The Stoic Writer: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Creativity

“Learn something new every day.” I’ve lived by this charge since graduating university more than a decade ago, determined not to let my brain atrophy amid the numbing routines of adulthood. Raw curiosity (and research for my novels) usually keeps me in good stead, but to supplement my cognitive nutrition, I always have a page-a-day nonfiction book on my nightstand. Having completed a few titles in the Intellectual Devotional series, I tried something different last year with Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s The Daily Stoic, a highly approachable introduction to the ancient philosophy.

Like most people, I’d misunderstood the word “stoic” to mean unemotional toughness. But proper-noun Stoics don’t dismiss emotion. Instead they place it in a framework of reason, dealing candidly with the world and their role in it. The emphasis on rationality resonated with my nerdy analyst soul (and did more to tame my Irish temper than any of the various anger management approaches I’ve tried over the years). After finishing Holiday and Hanselman’s book, I read How To Think Like A Roman Emperor—which uses episodes from the life of adherent Marcus Aurelius to illustrate stoic principles—and started Marcus’ own Meditations.

Studying the Stoics transformed my perspective on many things, including writing. How could a bunch of Romans who died two thousand years ago offer any insight to the modern author? I’ve selected quotes that I found particularly relevant to my writer’s life, one from each of the three most frequently cited Stoics in Holiday’s book.

Even emperors have anxiety.

Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Writers are a notoriously anxious bunch. Is this story good enough? Will people like it? Am I just deluding myself about this whole creativity thing when I can barely clutch a crayon? Even the confident personalities among us suffer chronic doubt about their creative work. Marcus would probably have pointed out that such feelings don’t come from a negative review or a social media troll. They come from within ourselves. 

Does that make us weak? Just the opposite: it gives us the power to tear out those anxieties and toss them away like a bit of scrawl in a notebook. I frequently see writers pour out their insecurities on Twitter, begging for validation from the void. Reassurance might feel good for a bit, but why outsource your self-worth to others, whom you can’t control?

We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?”

Epictetus

My recent hiatus wasn’t entirely about managing Major Life Events. It also arose from frustration with my publishing ambitions. Five years working to build my author platform through authentic engagement yielded scarcely any following. Although I invested all my free time in writing quality books (often to the neglect of other things), months passed without a single sale, while titles I considered inferior rocketed to popularity. And at my first author reading, the only people who showed up to listen were family. Disappointments piled up, breeding rage and despair.

Finally, through my Stoic studies, the epiphany came: I was fixating on factors outside my own control. Epictetus would tell me that I can’t control publishing trends, or reader opinions, or what editors are looking for this season when they review story submissions. Nor can I control what other authors do, whether it’s inimitable brilliance or derivative drivel. The only thing I control is my own work. Am I producing the best material I’m capable of at this point in my development? Am I improving my craft? Am I using my resources well? That’s all I can do. The rest isn’t up to me. Therefore, obsessing over it is a waste of time.

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

Seneca

People gape when they find out I write books in the margins of my (often demanding) full-time job. “How do you find the time?” The answer emerges when conversation turns to the latest popular show or celebrity scandal, and I’m completely out of the loop. I have time to write because I choose not to expend those hours on other things less important to me.

A key theme in Stoicism is awareness of mortality. You’ve probably encountered this concept in the Latin phrase memento mori: remember that you will die. Sounds gloomy on the surface, but once you get comfortable with the idea, it’s invigorating. If you’re hit by a truck tomorrow, will you be satisfied with how you spent your time on Earth? Such perspective helps prioritize those precious minutes you don’t have to trade for paychecks. Rather than composing tweets about how little progress you’ve made on your manuscript, Seneca would encourage you to draft a few paragraphs. Time is your most valuable resource, so spend it wisely.

As we move into a new year, consider cultivating a little Stoicism in your creativity. Abandon that anxiety, stop agonizing over things you can’t control, and dedicate time to the most meaningful pursuits. The philosophers quoted here all preferred living their principles to pontificating about them, so for now, enough blogging: let’s get writing.

3 thoughts on “The Stoic Writer: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Creativity

Add yours

    1. Glad I’m not the only one! For me, a TV binge is like eating a whole bag of crisps: tasty while doing it, but afterwards I feel hollow and unsatisfied. Learning and loving, however, rarely leave me to regret the time spent.

      Liked by 1 person

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