Hemingway Did Not Non-Summit
This post returns today with high hopes of deep sixing the non-summit. However, it knows it can’t go it alone. Please help. Instead of pushing procrastination, let’s make sure that the only thing non-summits are pushing is daisies.
A summit is the highest of the high. It is the top of a mountain. The apex. The peak. The zenith.
If it is a summit meeting, it is a meeting of individuals at the peak. Think Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin during WWII.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know my feelings about the trending use of the word summit to describe events, workshops, interviews, get-togethers, and a long list of other things that are not summits of either the mountain or meeting variety.
Another piece to add:
These non-summits are a form of procrastination.
When you’re at the base of an actual summit, don’t hold a meeting. Climb to the top instead.
One more piece:
These non-summits have the potential to steal your work’s soul—and your soul’s work.
Stick with me a bit here, for a short ramble.
In her Scientific American article “On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik,” Maria Konnikova opened with the story of psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.
In 1927, Gestalt psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed a funny thing: waiters in a Vienna restaurant could only remember orders that were in progress. As soon as the order was sent out and complete, they seemed to wipe it from memory.
Zeigarnik then did what any good psychologist would: she went back to the lab and designed a study. A group of adults and children was given anywhere between 18 and 22 tasks to perform (both physical ones, like making clay figures, and mental ones, like solving puzzles)—only, half of those tasks were interrupted so that they couldn’t be completed. At the end, the subjects remembered the interrupted tasks far better than the completed ones—over two times better, in fact.
Zeigarnik ascribed the finding to a state of tension, akin to a cliffhanger ending: your mind wants to know what comes next. It wants to finish. It wants to keep working – and it will keep working even if you tell it to stop. All through those other tasks, it will subconsciously be remembering the ones it never got to complete. Psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls this a Need for Closure, a desire of our minds to end states of uncertainty and resolve unfinished business.
I think this might be why the mornings are so magical for work. The mind just spent hours chewing over unfinished business. Yes, it brought up some family drama I wanted to avoid, but it did a ton of heavy lifting on unfinished work that is of importance. It made the connections between all the fragments clear, helped sew up the loose ends, fuse together the matching pieces. It made the struggle to understand—and view—the path ahead clearer. It’s why I try to wake before the kids and try to avoid talking, even of the e-mail chatter sort, in the early hours. There’s a magic there that’s gone by 9 AM, so I want to catch it within easy reach at 5 AM.
Maybe this is why counseling works, too. Once you talk it all through, you come closer to being able to let go, to find closure.
I just finished Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami and there’s a scene when one of the characters requests that a fellow traveler of the same world burn her manuscript. It isn’t for publication or reading. It is her life. She had to put it all down. Remember everything. Get it out. Once she added that final period, her body died and her soul—or whatever you want to call that “it” thing about her, that essence—moved to a different world.
Once she completed her story, she was able to move onto the next place.
But what if you talk through all of your work—all of your dreams—without actually doing them? You risk moving on, though that’s the last thing you really want.
Back to Konnikova’s article, this time with a quote from an interview Ernest Hemingway did with George Plimpton, for the Paris Review:
“… though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.”
Again, from Konnikova:
Hemingway’s words came from experience. When his wife lost a suitcase that contained all existing copies of his short stories, the work was, to his mind, gone for good. He had written himself out the first time around. He couldn’t recapture it—whatever it was—again. He even fictionalized the process in the short story, “The Strange Country”: the writer whose stories have been lost finds it impossible to remember. “It’s useless,” he tells his sympathetic landlady. “Writing [the stories] I had felt all the emotion I had to feel about those things and I had put it all in and all the knowledge of them that I could express and I had rewritten and rewritten until it was all in them and all gone out of me. Because I had worked on newspapers since I was very young, I could never remember anything once I had written it down; as each day you wiped your memory clear with writing as you might wipe a blackboard clear with a sponge or a wet rag.”
I have a friend who attended an event led by Tony Robbins recently. It wasn’t called a summit, but she left inspired. She didn’t talk through every bit of her life or her dreams. She listened and learned. I’m not opposed to these events, but the ones that continue to come into Steve are increasingly from individuals who are holding meetings at the base camp—who have talked about climbing to the summit for years, but have never given it a shot.
