When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer.”
Though that declaration is relatively recent, my history of writing is not.
I wrote my first poem at age 7. I posted it on facebook recently – it got more likes than my contemporary writing.
I wrote songs for many years, though I didn’t share them with as many people as I wish I had.
During my final year at university I discovered that I was really good at academic writing. I’d realized that essays could be a fun way to explore my new ideas around philosophy, rather than simply exhausting the word count as quickly as possible the night before the deadline.
Four years ago I had a brief stint with my own blog. The tagline was “Living life’s big questions.” Though, looking back, I was probably better with the big questions than I was with the living.
A few people really liked what I had to say. Then I had a massive confidence crumble over a rejection episode, and quietly took the thing down.
I wrote a number of blogs for Waking Up the Workplace. My favorite being this one about business plans.
I channeled most of my ability into copywriting (which is a whole different ball game). I spent years practicing it. When I coupled it with my strategic mind, I discovered I was good at marketing. It helped me build three small businesses.
I would write for ‘real’ in private though. And occasionally, I’d read things to people, and they’d be really impressed. And I would be relieved, because I was scared of people not liking my precious creations.
Then last year I decided to create what became this website – The Realized Entrepreneur. I didn’t know it was going to become a blog. I thought it would mainly be a podcast.
And today marks 1 year since I published the first article on this site.
So much has changed. So fucking much. I feel deeply grateful for the journey I’ve been on.
So to celebrate, I decided to write honestly about my experiences. My wins, my stumbles, my hard-won wisdom.
I hope firstly that it’s an entertaining read. I also hope it helps you. Especially if you’re a writer.
These are my 5 lessons, from a year of writing.
1. Sentencing the Inner-Judge
Before I launched this site, or told anyone I was launching it, I was writing for it.
I was busily trying to script out the first podcast episode which would be just me talking about the project.
I spent weeks and weeks on it.
Writing, re-writing. Editing, re-editing. Doubting. Writing again. Throwing it away. Pulling it out of the trash. Editing some more.
I would do extensive journaling while writing, exploring the struggles I was having with myself.
Some days I would only get two sentences in before the inner dialogue would start up.
“You need to sound like you know what you’re talking about Ewan. You need to sound authoritative, strong, and deeply wise, otherwise no-one will listen to you. Don’t put that vulnerable shit in there. That won’t work. Be impressive.”
I’d try, but the clench in my gut would twist my words into empty shells of pretence.
I tried going ultra-philosophical, the 40,000 foot view – the map of business as it could be in the coming decades.
“Dude. You haven’t lived what you’re writing. You’re so out of integrity. You’re hiding behind big ideas aren’t you? Be real man, this isn’t working at all.”
And then sometimes it would descend into self-abuse.
“You piece of shit. This fucking sucks man. And you know it don’t you? Because you suck. What are you even doing here? Go home and cry like a little bitch.”
I was so very hard on myself when I didn’t get it right.
But really, I was afraid. Deeply afraid. I was afraid to start. I was afraid to put that ‘first thing’ out there.
I’d launched a whole bunch of businesses and products before. But this time it was just me, and the things I really cared about.
And I was afraid I’d be rejected.
This is Lesson One. Starting is really hard, so do it before you’re ready.
I was trying so hard to get it right before I launched. I really, really wanted to look competent, worthy and wise, like someone people would hire, or tell their friends about.
I thought I needed to get it right before I shared it.
I now know this is impossible.
It’s never ‘right’. It’s art.
Art is something that comes through you, from deep inside, or way high up. It’s your unique expression, it’s no more right than one person’s heart is more correct than another’s.
It may not be right, but it is important. It matters. Deeply.
And so, you never feel ready.
I never felt ready. Because starting is like leaping into the unknown. And so far, I’ve never fully prepared for that.
I ditched the script in the end, and started more simply, and after a few more false starts, I did release it into the world.
And it was incredibly scary.
And my hand shook as I pressed send on the email.
And it was beautiful.
And I’m so grateful I found the courage to do it.
2. The most powerful question I know
Fast forward. It’s now December. I’ve got 2 months of writing and publishing under my belt (all four articles!). And I wanted to publish one last piece before the Christmas holidays.
I had a title: ‘The most powerful question I know’. It was a question I’d spontaneously started asking myself the previous year during a very tough period.
I’d been back at my parent’s house as a 30-something, my relationship on the rocks, wanting to get out of the work I was doing, not knowing how to make any money. I was in real crisis.
Then during a cigarette smoking sessions in the garden shed this question emerged…
“What is being asked of me?”
I’d used it repeatedly, and it had helped me through some hugely challenging and anxiety inducing moments.
I finished drafting the article at 3pm on Christmas Eve. I was short on time, so just read it through once, and then posted it.
I shared it on facebook, closed my laptop and left the café.
An hour of Christmas present shopping later and I pull out my phone to see if anyone has ‘liked’ my facebook status.
I’m fully expecting my usual 3 likes (my mum, my girlfriend, and me), but today it’s different. People are really impacted by it.
This is Lesson 2. Success is neither predictable nor controllable
The article went ‘viral’. As in, it spread out well beyond my normal circle of friends and followers.
Up until that point my most read article had about 300 hits. This post was read by 1,500 people in the first 2 days.
It felt like it came from nowhere.
This is what I learned: it’s almost impossible to predict what will be ‘successful’. Because if you’re committed to genuine art, you’re creating from the unknown.
If you try and aim for success, you’ll just replicate what you think is successful.
The next article I wrote after ‘The Most Powerful Question I Know’ was one where I tried to replicate its success.
It duly bombed. It’s still my least popular article.
In other words, the less sure we are about the quality of what we create, the more likely it is that we’re in the unknown. And that’s where creativity resides.
