“If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” – John McPhee
Now and then I re-read that quote to shake myself out of my own head. The implications of that McPhee sentence are profound enough on the merit of “marine limestone”, but wait; there’s more. There’s also the craft of forming a sentence so starkly beautiful, so elegant in its simplicity, that it inspires you to be a bit better at your own writing.
“No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”
― John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
I have this McPhee book, partially read, in my virtual stack of books to finish this year. I began reading it, was pulled towards some weighty books that demanded attention, and keep looking back at it wanting to finish what I’d started. Another case for reading one book at a time, as if it were required to build a case at all.
Ryan Holiday writes about this time during the pandemic through a Stoic lens. He’s a prolific reader, and also a prolific writer. His mentor is another prolific writer in Robert Greene. What he said rings in my ears as this crazy year spirals towards an end:
“I remembered a piece of advice I had gotten from the author Robert Greene many years earlier. He told me there are two types of time: alive time and dead time. One is when you sit around, when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control, when you make every second count, when you are learning and improving and growing.” – Ryan Holiday
I note the challenge, and accept it. We’ve all wasted too many seconds in 2020, and the years that preceded it. Focused action, high agency, and discipline matter more than ever. You don’t get down the path if you keep detouring off to view every distraction along the way. To ship the work you must complete the work.
Reading inspires action, but it also distracts. If you’re caught up in the greatness of the work of another you can get cavalier about your own work. Reading is alive time, but so is productive action towards a goal. There’s time enough for both in a day, should you use your day wisely, and with urgency. You develop yourself through the work. Embrace it.