One more thing from Konnikova’s article is this quote from Justin Taylor:
“Don’t take notes. This is counterintuitive, but bear with me. You only get one shot at a first draft, and if you write yourself a note to look at later then that’s what your first draft was—a shorthand, cryptic, half-baked fragment.”
Non-summits shouldn’t be drafts, but that’s what they are—and for some, a draft is an idea closed. It isn’t refined. It isn’t as good as it can be, but it is closed—and not reopened.
One small rant:
If you are early in your career, you don’t warrant your own summit. You just don’t.
The 18 year old who wants to be a life coach needs to go experience life first. Do something. You have something important to say? Go walk the talk. Get out of the house and away from all the screens. Go LIVE and CREATE.
Age, of course, isn’t a determining factor, but one used in the above because I’ve run into more teenage life-coach wanna-be’s.
*With age, the exceptions are related to individuals such as Malala Yousafzai, an extraordinary woman, who became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate at age 17. I’ll listen to her with every ounce of myself because her life experiences, her daily walk, are more than just talk. She’s lived her beliefs. She fought/continues to fight when others have hidden.
The 18 year old who has read a ton of Nietzsche but is still living off his parents? Not so much.
Climb the mountain. Don’t stop at the base. Your words are your oxygen, and if you use them all, you risk running out of breath within view of your goal, but without what you need to attain it.
This is exactly why I’ve found it hurts more than helps to outline an entire story, beat by beat, before jumping in. I get bored with it, and feel like the excitement of discovery is gone.
If I trick myself though, use the broad framework of the Foolscap, then outline what I want to write day to day, instead of having the whole thing written out, I get the best of both worlds. Excitement plus direction.
Thank you, Brendan. I was advised to make a complete, detailed outline before beginning my story. I did it, and my story completely lost its pizzazz. Now I write day to day – it is only alive as it is coming through. A broad outline helps, but detailed? Forget it – and that is exactly what happens. I forgot it.
I’ve tried it both ways. I wrote my first two novels from detailed outlines and found that by the last third of the book, I was bored with it. I knew what was going to happen and I was just slogging through the mud trying to get to the finish line. I even started outlining my next story out of boredom with the task at hand. Now I am more into the mode of John Dufresne who believes in writing by discovery; that is, discovering the story as you write it. You watch the characters to see what they will do, vs. folding them into a preconceived plot. I write a scene a day and try not to get ahead of my self. Today I sat down to write a little worried because I had no idea what was to come next in my current story. I watched the protagonist for a while and wrote a five page scene, and now I have the next two scenes in my head; one of which is a turning point that I had not been able to figure out where it went. I think that is why Tim at the Story Grid recommends completing your first draft before applying the grid.
Callie, this is on fire
Generous and useful. Thanks.
Perhaps I’m different or because of my background in engineering but I do prefer having a strong outline for a story before I dive in. My first novel I used the ‘dive in and write’ method and though I’m happy with it, my second novel is a much stronger work. I attribute that to applying lessons learned but also because I took the time to outline to identify problem areas that I could have solutions for during the writing. I’m still able to be creative in my writing and if I have inspiration to change the story I do but I like the outline to keep me from going down too many rabbit trails.
If this approach is wrong then it seems I still have much to learn which is good. Learning allows for growth, which allows for success in reaching the summit.
I’d love to know what inspired this Callie because I enjoyed reading it.
We’re moving to a new home soon and I have boxes full of journals that I haven’t been able to part with. Now I realize I can and should let them go.
Its a cleansing. I too, had a box of journals from a period of great turmoil in my life tat sat in a box for 10 years. I needed to write them, I needed to keep them… and I needed to free myself from them. One might argue that “posterity” would like to read them. No. I shredded them and that felt as good as writing them.
Great post. I’ve worked in magazine for 15 years now, so this post hits home for me in the form of “editorial meetings.” I don’t know if it’s just me, but I hate talking about an article I need to write. If I’m talking about it, I’m not working on it, I’m not writing it. This causes me anxiety. Does anyone else feel this way? To me, the editorial meeting is like the base camp meeting. Stop meeting — just start climbing the mountain. In our case, stop meeting and talking about the piece — just start writing it.
Bravo Callie – another great post!
