David O'Mahony: Be the inaction hero of your own story

David O'Mahony: Be the inaction hero of your own story

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The Roman emperor wrote: ‘The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.’

"You can edit a bad book, but you can't edit a blank page."

That's probably the equivalent of "feel the fear and do it anyway" for a writer. It's not far off the advice I got when I was working on my doctorate, when I was, like most other students and academics, stuck in a loop of "I just need to read one more article and then I can start writing the chapter".

Productive procrastination has side benefits but ultimately you actually have to start the project. And it doesn't have to be writing, it can be painting, sketching, exercising.

Decision paralysis is a very real thing. You can have too many options that you can't quite compare, so struggle to make a choice. Nobody wants to invest a lot of time, emotion, and effort into an endeavour only to see it fail, so that fear too, or the fear of making the wrong choice when another one might be better, can see you stuck. 

So how do you get around it? How do you, literally or metaphorically, write the bad book that you can edit into something better later?

This sort of paralysis is not new. It happens to everybody. In the second century Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way". There are opportunities in any challenge, and the emperor's message is something the writer, former media manager, and Stoicism evangelist Ryan Holiday translated to entrepreneurship and the modern world in his book The Obstacle is the Way. Sometimes the way out is through.

A nudge from someone you trust helps. I spent years thinking about how much I wanted to write and then not committing to it. For me, it was my wife's gentle suggestion to just write the novel (never underestimate the power of somebody having confidence in you). 

I had always aimed at being a fantasy fiction author, and had a  chunk of two novels written in that genre in my late teens/early 20s. But bar a few sporadic unfinished short stories over the years I never revisited it the way I thought I would. 

More recently, I made a start on a novel (since reworked into a couple of related stories) loosely based on one of my less reputable ancestors, but it turned into something shaped by horror fiction. 

Turns out I'm better at writing horror. Or, at the very least, it's what brings me genuine joy. And it doesn't have to be gory or pointlessly terrifying. There is no end to the genre's depth.

And the novel I'm writing now begins with... a writer having a severe case of writer's block. Art imitates life. 

Like Stephen Dedalus from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, albeit without the hedonism, I'm committed to building up a career as an artist (in this case fiction writer) without any guarantee or expectation of being hugely successful. 

Although the Booker Prize win of Paul Lynch, a sub-editor once like myself, shows all sorts of things are possible.

Booker Prize winner Paul Lynch.
Booker Prize winner Paul Lynch.

When will my novel be finished? Don't ask. Probably before George RR Martin delivers the next instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire, though.  I've been on a streak of writing short stories, mostly for competitions but also for submissions to various magazines and journals. I'm not sure I can really start. I'm not sure I want to, either. I only intend to go one way — forward.

You can't go anywhere unless you actually commit to moving. It might be reading 20 pages a day (that's 7,300 a year), it might be lifting 1kg more than you're used to, could be walking 4,000 steps a day instead of 2,000. 

Ultimately your life is your story. So are you going to let somebody else dictate it, or are you going to write it yourself?

More in this section

Lunchtime News

Keep up with the stories of the day with our lunchtime news wrap.

Sign up

Sign up to the best reads of the week from irishexaminer.com selected just for you.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy Brand Safety FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Examiner Echo Group Limited