The books that saved me

Carl Sagan died 24 years ago, rejoining the cosmos. Whenever I crack open one of his books today, I get this feeling that he’s still here, his love and passion reaching out to me—a random human being alive in the year 2020—across time and space. How could that be?

Books are magical.

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

I am, as you are, a beneficiary of all the books ever written.

I cannot imagine a world where there is nothing equivalent to words or books. On the worst days of my life I would have no saving grace, no life boat. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I was saved, in many ways, by other people’s writing — all of them strangers, most of them already dead. (And not just saved, but rebuilt from broken pieces.)

My love for life led me to books, but books further fuelled this love. No one could read Jack Kerouac and continue to be placid or neutral about life:

“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there, with the Ma-Wink fallopian virgin warm stars reflecting on the outer channel fluid belly waters.”

No one could read a Charles Bukowski poem and not burn with life or fall in love with the idea of falling in love:

“your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.”

And very few of us are left untouched or unmoved by the genius of Shakespeare:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Life’s but a walking shadow, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.


I remember how, in the depths of my depression, walking around with Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls”, feeling strangely comforted by the flowing rhythm of Russo’s writing and the sorry tale of Miles Roby. This was the story of a man who ran a diner in a blue-collar American town full of abandoned mills, a setting far away from the circumstances of my own life, but here, for the first time as a 20-year-old, I learned of the river as a metaphor for life:

“Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.”

Books chart the tender and violent movements of the human heart, and remind us that our individual condition is also a universal condition, by virtue of our human-ness. We might not want to admit it, but we are all connected, mirrors and fragments of each other—lost bits floating around the universe—waiting for our final reunion.

“After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?”

Lastly I end with this quote by Carl Sagan, who knows, as much as I do, about the sheer magic of books:

“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years.

Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”

Overcoming writer’s block

I’ve realised that the best antidote against writer’s block is simply sitting down to write.

What do I mean by simply sitting down to write?

It means, even on days when I feel like I cannot write or have nothing to write about, I go to my computer anyway and I write.

When I do this I’m always surprised that I want to continue writing. I might be writing badly at first—first drafts are always bad—but once I get to editing, shaping and culling and trimming away at the sentences, I’m back in the mood of writing.

This is similar to BJ Fogg’s idea of building habits by starting real small. For example, if you want to start a daily meditation habit, you should make your habit so tiny that doing it is a no-brainer. So it might be, instead of doing a ten-minute meditation, simply taking two deep breaths in the morning.

Starting tiny helps you to actually do the habit. It also builds confidence and makes it easier for you to keep up the streak daily. What usually happens is that after awhile you will want to do more than two deep breaths. Before you know it, you will find yourself meditating ten or twenty minutes a day. All because you started tiny.

So it’s the same for writing. Writing can feel like a monstrous task in the mind, but it’s not really that scary (I say this now, but I’m always scared to death of writing BEFORE I start writing). Start by simply sitting down to write. Write badly. Then get to editing and rewriting. Before you know it a whole essay has been written. Ha! Am I making it sound too easy?

But it does work for me.

I’d love to hear about how you guys overcome your writer’s block!

Living is the trick

“The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well.

One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something “serious.” Red Smith found in sportswriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects — so seriously that nobody could read them.

Another story.

When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: “Was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?” And Ginsberg said: ‘It wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, “why not?” And I said, “Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?” And he said, “There’s no party line.” So I did. We’ll never know how big a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.

There’s no party line.

Good advice.

You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else.

My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that sloped down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago– 125 years. It’s very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate.

Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principle of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don’t want to do we won’t do well — and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman.

Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I’d join him in the business. (In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could run a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off).

It was a ready-made career for me — lifelong security — and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start.

Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father — and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value — partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me.

The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America. The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I’ve tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn’t only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft.

But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn’t get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on that day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, “what are you going to do now?” which I thought was a fair question.

And I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.” And that’s what I was, for the next eleven years. It’s a life full of risk: the checks don’t arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge.

Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didn’t want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for.

Near the end of the ’60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there’s life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, “you know, change is a tonic.”

I didn’t know that.

I was afraid of change; I think most people are.

But I seized on the phrase “change is a tonic” and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country — big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges that I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida — asking if they had some kind of place for me.

And they didn’t, because I was not an academic — I only had a BA degree, like the one you’ll have in about five minutes — and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck.

Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life.

Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere — a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. So those were rich years for me — years of both teaching and learning — because they were unlike anything I had done before.

Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I’m telling you the story. I didn’t fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don’t assume that people you’d like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have — that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit.

America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else’s precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking — who just won’t buy somebody saying, “we’ve always done it this way. This way is good enough.”

Well, obviously it’s not good enough or the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. I don’t have to tell you all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There’s no corner of American life that doesn’t need radically fresh thinking.

Don’t shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I’ve told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by… If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it’s because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did — or continued to do — what was expected.

I didn’t go into the family business; I didn’t stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn’t stay in New York. And I didn’t stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it — how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don’t become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams.

Don’t assume that if you don’t do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen — a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace.

And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not…. For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you’ve done well and the beginning of something you’ll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that’s not up to your highest standards of what’s right for you–and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children’s schools, your state, your country, your world.

If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t work. Men and women, women and me, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988:

There’s no party line.

You make your own luck.

Change is a tonic.

One thing leads to another.

Living is the trick.

Thank you.”

— From William Zinsser’s Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University 1988. Passage from here.

Wiliam Zinsser

I read William Zinsser for the pleasure of reading William Zinsser, who continues to teach me how to write clear, focused, plain sentences about the things that matter to me.

He also reminds me that, in the end, “writing and thinking and learning” are the same process — that if I want to think better or learn better, then I’d better keep writing.

If you’d like to do the same, check out one of Zinsser’s many books about writing — On Writing Well, Writing to Learn, Writing Places.

A heap of boiled meat in broth

“Lying in bed and smoking my sixth or seventh cigarette of the morning, I’m wondering what the hell I’m going to do today. Oh yeah, I gotta write this thing. But that’s not work, really, is it? It feels somehow shifty and… dishonest, making a buck writing. Writing anything is a treason of sorts. Even the cold recitation of facts — which is hardly what I’ve been up to — is never the thing itself. And the events described are somehow diminished in the telling. A perfect bowl of bouillabaisse, that first, all-important oyster, plucked from the Bassin d’Arcachon, both are made cheaper, less distinct in my memory, once I’ve written about them. Whether I missed a few other things or described them inadequately, like the adventures of the amazing Steven Tempel or my Day in the Life, is less important. Our movements through time and space seem somehow trivial compared to a heap of boiled meat in broth, the smell of saffron, garlic, fish bones and Pernod.”
“Kitchen Confidential”, Anthony Bourdain

Why I write

When I write, I sometimes get into a state they call “flow”. It’s a dance – just me and my brain locked in a flow of movement. I forget myself. Time stops. 

At other times it’s like getting trapped in a maze. On your feet you wear heavy, clunky boots. Can you imagine? It’s a fucking hot day and your shirt is sticking to your skin and your head is buzzing, but there you are, trying to find your way out of a goddamn maze, burdened by those heavy shoes. You’re never going to get out, you think to yourself.

That’s what writing is – both ends of it. Part euphoria, part drudgery, but always irresistible.

In the end, whether I am dancing or getting lost, it’s the movement of it all that enraptures me. The movement of my thoughts as they get downloaded on to paper (or computer screen). The movement of my fingers across the keyboard. The movement from confusion to clarity as I travel in my head, gathering this thought and that, untying and tying knots, trying to put things together in an order that makes sense.

Yes. An order that makes sense. That’s why I write – to find order, to be a little less confused, to understand. Not fully, but just a little more. 

A little more understanding goes a long way.

Strip naked

Writing reveals who we are — it’s like that steamboat voyage Charles Marlow undertook that brought him riding straight into the heart of darkness.

There is always something to be found in our hearts — some true part of ourselves — that is revealed when we journey inwards, putting pen on paper. Or fingertips on keyboard. Whether we like it or not, whether we try to present the truth as something else or not, something slips out. Always.

The whole process of writing, for me, is to be okay with that. Wanting to be seen as cool is a thing of the past. That was when I was 20 and still wrecked with debilitating insecurity and a sort of damaged ability to love myself. Back then I thought everyone was better and more lovable than me, and I’d better have a talent or be good at something so people would love me a little more than I deserve.

But now I am older and I just want to strip naked. Come and see my heart if you want. Explore the dark bits and the bright parts and see that it’s all me. It’s all me.

Today they call it “living with authenticity”.

They can give it whatever label they want but it’s okay, I am gonna strip naked anyway.

