Doing the Impossible

I’m beginning to understand why so many people view publishing a book as the crowning achievement of one’s life. It is an accomplishment revered beyond most others, sitting on a pedestal way, way up there. Why? I think it’s because few other pursuits will remind you as strongly that what you’re trying to do is absolutely impossible.

When you write, you must filter, structure, group, sort, clarify, and polish your thoughts. Given the tens of thousands of ideas floating through our head on any given day, many of them making little sense at all, every single one of these steps borders on a miracle. How did you pick that line to write down? Why do these paragraphs work so well together? And that’s just writing.

To write a book, you’ll need thousands of paragraphs. My guess is that the scope of any book surpasses the comprehension of its author. You just can’t hold on to that many words at the same time. You’ll need plenty of work, sure, but also luck for every piece of the puzzle to end up in exactly the right place.

Nowhere is it more clear to me, however, that writing a book is doing the impossible, than in the last round of editing a manuscript. I’m doing it right now. First, I printed a proof copy of the book, because looking at it any more on the screen wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Then, I tried reading my own words through the eyes of someone else — and that is, by definition, impossible.

Sometimes, I got lucky. For a sentence or two, I saw my writing with neutral eyes and could point out sensible corrections. But as soon as I did my initial pass of a paragraph, I was right back in my own head. If you want to torture someone, make them read the same sentence a hundred times. It becomes hard to focus. The words blur together. It’ll always sound the same, and yet, it’ll start feeling totally incomprehensible.

After six years of writing on Medium, I felt I had a decent sense of how an article’s lines would feel in a reader’s mind. Either I was wrong or I reset my gut with books, and now I just need more time to train it. Regardless, going through my book one last time with a fine-tooth comb felt pretty hopeless. As easy and obvious as it is to me what I like and don’t like about any, literally any, other person’s writing, as impossible is it to tell what other people might like or not like about my own — and that’s the whole point! Were the impact of art not unpredictable, it wouldn’t be art.

If getting into a reader’s mind was as easy as peeling a carrot, writing wouldn’t be the universal, incredibly valuable, all-penetrating skill that it is. Written works would be a commodity, which, today, despite what it may look like, they are not. Some of us may try to treat them as such, but in the end, great creative work still outshines mass-produced drivel, often dramatically so. Why? Because the writer pulled off the impossible! They put themselves in their readers’ heads, and they got it right! At least right enough for the work to spread.

Your work may not give you as many stark reminders that what you’re doing is pushing a boulder up an insurmountable hill, but you too are doing the impossible. Wherever you summon your imagination in hopes of achieving a result in the real world, you are facing unbeatable odds. Will your daughter like the gift you got her for her birthday? Is the design you chose the right one for this presentation? What will people think about your next podcast episode? You don’t know, but you’ll march on anyway — and that is exactly as life should be.

We do the impossible, and then we get lunch. May your ideas always find their invisible targets, and if you ever write a book, don’t despair: Others have succeeded before you. You are not alone, and you are fighting one of life’s most honorable fights.