7 Simple Tips for Aspiring Writers (from Stoic Philosophy)

Forbearance. Resilience. Courage. Determination. These are Stoic virtues every writer can benefit from, especially when the going gets tough.

You know what? Philosophy is dead.

When I meet people for the first time, I try to get a feel for their personality. To do this, I ply them with various topics of conversation: science, religion, politics, art, culture, history, philosophy.

What I’ve discovered is that most people my age are remarkably earthy. Shallow, even. They concern themselves with television and phone games and food and fashion and other fleeting, earthly pleasures, and give no thought to mortality, morality, or spiritual health (beyond their yoga classes and self-help books, anyway).

No one, it seems, gives any thought to philosophy. You say the word “philosophy” and people just shut down, as if you’d said the word “astrophysics” or “calculus.” At best, they give a little shrug, mutter something about Kant or Machiavelli and how they can’t understand what those guys were talking about, and walk away.

That’s what’s so great about Stoicism, I tell them. The Stoics weren’t concerned with high-flown and pretentious philosophical questions like “Are people born good or born evil?” or “Does the human mind create the structure of human existence?” or “Why is there air?”

Stoicism answers what might be the most important question ever asked: “How do I live a good life?”

I’ve read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Seneca’s Moral Letters, and the Enchiridion of Epictetus, and let me tell you: no matter who you are or what you’re doing with your life, there’s something in those pages that can help you live better and feel better.

…even if you’re a disillusioned sci-fi writer who’s thinking about quitting writing for good, like me.

I combed through my Stoicism books and a couple of websites and blogs, and I came up with a list of seven Stoic rules for writers. May they help you as they’ve helped me.

#1. Your emotions are internal, not external.

Marcus Aurelius Stoicism writing science fiction Andrew Timothy Post

You hear this all the time from people, right? “She provoked me.” “He made me angry.” “You make me insane.” “You’re killing me, Smalls.” As if it’s someone else’s fault that you feel the way you’re feeling! One of the most ground-shaking revelations of Stoicism is that emotions come from within, not without. People don’t make you angry. People do things and you choose to get angry about them. You can just as easily choose to not be angry at the idiot who cut you off in traffic, and forget all about him.

In the same way, you can choose not to feel hopeless about your writing. You can consciously decide not to be depressed that you haven’t been published yet, or that you have a ten-foot heap of rejection slips from big literary magazines. You can choose to ignore all that stuff and just be happy and content that you have a brain to think with and fingers to type with. 

#2. Write because it’s fun, not for money or fame.

Andrew Timothy Post writer Stoicism Epictetus

I made this mistake myself. For the first ten years of my writing career, I wrote for two reasons, and two reasons only: to get rich and be loved. I sought approval for my writing and recognition for my words. When they failed to materialize—because I’m not yet a good enough writer to deserve that approval and recognition—I was crushed. What’s worse, the quality of my work suffered, because I was creating it for disingenuous reasons.

Remember: your passion for writing and creating must come first. The wealth and fame will come second, but even if they never come, you’ll at least have spent your life following your passion and doing something you truly enjoy. The famous Stoics often eschewed creature comforts. Epictetus, though he tutored emperors and generals, lived in a simple hut with a dirt floor. Cato the Younger, mortal enemy of Caesar and a Roman aristocrat, went barefoot in cold weather and bare-headed in the rain. For Stoics, life wasn’t about comfort or wealth. It was about living in accordance with their nature and being virtuous human beings. That was reward enough.

#3. Learn to let go.

Andrew Timothy Post writer Stoicism Marcus Aurelius

Sometimes, when I’m really feeling masochistic, I’ll watch the old new Star Wars trilogy: Episodes I, II, and III. I invariably chuckle whenever Yoda and Obi-Wan talk about emotional attachments and physical possessions. A lot of it sounds like it was cribbed straight from Stoicism. Having wealth or possessions is one thing, but according to the Stoics, you shouldn’t be attached to these things. If your house burned down and you lost everything in a fire, you shouldn’t wail or gnash your teeth about it. A true Stoic would shrug, and say “Meh, they were only things” and then go straight back to work the next day.

