Focus on the Mountain, Not the Map

So Neil Gaiman has this speech, a keynote address he delivered in 2012. You may be familiar with it – almost everyone is, at this stage of the internet, ‘cause that shit has been linked to and reprinted more times than the goddamn bible at this stage of its career. Peeps will repeat the words Make Good Art like a goddamn mantra.

I don’t mind that.

As mantra goes, make good art is pretty bloody aces.

But for my money, the most valuable part of the speech isn’t the bits that get repeated over and over. It’s not the catchy phrases about making good art when your cat dies or your wife leaves you It’s not the sequence where he lays out his beliefs that there are no rules in art, which creative types lap up like the fun-loving anarchist spirits we all want to be.

The most valuable part of the speech is this:

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

I mean, holy shit.

That is genius.

Seriously, fucking brilliant. Exactly the thing most writers need to remember, at every stage of their career, rendered into a simple metaphor.

‘Cause…well, here’s the thing:

WRITERS MAP SUCCESS ONTO WEIRD-ASS SHIT AND REFUSE TO LET IT GO

Ask any established writer or editor, and they will tell you war stories about the time they stood between a new writer-type and a ‘big break.’

We show them off like battle scars, when we’re getting drunk at conventions.

And it’s not that the new writers in these stories set out to be mad as a bucket full of weasels. It’s just…

Well.

Writing, it’s not a career with roads, is it?

It’s not like you show up, fresh-faced and eager to be a writer, and people start giving you clear instructions the same way they would if you said things like lawyer or doctor or taxi driver. People know how to get those jobs. They understand the paths you need to take, in a general sense, even if they have never followed those paths themselves.

But writing? Say those fateful words, “I wanna be a writer,” when you’re a kid and you’ll be greated with a chorus of there’s no money in writing, followed by the much-loved coda of artists only get famous after death.  And even if you’re a bright and precocious type, pointing out all the writers who do seem to be having careers, people will tell you it’s a one in a million chance.

Successful writers are aberrations, kid. They are super-special snowflakes touched by the bright spark of genius.

Their path is not your path.

And it doesn’t take long to figure it out: if you want to get to the mountain, you’ve gotta hack out that damn path for yourself.

And so new writers get ideas about the way things work. They’re lost in the wilderness without  compass or road signs, and they sketch out maps in the dirt based on what they know.

Some of those maps are pretty good. If you’ve done the research, gotten the lay of the land, figured out where other people have taken the wrong path and wandered into terrain that should be marked with stuff like:

HERE BE FUCKING DRAGONS

And the writers in question know that it’s a bad, bad idea to wander into the terrain where the dragons will eat you.

Not all maps are like that.

Frequently, there are maps that are full of sketchy details. Crude scrawls that depict a hell, a forest, and a little trail of dashes. Maybe a little stick figure sitting atop the lonely mountain of success, preparing to dive into an ocean of money like he’s Scrooge McDuck.

These folks want success, but they don’t really know how to get there, and when they find something that resembles one of their sketchy details, they cling to it with both hands.

Those sketchy maps will take people down all manner of treacherous roads, full of dead ends and wolves and scary-as-shit forests where people get lost, and because the map is bad and the mountain seems so far away, people get lost.

Or they mistake the map for the destination.

This is the point where bad decisions get made. It’s the place where aspiring writers will pay obscene amounts of money to vanity publishers, because they have mapped “success” onto “having a book.”

It’s where aspiring writers will self-publish with no particular plan, because they have mapped “success” onto “getting your work out there,” regardless of the challenges associated with being your own publisher.

It’s where aspiring writers who haven’t researched the road at all will scream abuse at established writers who refuse to read their work, or slip manuscripts under toilet doors while an editor is trying to pee, because they have mapped “success” onto “getting discovered.”

It’s where otherwise sensible writers will say yes to sub-par deals or opportunities, because they have mapped “success” onto “getting asked.”

It’s where writers who get their first book published start assuming the world is all candy and unicorns, because they have mapped “success” onto “getting published.”

It’s where writers think shit, if I’ve just won this award/got this particular break/just scored a review at…

Well, you get the picture.

Everyone does this – new writers, established writers, it doesn’t matter – we’ve all got this idea of success in our heads and a map, crude though it may be, designed to get us there. We all have some idea of what the mountain looks like, and sometimes it’s hard to see it in the distance because there’s mist or rain or you’re lost in a valley.

This happens. To everyone. 

And as long as you take a moment, ever now and then, to look towards the mountain and re-orient yourself, it’s all good. You correct your course. You start moving forward again. You focus on the destination, not the journey.

But there are some people who don’t do that. They get focused on the map, or they keep listening to the drone of their internal GPS, even after people have pointed out the damn thing is probably broken.

Nothing will fuck your writing career up like mistaking the map for the mountain.

The moment you mamp success onto a specific opportunity – pitching to an editor; attending a workshop; meeting a famous writing; getting you first goddamn book published – you are primed to lose sight of where you really want to go.

Don’t do this.

Ignore the map.

Lift your eyes off the map and focus on the mountain. If you can’t see it, figure out what you need to do to get to the place where you can.

And then, once it’s in sight, put all your effort into getting there. Pay attention to the paths that will take your forward and ignore the ones which will take you back.

Focus on success, not the map you’ve built to get you there.

Ask yourself two important questions:

WHAT HAVE I MAPPED SUCCESS ONTO RIGHT NOW?

and

IS THAT STILL WORKING FOR ME AND SERVING MY NEEDS?

If the answer to that second question is yes, go forth and do what you do.

If not, take a moment. Look towards the mountain. Figure out some alternate paths.

And then, to paraphrase The Ramones:

Hey-Ho, mother-fucker.

Let’s Go.

The mountain fucking awaits.

  6 comments for “Focus on the Mountain, Not the Map

  1. Charlotte Nash
    10/11/2015 at 5:20 PM

    I must be under a rock because I hadn't seen the Neil Gaiman speech, and totally that is the best part. Awesome post.

    • petermball
      10/11/2015 at 6:30 PM

      Oh, brilliant. I'm glad there was at least one person I could introduce to the speech for the first time. It's one of those things I keep around (in book form, yet) to cheer myself up on bad writing weeks.

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