It is comical how often one encounters your “18 year old life coach” situation, the person whose life has been short, thin, and safe but who wants to mentor or coach others whose life experience has placed them far beyond his comprehension, in a different world.
I disagree on taking notes. I follow more the Twyla Tharp strategy of recording and saving fragments and artifacts for later use, sometimes in boxes and sometimes in journals. I have this week reread my collection for a particular project, letting the fragments crash into and dance with each other to launch the next step forward. I find they do come alive again, all the more so in their juxtaposition against others like them.
Maybe this works better for me because I am too old to keep everything in my head at once without such scaffolding.
Some of us can capture just enough in a note to spark the thoughts and feelings all over again. Some folks write such detailed notes that it loses the ethereal quality of rediscovery. As with most things, intent and technique have an effect.
I’ve had it both ways; notes that fire me to write things I love, and notes that leave me flat, even though I remember well the fire I felt when I jotted them down. As a songwriter, I find dozens of old files with a title alone or a few lines, and usually, they do nothing for me, though I never both to write down something I don’t think I’ll care about later. It’s tricky business, and I’m willing to risk testing the non-note-writing for a while.
The world is filled with people who have accomplished nothing, yet want to sell others advice…
This is one of the reasons I’ve resisted “building a platform.”
On the life coach front, I have often found that the more ignorant people are, the more they want to apprise others of how much they know. The wise are silent and watchful. Also the more lazy they are the more they talk about their plans. It’s a form of resistance.
Another good post, Callie, it seems even Seth Godin, if I can read between the lines, is saying it’s time for you to write that book…
Perhaps it’s already in the works.
That was some fierce writing Callie! … I love it when something jumps off the page and I’m nodding like a demented monkey at every word.
At least for me, talking about what I”m going to do is so much easier than doing the hard work. Therein lies the allure.
Forgot to add…the payoff feels almost as good. That is the actual trap. We lose the fire for a momentary sense of victory.
Once again a great post with deep insights. Thanks so much!
Halfway through my engineering career, I reflected on notes in stacks of steno pads from past meetings. I realized that I only referred to them for complex details: numbers, dates, names, etc. Additionally, I remembered the non-detail, one-in-fifty important stuff: good ideas, helpful comments, etc. To this date, I only write down details, and if I don’t remember it, it’s unimportant. It’s liberating.
“The 18 year old who wants to be a life coach needs to go experience life first. The 18 year old who has read a ton of Nietzsche but is still living off his parents?”
LOL… Someone finally said it out loud and in public. Bless you!
This is a WOW post, I agree with Seth, ON FIRE. It has the feel of mature wisdom.
Brillaint Steve! You’re firing on all cylinders.
Hey Callie – it’s you firing on all cylinders! (Steve too). Well done. Great piece.
Callie, super useful information… all of it.
Thank you ♥
Thank you. A great reminder on so many fronts.
Dang. You can write.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Hemingway’s lost suitcase. All that work (he called his “juvenilia”), gone like smoke. I think about the Tibetan monks who do those sand mandalas. Weeks of focus and attention, bright and intricate patterns in colored sands, working outward from the center. Then it’s destroyed, swept into a jar and spread across water. The transitory nature of beauty and creation and art. (And life.)
And, right after I read your piece, I picked up a magazine and the first thing I read was: “I decided to write about young guys who lived in a ski town. A concise summary might have been: ‘Hemingway goes to the mountains and hangs out with his bros.'”
Always curious to see an idea that shows up at the same time, from different directions. Appreciated this piece.
I find when I talk about a story before it’s written, breaking it down to it basic ingredients, it loses its magic. Writing a synopsis when it’s finished, that’s a different experience all together.
I don’t know what it is about Murakami, but his stuff always feels otherworldly, even when his characters are in mundane settings.
It is weird how reading something 5 months later is a new experience. What or who changed? I doubt it was your blogpost.
Excellent! Thank you, I needed to hear (read) this today. Now excuse me, I’m off to write.
The depth of this has implications on so many, many levels. Can’t thank you enough, Callie.
Powerful article, Callie.