I want to get real. I think getting real helps with my writing. Being honest means that I don’t have to come up with things to write about — they simply bubble up out of me because that’s the way things are.

Mostly it’s just a relief. A weight off the shoulder, not having to pretend to be someone I am not.

What can I say? You’re gonna see a lot of that here.

Why write?

Writing sucks (or at least the act of writing does), but I keep doing it anyway.

Didn’t the writer Dorothy Parker once say, “I hate writing, I love having written”?

She’s a total kindred spirit.

Writing is painful and torturous, but if you are like me, and Parker, you understand the bizarre satisfaction and joy of having written, of having produced words that somehow bring shape to your thoughts and help you build a more solid identity in this sometimes fluid world, in which we are so often lost.

Somehow, writing makes me feel more like a person. Or maybe I am already a person, but now I feel like I have told my story, and therefore I am better connected to the larger world outside of me.

In other words, I feel less alone.

Ever since I started writing regularly on my blog, I have also had a few friends come up to me telling me about how they too would love to start writing or to write more.

I do think there is something visceral about writing that draws a certain group of people irresistibly to it. And there’s no denying that in many people, there is this deep need to at least make some kind of noise, so that the world knows of their existence, and then they can feel like they have lived as a main character in this bizarre story of life instead of having just floated past, like a ghost.

I am of course talking about myself.

Crucially, I also have come to see how necessary writing has become in my growth as both a creative and a human being.

And despite the self-doubt (do my thoughts matter?) and the insecurity (who is even reading this?) and the lack of confidence (maybe I should leave the writing to people who are smarter than me!), I feel more and more certain that writing is something I need to do.

And certainly, starting to write regularly has been one of the best things I have done for myself in 2017.

Not only that, I have a strong feeling that writing consistently will pay off in more ways than I can imagine. How, I have no idea yet.

For now, I soldier on.

During my short blogging hiatus recently, I have had a lot of time to rethink my reasons for writing. Here are some of them.

Writing to learn

I’m a learning geek/nerd, and the best way to learn is to teach others. Some people like to learn the French language or American history or astronomy; I like to learn about how to live life to my fullest potential, and how to find true peace and happiness and meaning in my life. When I write about what I have learned – either through the experiences I have had in my own life or through books I have read – my learning solidifies, deepens, becomes a more permanent part of me. (Plus I have such a bad memory, so writing helps me to remember more of my life than my memory is capable of doing…)

Writing to understand myself

Self-knowledge is key. It is true that sometimes even I don’t know who I am or the reasons behind why I do the things I do. When I write, I open a door into a deeper part of myself. And if I give myself the opportunity to write honestly, without garnishing or covering up, then I also give myself the chance to see myself for who I am. And truly, I think, genuine self-understanding is the path to greater meaning and happiness, because if we don’t know who we are, how can we begin to contemplate how we want to live in this world, or what kind of a life is worth living? These are questions no one can answer except ourselves. And we must start to answer these questions by looking at ourselves honestly, even if it hurts.

Writing to organize my thoughts better

I’m not a good talker. It’s always hard for me to adequately express what’s in my head when I talk, because unlike writing, I cannot sit down and edit and re-edit and organize and re-organize, which is what I do with my writing. Writing allows me to sort through my thoughts and imbue them with some kind of coherence and clarity. I also sound slightly smarter when I write =]

Writing to help and inspire

I can’t tell you how many times an article or a book or even a single sentence has helped pull me out of a rut or shine a light through the cracks exactly when I needed it. My personal experience tells me that it is important for people to share their knowledge openly and generously, and writing is a great medium for that. Who knows when you can save a life with just one sentence in one entry on your tiny obscure blog that is read only by 20 people on most days? For me, if I can just make one person’s day brighter, I already have a good enough reason to write.

Writing to build a community

Ever since I started writing, I have been getting emails and comments and messages from total strangers. They write me to tell me that they are on a similar path to living life on their own terms, or that they have a similar view towards life, or that they appreciate that I have written about my struggles, since they share the same struggles, and I realize: Wow, we are all part of an invisible tribe. As virtual as this tribe is, it is nevertheless real.

Writing because it is hard

A part of me is stubborn and enjoys challenges a little too much. Writing is challenging. Writing one article a week is even more challenging. But I want to do it anyway because sometimes it’s fun to do things that are hard. And it’s also rewarding, because the harder it is to write, the better I am going to be as a writer as time goes by. It’s like going to the gym, only I am growing writing/thinking muscles rather than actual muscles.

