Writers from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Gilbert have been inspired by the works of the Stoics. Here’s a primer on the philosophy and some ideas about how it can help your writing.
What is Stoicism?
Being a Stoic is about living a good and purposeful life. The school of thought was founded in Athens in 301 BC by Zeno and most of our understanding of Stoicism comes from the Romans Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. It has influenced writers, scholars and politicians throughout the ages and is enjoying resurgence with the current productivity obsession – the self-improvement guru Tim Ferriss is a big fan.
“To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” Epictetus
I’m taking part in Stoic Week – a course that applies this philosophy to modern life. The basic approach involves taking responsibility for things that are within our control while letting go of what’s beyond it. This quote from Epictetus sums it up: “To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.”
This method forms the basis of the therapy of CBT and has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous through their use of the Serenity Prayer by St Francis of Assisi.
“Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.”
Being a Stoic can make you a better writer
Stoicism is a practical philosophy so there are lots of ways to apply it to your life. Here are a few ideas that could be useful for writers.
Building a writing habit
I believe that building a regular writing habit can lead to writing success. The Stoics love a good habit, as Epictetus explains:
“Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. … So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different.”
Epictetus also recommends tracking your habits. This involves making a note of each day you’ve done something you want to do, like writing, or that you’ve not done something you don’t want to do, like smoking. He believes if you carry on for 30 days the habit will become embedded.
Finding time to write
Being Stoical has come to mean being a bit hairshirty. On some levels this is true, Stoics believe in hard work and getting up early means you can be more productive. Many writers feel that writing gives purpose to their life yet they struggle to make time for it. When the alarm goes off at stupid o’clock, Marcus Aurelius advises us to ask if we were created to stay in bed and keep cosy.
“At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a human being’s work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into this world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?’”
Seneca felt we shouldn’t complain that there isn’t enough time or that life is too short “life is amply long for the one who orders it properly.” Basically, get up and write the damn thing.
Writing is within our control
A core Stoic idea is accepting what’s under our control, as Epictetus says:
“Under our control are conception (the way we define things), intention (the involuntary impulse to act), desire (to get something), aversion (the desire to avoid something), and, in a word, everything that is our own doing.”
Choosing to spend our time writing is our own doing. The Stoic view is refreshing because not only is the desire and impulse to act in our control, but also how we define or feel about our writing.
But don’t get carried away, Stoics believe that though we might chose to do something, fate might prevent us. In sitting down to write this blog today, my computer mouse decided to freeze, so I spent a good while banging it on the desk before deciding it to borrow my husband’s functioning mouse.
Focus on the act not the rewards
Writing the book is writing the book – that’s the bit that’s under your control. Any rewards from it like readers, good feedback or prizes aren’t something you can influence. Let go of any outcomes and focus on what you are able to do.
Dealing with negative feedback
“I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.” Marcus Aurelius
Stoics believe our reputation is outside our control. As we’ve seen above our task is to write, we can’t influence how people feel about our writing. If we get negative feedback, poor reviews or rejections we need to deal with them with reason rather than responding emotionally.
If the feedback is true we need to take it on board, and if it is false we should feel sorry that they hold wrong opinions. Marcus Aurelius said “an insult is nothing to get upset about.”
Learn from your mistakes
Every good Stoic is a work in progress. Taking time to reflect on what we’re doing, and how we feel about it, gives us the opportunity to live better lives.
Learn from your mistakes – you might have missed a goal or deadline, made an error in your writing, or not made the time for it. Recognise it, accept it, learn from it and move on. Being a Stoic isn’t about being perfect but about trying to the best of your ability.
This one is quite simple. Marcus Aurelius said “No unnecessary words”.
Find a writerly role model
I’m a sucker for writers’ habits, I love finding out when and how people write so I can learn from good practice. Find yourself a Stoic Sage someone who is ideal for imitation, a role model who leads a good and purposeful life, or who writes damn well.
Not giving a shit
The Urban Dictionary’s definition of Stoicism hits the nail on the head, plus it made me laugh. A Stoic is:
“Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter.”
So there you go, if writing matters to you spend your life in its purpose.
Try the daily practice
Exeter University organises Stoic Week and runs a website called Stoicism Today. A background to the philosophy by Donald Robertson outlines the basic practice. It only takes a few minutes and can be incredibly helpful in cultivating mindfulness.
- Morning preparation to plan the day ahead. This involves taking a few minutes to think through what you want to achieve while being mindful that there might be setbacks beyond your control.
- Mindfulness throughout the day. Having an awareness of your thoughts and emotions. By noticing your response you become more self-aware and able to practice self-control and discipline.
- Night-time review of the day. Before going to sleep, review the day in order, focussing on key events. Note what went well, what went badly, and what opportunities were missed to learn from the day and do better in the future.
Find out more
I first came across the practical application of philosophy in The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. There’s an excellent section on Seneca’s teachings on preparing yourself for the worst.
Jules Evans has a website, newsletter and book called Philosophy for life. If Stoicism isn’t for you, you can find out about being an Epicurean and focus on pleasure or perhaps try being a Sceptic. Here’s a piece he wrote about the Stoics.
Check out Stoicism Today for lots of excellent articles and advice, sign up for their Facebook page, and find out when new courses are launched.
Read Donald Robertson Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism.
There is no substitute for reading the classics. Elizabeth Gilbert said of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:
“I am never very far from a copy of this book. I find something incredibly soothing about the notion of a long-dead Roman emperor worrying about the same stuff I worry about — namely, how are we to be? What makes a good person? What is honor? What is duty? How do we endure disappointment? How do we endure contradiction and suffering? How do we find comfort despite chaos and impermanence? He does not necessarily always have the answers, but the eternity of the questions themselves always calms me.”
To get started try: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Discourses by Epictetus, Letters of Seneca, all of which are available with fabulous covers in the Penguin Great Ideas series.
This post was inspired by Stoicism Today and their 2013 guide to living like a Stoic from which many of the quotes were taken. However, I take full responsibility for any misinterpretation of the philosophy.