Everything You Write Is the Most Important Thing You Write

As the publication date for Our Endless and Proper Work draws near, I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from the actor Mads Mikkelsen:

“My approach to what I do in my job—and it might even be the approach to my life—is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film.… I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.”

What would it be like, I wonder, to fully live that way? What would it be like, in particular, to write that way? Without looking past the computer screen and the notebook page and setting your gaze on the potential book deal—or, if you’ve already got a book deal, on what reviewers will think of it. Dwelling on what this book, which isn’t even done yet, might do for you in the future, instead of concentrating on what you need to do with it right now.

What do I need to figure out right now, as I’m trying to write these pages? That’s where I have to put my attention. Ideally, I shouldn’t even speculate on what I’ll do with that hard-won knowledge once I’ve acquired it, because that might just increase the difficulty of learning what I need to learn right now. Later, I’ve finally put the story together the way it needs to be put together, I can carry what I’ve learned forward into the unknown. Today, sitting at my keyboard, or with my notebook, this unsolved mystery is the most important project I’ve got going. It won’t be any help to me tomorrow if I can’t move forward with it today.

I can get into that state intermittently, but it’s hard to maintain—and it’s not always the imagined future that distracts me. Sometimes it’s the past, and I don’t mean the useful parts of the past that might actually inform a particular piece of writing. Sometimes it’s the million and one things going on around me in the present. And there’s really nothing else I can do but to push through all that until, if I’m lucky, I can get back to that moment when the only thing in front of me is the question I need to answer today, and the process of answering it.

One thing I’m gradually beginning to understand more clearly is how to look at writing as a process rather than a product. Obviously, if you want to make any kind of living as a writer, even as a side gig, you have to give product some consideration; at the very least, you need to come up with something that can be published and purchased. But that’s just what you need to produce in order to participate in the publishing world, the market-driven world, the economic world. Beyond that, what was the book/story/essay/poem you wrote trying to tell you about yourself? And why did you need to be told that at that moment?

Stop thinking about becoming a famous writer, or a bestselling writer. It will either happen or it won’t, and the outcome depends on so many variables beyond your control that dwelling on it becomes counterproductive. Similarly, stop telling yourself you could never make it as a writer. You actually do have some control over that outcome, and you exert that control every time you engage in catastrophic speculation.

Instead, be ambitious with the blank space right in front of you. How will you fill it?

It has been, some of you will notice, a while since the last newsletter. So clearly I need to learn more keenly the lesson of concentrating on filling the blank space in front of me… and I’ve been reminded, over the last few weeks, that it’s as important to say no to a lot of work (and to a lot of things that aren’t work) so you have the freedom to say yes to the work that truly matters.

So when Mads Mikkelsen says “everything I do is the most important thing I do,” I don’t believe that he’s saying you have to do whatever comes along and treat it as if it’s the most important thing in the world. You have to look at your options and, whenever possible, pick the work that speaks most clearly to you. As he explains, though, that doesn’t always mean the work that will “advance your career,” because if you’re thinking along those lines, you’ve already got a preconceived notion of what your career will be like, when you need to make room for spontaneous discovery.

Of course, in the broader, market-driven world, the economic world, most of us don’t possess the privilege to operate in spontaneous discovery mode all the time. Sometimes we have to take whatever comes along because we have needs, and to fulfill needs we need money, and to get the money we need to do the work. If we write at all, it’s because we’re carving out pockets of time and space within that economic reality, moments in which we are no longer beholden to anyone else and can follow our creative impulses wherever they may lead.

Why not, given how rare such freedom is, exercise it to the fullest, whenever you can? Seen in that light, everything you write is the most important thing you write because it is in the writing that you are most yourself. You are, in effect, creating yourself, inching toward the best possible version of yourself, along with whatever ends up in the manuscript.

But I’d be the first to admit: As firmly as I believe that, it’s still intimidating as hell.

This post was first published in “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” a newsletter I’ve been writing since 2018. If you’d like to subscribe and get every new installment delivered to your email (free!), you can do that here.

17 May 2021 | newsletter |