If you’ve done it before, it’s not creative. If you’ve heard it before, it’s not creative. If it’s safe, it’s not creative.
Some stuff works. Some doesn’t.
And I’m not sure I’ll ever be done learning this lesson.
3. A commitment to regular inspiration
I can’t remember exactly how it came about. I think I’d been reading a lot of Seth Godin and Steven Pressfield at the time.
But a realization came to me. And somewhere towards the end of winter I decided to write every single morning.
It changed the game for me.
The power of that practice is now so obvious to me, but at the time it was a pretty scary commitment.
Someone once asked the writer Somerset Maugham whether he wrote on a strict schedule.
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” ― W. Somerset Maugham
I’d had this idea that inspiration and creativity were wild natural forces that could and should not be controlled.
If I didn’t feel like writing? If I didn’t feel inspired? If the mojo wasn’t flowing? I wouldn’t write. And I continued to believe that I was a slave to the muse.
Until I started to write every morning.
I’d wake up, shower and meditate. I’d make a green smoothie and bike over to my favorite coffee house.
I’d order a latte, and set my timer for an hour. And I’d write.
And a lot of it sucked. And I allowed myself to journal sometimes instead. And it was hard, and I felt insecure a lot, and frustrated, and hopeless.
And I’d still write.
And it changed everything for me.
This is lesson 3. Make love to your muse, every day.
Inspiration isn’t a finite and fickle resource, it’s what happens when you make love to your muse.
Your muse is not a master that has enslaved you. And neither are you its master.
Your muse is your lover. The creative spark that’s always already in you, and that ushers you toward new ideas, new moments.
Make love with that place inside you every day.
And you will grow to know one another ever more deeply.
And your challenges will grow too.
And so will the level of beauty you can tolerate, and the level of truth that you can speak.
4. Someone steals my work
It was a new kind of article for me. I’d actually researched the topic (albeit spontaneously), that I had written about. Because it was a big topic.
It was called Money Is Not What You Think It Is.
I’d grown up with some pretty strong narratives around the nature of money, and I knew they were having a big effect on my work and business.
I spent several thousand words exploring the whole topic, and the article got a really great response. Many people sent me messages about it.
One was from a guy on LinekdIn – he said the article had really spoken to him in a time of struggle, and given him a sense of hope.
The next day I was checking my messages again on LinkedIn and saw an alert about a new blog having been published earlier that day. It was called ‘Money Is Not What You Think It Is.’
“That’s weird. That’s the name of my article.”
Perplexed, I clicked through and discovered my own article, copied and pasted, word for word, under his own name.
An interesting message exchange ensued, one that I decided to post on facebook, where my friends rallied around like the generous motherfuckers they are.
The whole thing got a lot of attention.
Lesson 4. I’m afraid of being seen.
I really want me and my work to be recognized.
The irony of the plagiarism episode was that my work got a lot of exposure. And while I was deeply touched, proud and grateful. I also got to feel how uncomfortable it was for me to be so exposed.
Underneath all my adult strength, there’s still this really shy little boy who feels overwhelmed by big groups of people, and would rather sit inside on his own, following his curiosity.
Writing is one half solitude and one half exposure.
It doesn’t count if I don’t show anyone what I’ve written. And it doesn’t count if I only show the safe stuff.
The truer I am to the work that wants to come through me, the more visible I’m going to become, and the deeper I’m going to have to face all the things I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding.
5. Turning up the publishing volume
It’s the start of the summer. I’m in New York, and I’m on the phone with my men’s group. I’m about to make a commitment.
I’d been putting a new piece out once or twice a month. But I’d decided I wanted to do it more regularly. As an experiment.
I could think of two possible solutions. Either I upped the amount of time I was writing, in order to produce more articles to share.
Or I dropped my standards, and published stuff that I didn’t think was good enough.
I opted for the second one.
“I’m going to publish a new article every week for the next 3 months.”
The first week went by without a hitch. The second week got interesting.
By this time I was in Texas spending some time with my mentor. I had an article half drafted, one on marketing. And I sat down to finish it.
I read over it and something inside me said…
“This is not good. It’s too markety, too superficial. I think I should be writing bigger philosophical pieces. People won’t like it.”
I wanted to scrap it. That’s what I would have done before – bin it and write something new. But I didn’t have time, I had to publish today.
So I finished it. And mailed it out to my list.
Lesson 5. Don’t trust your own opinions.
People really liked the article.
I know a lot about marketing. And I also have a love-hate relationship with it. It doesn’t always fit my ‘creative writer’ persona very well.
Which was why people’s reactions were an important lesson for me.
If I’d have listened to my own ‘wisdom’ I wouldn’t have published anything at all on marketing, perhaps indefinitely.
But by throwing it out I realized just how wrong I was. As a consequence, I also then got over of my marketing-snobbery and wrote some more marketing articles, and really enjoyed them.
Travelling the courageous path
These were 5 of my lessons. There are more lessons I’m in the midst of. Perhaps I’ll write about them another time.
But for now I want to say this to you (and to myself, as perhaps all good writing is actually intended).
Your voice is unique.
Your writing is unique.
But it’s probably buried under conventions, other people’s opinions and old stories. And the deeper you cut toward that core of your own authentic expression, the greater your discomfort will be.
If something pours out, and you don’t know where it came from. Or you feel like you can’t possibly show it to anyone. Or you feel massively uncomfortable, and don’t like it. Or you’re really scared people will reject you. Or whatever it is that specifically tells you “YOU MUST NOT SHARE THIS!”
That’s the one.
That’s the moment of courage.
That’s the decision to show your heart to the world, and become vulnerable to its response.
That’s the moment that things will change. And it will be out of your hands.
Because writing changes you.
It changes me, every day I do it.