Writing because I enjoy writing

I know I already said that I find writing to be a rather painful affair, yet it’s also true that I enjoy writing. On good days, the words flow. They come tumbling out of me. Writing becomes easy. But even on days when writing is tough, I do still enjoy doing it. I can’t really explain why, except that maybe it’s… true love?

What I learned from doing something consistently for a year

For a period of about a year, I wrote a weekly column for Lianhe Zaobao, a national Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore. My article appeared every Thursday, like clockwork.

My very first column. I wish I had a better picture of it.

I wrote about everything under the sun. My topics ranged from photography, traveling, swimming, reading… to music, meditation, death, etc.

The newspaper had a huge audience (as of August 2016, their circulation is about 180,000), and the other columnists were all older, experienced writers, so it was both incredibly pressurizing, and also a great opportunity and platform.

My column started in March 2013. I wrote close to 40 articles in total over the next year. At that time I was about 27 and not quite yet a photographer. Nobody really knew who I was and I hadn’t really been published anywhere before.

Here are some lessons I learned from the experience:

(1) The fact that an established national newspaper would let a young nobody write a weekly column for it suggests that… anyone can break into any inner circle, no matter how seemingly impenetrable. So young nobodies take heart.

(2) If you let a big organization or company or brand know you exist, you would have given your chances of being “discovered” a big boost. I first wrote to the newspaper floating the idea of me writing a column for them in 2009 (I just checked my email archives). The editor replied me a week later, saying we could meet up for a chat, but I never heard from them again until three years later.

(3) Try to sell yourself in some way, even if you’re a young nobody. When I wrote to them in 2009, apart from being the founder/owner of a cafe that had received some media attention, I had only written some articles on my blog and been published in some small, independent publications. Since this was all I had, I used them to sell myself. Any small achievements can be part of your portfolio, if (and only if) they are relevant.

(4) It can take awhile for things to happen. About three years passed since my first email before I heard from the paper again. I think a columnist had just ended his run, so there was now an opportunity for a new columnist to come on board. In those three years, I had managed to write a lot more and was by then hosting a radio programme for a national radio station. I was still a nobody, but a much more experienced nobody.

(5) Writing a weekly column was fun at first but soon it became quite frustrating, since I had to write a high-quality article once a week while I was trying to break into the photography industry. It was challenging. I never learned to accumulate my articles so I could give myself some lead time. This is something to note the next time I write a newspaper column again.

(6) Being committed to something like this made me work hard. I’m a lazy person by nature, but being a columnist for a national newspaper gave me enough pressure to actually deliver. Week after week. It FORCED me to work because I was already (very publicly) committed. It’s a rather sado-masochistic way to “get things done”, but it works.

(7) There is therefore a beauty in commitments like this. Take Casey Neistat, who uploaded a short vlog of his life every day for two years. His popularity exploded over those two years and he grew his Youtube subscribers to more than 5.8 million. He recently sold his company to CNN for $25 million.

(8) Most of us will never be Casey Neistat, but as you can see, doing something consistently over a period of time not only allows you to become better at what you do, you also get to bring your audience along with you on the ride. That audience will only grow in number over time.

(9) Know when to stop. Once a commitment/project stops being enjoyable, and after you have learned most of what you can from it, stop. Move on to something different that can allow you to grow in new ways.

So now…

This is my something different.

I will be publishing articles here once a week, every Thursday.

Thanks for joining me on this ride. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go together from here.

Write a comment below to tell me a little about yourself and your journey.

Let’s keep moving forward together!

How to write better: A short guide for non-writers

American writer Jack Kerouac in 1959

…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

When I was about 17, I found the Jack Kerouac novel “On the Road” on the shelf of a second-hand bookstore. I was young, restless, in need of adventure. The book title appealed to me. On the road. How wonderful!

The book turned out to be a fictionalized version of Kerouac’s journey across America with his beer-chugging, pot-smoking, poetry-writing hippie friends.

I fell in love with Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks. Because of Kerouac I was also introduced to the powerful, charged poetry of Allen Ginsberg, also a core member of the Beat Generation.

How much I wanted to be like them – to drink & smoke pot & rebel against the establishment & cross America in a rundown truck.

More importantly, I wanted to write like them.

For a while I even learned to punctuate like Ginsberg (and that meant replacing “and” with “&” in all my sentences). I also dreamed of traveling to India, because that was where Ginsberg wrote his famed Indian Journals (I still haven’t been there, but I will one day).

