1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Don’t “discover” a subject—of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored—but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
9. Tolerate chaos.
10. Be careful only in a perverse way.
I almost want to say I wish I’d seen this when I was in the worst of my confusion about The Undressing of America, but honestly, I probably wouldn’t have known what to do with it. My usual experience with advice is that it crystallizes what I’ve already experienced more than it points to a new path. But that crystallizing help me remember what I learned next time I hit a similar mess.
When I first read the list, it was the line about the destructive power of boredom that jumped out at me—because I bogged down in boredom so often in writing the earlier version of the book, but I always thought my response should be to whip up new enthusiasm for what I was doing or just slog through it and assume I’d fix it in rewrite. Which got me nowhere. Nothing could really change until the boredom grew so deep and so infuriating that I burned down the whole damned thing and started over.
And destruction, of course, can be the first step of creation. It opened me to abandoning all my original positions, welcoming uncertainty and chaos, making mobilizing mistakes in the search for I didn’t know what.
The one note I dismissed as silliness at first was the one about Pollyanna—but it was the line I kept coming back to, and now I think I’m starting to get it. In fact, I’m discovering that the “glad game” is almost essential to taking all this on. I wasted a lot of emotional energy getting mad at myself for heading off in the wrong direction, not seeing that I’d hit a wall, and staying stuck for so many months. But I can find things to be glad of: glad to have wandered in the wrong direction, because it took me off my safe, familiar turf; glad to have been forced to throw out a whole book, because it made me braver; glad that I had that long period of non-production, because it turns out to have been a chrysalis.
So a fine painter and a fictional eleven-year-old girl discovered the same principle, which I’m learning now: when I’m glad about the paths I went down, even the ones that were most frustrating at the time, then I have the courage to plunge down new paths again.