Writers are protective of the children of our imagination. We create worlds in our heads, and we’ll suffer no harm to come to them. But sometimes, as writers, we are faced with difficult decisions. Sometimes we have to kill off that character, no matter how much we like him or her. Sometimes we have to chop out a paragraph or even a whole chapter if it doesn’t serve the narrative. And sometimes—perhaps most heartrendingly of all—we have to set aside a story, or kill it altogether.

Well, if it’s gotta be done, it’s gotta be done. And much like verbal abuse or insults, the only pain or discomfort in giving up on a story or killing a character exists in our own minds. And our minds are the one thing we have the power to change, according to Stoic philosophy. As Yoda so rightly told Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II, “Teach yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” You may find that it’s easier than you think.

#4. Find yourself a mentor.

Andrew Timothy Post Stoicism Stoic quotes Seneca

This is the great thing about Stoic philosophy: nobody, not even the grizzled old bearded guys who laid its foundations, expects you to succeed alone. No man is an island. Having trouble staying on the straight and narrow? Find someone who isn’t, and hang out with them until you get the knack of it.

The best mentor I’ve ever had was named Joe, and he was my flight instructor in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. Over the few short years that we knew each other, I watched as Joe’s marriage disintegrated and his multinational fastener business failed, and he was forced to sell his house, most of his cars, and almost everything he owned. (He was, fortunately, able to hold onto his airplane, a feckin’ awesome turbocharged Piper Lance.)

Did Joe rant and rail as the business for which he’d sacrificed so many years of his life went under? Did he curse his ex-wife, or make death threats against her? Nothing of the kind. He wished her well, and maintained a c’est la vie attitude about his business. Joe, the last time I heard from him, is now living in Nevada, flying for a well-to-do regional airline, and has remarried. Talk about turning failure into success!

Joe was Stoicism incarnate. I don’t know that I ever heard the man utter a single word of complaint. Hanging out with him made me a better person, and I still remember some of the wisdom he shared with me about life, the universe, and everything. Thanks, Joe.  

Writers can benefit from this system as well. Feel like a lousy writer? Befriend a good one. (Genuinely befriend them, don’t just suck up to them to pick their brain.) Join a writer’s group and spend time hanging around with and talking to writers who are better than you are. See what you can learn from them. See how hanging out with them changes the way you think about your craft, the way you approach it. If you get friendly enough with someone who’s a better writer than you are, and if they have the time, offer to do a critique exchange. Have them critique your story and then painstakingly analyze their feedback. See what they liked and what they didn’t. After a while, you’ll start to get a feel for what’s “good” about a story and what’s “bad.” Mentoring works, especially in the writing world.

#5. Failure means growth.

Andrew Timothy Post writer Stoicism Stoic quotes Marcus Aurelius

To be a writer is to be serially disappointed. You spend weeks, months, years writing stories and books, only to have them rejected outright by publishers and agents. Or worse, they get published, but are laughed at by the public, and ripped to shreds by critics. Or perhaps your work becomes popular, and it’s optioned for a movie, and the movie turns out awful, and you see the story you created so lovingly and carefully turned into a mockery of itself on the silver screen.

Well, that’s life: disappointment and failure. And standing strong against disappointment and failure is the very heart of Stoicism. The Stoics were perhaps the first bunch of people in the history of human civilization to see failure as an opportunity for growth: not something to be ranted and railed against, not something to be avoided, but something to be welcomed. Something that helps you get better. Something that, if you have the right attitude about it, becomes an asset to your future success, not an obstacle or a detriment. In a world where the measure of power was how big your army (or harem) was, or how big your bank accounts were, or how many slaves you owned, the Stoics had the radical idea that the most powerful man is the one who has power over himself.

#6. You were put here to do something with your life.

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I can still remember that warm, sunny day in 2015. I was lying on the grass in Old Spanish Trail Park off South Cimarron Road in Las Vegas, on my lunch break, and reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations—the very first book on Stoicism I’d ever read. I was hating my job, hating the relationship I was in, hating the city I lived in, hating my life in general. I just wanted to quit, to run away and go lie on a beach somewhere.

