavier. Your heart beats faster. You try to breathe deeply to calm yourself but your throat closes up. You see faint grey stars in your vision, and as you lean down to sit and get some fresh air, your eyes close slow as if a heavy weight is pressing down on them. You become dizzy with confusion. Perhaps you’ll just sleep for a moment. Perhaps you better just head to the right path. After all, it’s the right thing to do.
This fork in the road is what every single artist eventually comes to. For me, this left path is called The Outside World, and it’s way, way out of my comfort zone. All these years, I’ve been working on my craft with the idea that all I had to do was release it and it would be embraced by a publisher with open arms. My muck work was days-off work, hours-before-your-job work, up-past-your-bedtime work, leaving-the-bar-early work or not-drinking-at-all-when-you-do-go-out work. I understood this work. And like my craft work, it was relatively easy because it involved me and me alone. The lesson I learned was just that muck work was just as much not doing what everyone else is doing as doing what others don’t want to do.
I spent all this time making sure I put my butt in the seat, now I must spend my time learning to get out of it. People and events and places and publishing companies was not part of the plan, ‘the biz’ was not part of the plan. So now I have a new muck work. Talking to strangers at a convention or an open mic or a class, even though the thought of speaking makes me tense and dizzy headed? Muck work. Handing out my business card about my blog to people who have better things to do? Muck work. Hustling for 30 seconds to pitch my book to a small press editor? Muck work.
So you must get out of your comfort zone, too.
It’ll make you feverish, antsy, terrified, and down right insane sometimes (that’s what’s called being awake and alive, by the way. Yeah I just found out too—comfort = death), but it’ll boost your confidence to the roof, it’ll make you mentally and psychologically stronger, and most importantly, it’ll turn you into a better warrior. Because you are, you know, a warrior. And if you want to live your dream life, sometimes you must fight for it. You’re already at war by becoming a writer (You punk rocker, you! Don’t you know that all art is a form of social rebellion!?). Now put on that armor and get to battle. You are worth fighting for. You are worth the trouble and so is your work.
So fight for it!
You must face your own fears and limitations and then fight past them. You will fail and you will try again. You must take strides to sacrifice your civilian time and energy just as much as you’ve sacrificed your artistic. All for your art, all for your love, and all for the benefit of the human race. You have to believe that, if even in a small way. That it’s the most important work. That you are important, and that you are needed.
The introductory quote was taken from a letter the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche wrote to a friend about a woman who’d rejected his amorous request for marriage. Later, after he picked up the pieces of his life, he wrote and completed, Thus Spake Zarathustra. What would’ve happened if he hadn’t ask her to marry him; or, after getting rejected, he just quit philosophy altogether? We might not have gotten one of his most important philosophical books he’d ever written. The muck must be turned to gold. The muck work must be done.
And then it does turn to gold, I promise you. It’s not that we must want to deal in muck or that the work you’re doing will be muck instead of fun or good, or that it’s all going to be mucky. It’s this: that at some point in your life, you’ll be tested, and the natural, common reaction is to back away. DON’T BACK AWAY. Turn toward it. And then it’s not muck work anymore, it’s human work, it’s writer work, it’s life work.
Be better than you are.
Get out of your comfort zone.
Turn that muck into gold.
You step towards the path on the left. You are frightened but you are sure of yourself that this is your fate. If you suffer and die, it will be striving for what your heart most tells you is truly good. You walk on, amazed at your feet for continuing you on this path towards this foreboding setting. Suddenly, as you break through the trees, you feel relief. The sky looks to be lightening up. The chill has abated, and the further you make your way into the forest, the more you notice its glossy, emerald leaves, its strange beautiful birds and creatures, its trunks straight and full like soldiers at attention, welcoming you instead of resisting you. The winding path is rougher, but somehow better for this hiking. Yes, you’re hiking now, you notice. You have faith in heart still. And then in a moment of sudden awareness, you realize you were brave back there for entering this place, and more than that, silly for having almost avoided it all together. Make no mistake, there is danger here, but just not the danger you feared it to be. Love, not fear, has gotten you here, and it has made you brave. You will be fearful again, you fear, and your steps slow. But you remind yourself that you were brave once, and that, with just this small act as evidence, you know you can replicate it. You begin to climb. You smile and take a breath. Your footfalls echo faster on the ascending path.