So true how our memories wag their fingers at us saying, “You never finished. You’re not done.” No need for a mental record once we have closure. Ironically, the memories we don’t want, the traumatic ones or confusing ones without satisfying endings are often the ones that stick. We keep wanting them to end differently and we don’t let go. Or we think one day we’ll plummet the depths of the confusion and sort it out. But we never do. Yet we can also hold onto a pleasurable memory. We hang onto it so we can hold it up against the other memories and say, “Sorry. I’d rather look at this.”
Powerful insights. Brilliant article, Callie.
I had to laugh at your comment about the young mentors. So true. No conflict — no story. No experience — no insights. Yet, Malala Yousafzai slammed into the beast and still climbed the summit. In fact, she’s still climbing. Like you, I’d listen to her any day.
Thank you for your thought provoking article.
Yesterday I read yet another article by a 35 year old proclaiming the birth of something new (doesn’t matter what) which was at least fifty years old.
I think what leads some people astray whose career ambition is to be “thought leader” is that they fail to distinguish between the highest point they personally may have reached and actual heights of understanding or insight. We can attribute this in part to immaturity or self-centered-ness and in part to a sort of intellectual laziness.
I have no problem with people celebrating their attainments to date. I have my kids’ art on my refrigerator. The problem is when people expect a Steve to put their art on HIS refrigerator.
You go, girl!
When I was developing software, I discovered that when I was stumped, the best thing I could do was to think through and write down the problem as exactly as I could rather than try to think through a solution. I could throw away the notes, I seldom looked at them again, but after they were on paper, go home, take a nap, get a fresh cup of coffee, whatever, just change the subject for a while. A solution would usually come to me.
On the other hand, wracking my brain for a solution never seemed to work well. I might be able to hammer out something sufficient, but it was never my best work.
From this, I have concluded that my conscious mind is less capable than my unconscious. The best use of my conscious mind is to clarify problems, not create solutions. If a solution does not come freely and effortlessly, I try to clarify the challenge rather than construct a response. When I think I have the problem as completely understood as I can, I stop and wait until something pops up.
In writing, I don’t try to plan what I will write. Instead, I make notes on what I am trying to say, the kind of story I am trying to tell, what my characters feel. I notice that John Steinbeck did a lot of this in his journals and Raymond Chandler did the same in his letters.
Oddly, I often lose track of this plan and frequently have to stop myself from going for a solution instead of clarity. Insisting on a solution rather than a clear problem is a trick that resistance plays on me all the time.
Apparently, I am not alone in this.
“The best use of my conscious mind is to clarify problems, not create solutions.”
Brilliant. I’ve never thought of this partition in such a clear and helpful way. Thank you.
This was an excellent essay. Thank You.
This is one of the most insightful and profound articles on writing and living that I’ve ever read. Thank you, Steven
Ops, I mean, Thank you, Callie. 🙂
Thanks for this reminder, Callie. I’m going to reorganize my morning routine to see if I can scoop up more overnight brain work. The note about not moving on before completing your work reminds me of Derek Sivers short talk on keeping our goals to ourselves.
Thank you, Callie. I will stay away from the non-summits and the 18 year old gurus.
Most wait staff use their short-term memory, so they don’t keep information long.
Lack of closure. So that’s why I get frustrated when I am prevented from finishing a task.
My first novel was written on the fly with no real direction. The result was massive rewrites and learning, which I’m thankful for. Second novel, I was more organized, thinking through the story more and making a road map (outline)for the journey I wanted to take the reader on. The result, a vastly superior novel compared to the first. Now, working on my third, I find myself going back to a method somewhere in between those employed on my first two works. The lesson is in line with this great blog.
Also, I agree completely that the morning is the blessed time for writers. Walking my Rottweiler at 0530 allows my brain to process in peace and get motivated to crank out a few hours of writing before my day job starts up.
Thanks for the wonderful insight.
At 5, my mind is buried in the unconscious. At 6, the unconscious and conscious are in battle. This is when I begin to fight, talk, and walk about. At 7, on good days the conscious is starting to win, but on bad days it can take another hour or two before I begin the ‘summit’ with coherence in my journal. Wishing it otherwise, hasn’t worked so far, so I deal with it as it is.
This is exactly why it has taken me (going on) seven years to complete my first novel! I am so bored and yet I feel I can’t just throw it away–it would feel like such a waste. Sometimes I wish I could shove it all in a suitcase and give it to Hadley. haha.