I can still remember the force with which the following passage hit me:

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

—But it’s nicer here…

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doings things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

—But we have to sleep sometime…

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

You’re a human being. You are the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution. Thousands of generations of your fellow human beings lived and died to produce you, plus the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the comforts you enjoy—not to mention the processes required to manufacture them. You’re not here to lie in bed all day watching Breaking Bad on Netflix or flicking through cat pictures on Instagram. You’re here to accomplish something. To do something, even if that something is making Mount Rushmore souvenir coffee mugs. We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do, as the Oracle says in The Matrix Reloaded. Every hour you spend sitting on the porch drinking beer, or lying in bed cuddling with your French bulldog, or napping, or playing video games, or whatever, is an hour wasted. It’s an hour robbed from your true purpose in life. There’s something out there you were born to do, something that makes you forget to eat and poop, as Mark Manson says. If there’s something you really love, that you know you ought to be doing, then there’s no such thing as free time for you: there’s time you need to spend sleeping and pooping and eating and working (to allow you to continue eating), and the rest of your time is devoted to your art, your passion, your craft.

Remember that the next time you’re sitting on your computer trying to write and you’re tempted to click away and look at Facebook or YouTube or Reddit.

#7. Fear nothing.

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September 24, 1929. A chilly, foggy day at Mitchel Field, Garden City, New York. Sitting on the flight line was a Consolidated NY-2 biplane. Her cockpit was packed full of specially designed aeronautical instruments and radio equipment, the product of dozens of brilliant minds at the Sperry Gyroscope Company, the Guggenheim Fund’s Full Flight Laboratory, the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, the U.S. Army Air Corps, the Radio Frequency Laboratories, and the Kollsman Instrument Company.

On that misty, damp day in 1929, a young Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle—who, years later, would lead one of the gutsiest air combat missions ever attempted, the famous “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, Japan—clambered into the cockpit of that Consolidated NY-2 and made the very first completely blind takeoff, flight, and landing ever successfully attempted. The fog was so thick Jimmy couldn’t see from one end of the plane to the other, but he paid close attention to his instruments and managed to fly around and land without incident.

Today instrument flying (flying an airplane by looking at the instrument panel and not outside the windscreen) is commonplace. But back then, most folks thought it couldn’t be done. Lots of people in the crowd that day at Mitchel Field thought Jimmy Doolittle was going to splatter himself all over New York State. Jimmy could easily have let fear and lack of confidence stop him from getting in that cockpit, but he went and got in anyway—and in the process, he proved that instrument flying was not only possible but practical, and brought about a quantum leap in the science of aviation.

Just imagine if Jimmy Doolittle hadn’t climbed into that airplane and done what he did that day in 1929. Sure, you can say “Someone else would have done it.” But they might have done it later, too late for flight instrumentation to be advanced enough to permit America to field the all-weather and night fighters it used to great advantage in World War II.

Think about what kind of world we’d be living in if Charles Lindbergh had been too chicken to climb into The Spirit of St. Louis. If Magellan had been too scared to circumnavigate the globe. If Copernicus hadn’t been brave enough to step up and say “The Earth isn’t the center of the universe.” If Florence Nightingale had never picked up her lamp, or Joan of Arc her sword.

Fear is the enemy. It is fear that keeps us from creating, from striving, from trying, and from doing. It’s fear that keeps you away from the keyboard, that makes the writer’s block creep over you, that tells you you’ll never be great, that your stories are all crap-flavored crap-burgers with crap on top.

So how do we kick the fear?

Kick the hope.

That’s right: stop hoping.

As Hecato of Rhodes once said, “Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.”

Stop hoping that you’ll get rich, and you’ll stop being afraid of not being rich.

Stop hoping to prove that you’re special, and you’ll make peace with being ordinary.

Stop hoping that you’ll get that perfect gift for Christmas, and you won’t be disappointed if you don’t.

Stop hoping that your stories will ever be published, and that you’ll ever be a famous, successful writer—then you’ll stop being afraid that your stories suck and won’t ever sell. Then you can get on with the business of enjoying the actual writing of said stories.

Fear nothing. Then you will be truly unstoppable.

Now get off the Internet and get writing.