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz… – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

It was many years later that I realized – it was a good thing I’d fallen in love with these writers, and then later with writing itself.

Because that was the beginning of my training to becoming a better writer.

Since then writing has become one of the most important skills I possess.

Even as a photographer, writing has remained an important part of my work. In my photo project Creative People + Projects, I accompany my photographs and portraits with my writing. Without my writing I don’t think I would have been able to fulfill what I wanted to achieve with the project.

I can only now share with you all that I’ve learned because I learned how to write well early on.

At this point, I just want to throw it out there: Writing isn’t for everyone. If this isn’t a topic that interests you, feel free to skip this article. But if you are a creative or a creative entrepreneur who wants to sharpen your writing skills (or you have a faint intuition that writing is somehow a good skill to possess), then read on.

I’m not saying I’m an expert at writing, but I have learned a thing or two about writing over the last ten years, and I’m happy to share these lessons with you.


Write for what?

Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t want to be novelists or poets. You are probably reading my blog because you are interested in living life on your own terms or becoming a successful freelancer or a creative entrepreneur.

You want to learn to write better, but the purpose isn’t to indulge in your very private artistic passions. You want to write better so you can market yourself better, get more jobs, earn more money.

Examples: Maybe you are an aspiring photographer looking to add writing as another dimension to your work. Maybe you are looking to improve the writing of your “about” page on your website. Maybe you want to send a convincing sales email to a potential client. Maybe you want to spruce up your bio on your resume.

In other words, marketing.

I understand that “marketing” can sound like a dirty word to creatives, but all “marketing” does is to let potential clients or customers understand what is so awesome about you that they must hire you / buy from you. Which is super awesome!

And we’re lucky because we have the Internet. The Internet has liberated us, broken down all walls. Singer-songwriters don’t need to get signed to labels anymore – they have Youtube. Photographers can chalk up thousands of followers on Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms and directly attract the attention of photo editors and photo buyers who are also themselves on the very same platforms. Writers can start publishing their own blogs in ten minutes. Or start writing immediately on websites like Medium.

If you learn to write, you get to tell your own stories in your own words and sculpt the public’s (and your potential clients’) imagination and perception of you.

If you can’t write well, you can of course hire someone to do it for you. But who knows you better than you?

So start making use of the Internet to write and market yourself.

Let people know that you exist. Doing good work in a quiet corner of the universe isn’t going to bring you far enough anymore.


Everyone can learn to write well, even if they think they can’t

I understand that writing can be a difficult thing for many people to do. When people think of writing, they think of this thing that only some particularly talented people can do.

That’s not true.

And we are not asking you to write like Shakespeare.

Without further bullshit, let’s get to some actionable steps on how to become a better writer (even if you don’t normally write):

(1) You suck at writing. Start writing anyway.

Most people think they are bad writers. They are ashamed of what they write about, or they think their writing reflects badly on them. Write anyway.

The act of writing itself exercises your writing muscles.

It’s just like how the more you run, the better you get at running.

Write and write and write. Slowly and surely you will get better.

(2) Use simple words.

There is this misconception that good writing is made up of flowery language. That can’t be further from the truth.

There are probably as many definitions of good writing as there are people, so I cannot define good writing for you here.

But for our purposes of writing to market ourselves, to write well is to bring our points across successfully.

To do that, you don’t need a huge vocabulary.

Chances are, you know enough English words to write an entire book without searching up the dictionary.

Use the words you already know to bring your point across. Some of the best writing in the world are made up of simple vocabulary and short sentences (check out Raymond Carver’s works to know what I mean).

(3) Economy is beauty.

Ruthlessly edit your writing. Cut out the fluff.

James Althucher famously said, “Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph.”

I think he’s trying to say that sometimes less is better.

You can ramble on and on, but it isn’t going to make your writing better if your audience doesn’t get your message.

Take out all the flowery descriptions and all the unnecessary stories. Strip your writing down until you are left with what you really want to say. You will be amazed at how effective your writing can be if you do that.

(Unless you are writing poetry, then ramble all you want. It’s your poem, not mine!)

(4) Tell the truth or speak from your own experience.

We often think it’s difficult to write because we have no idea where to start, or we think we have no material. Well, start from the truth. Your life is your material (that’s why it’s so important to live an interesting life!). Be honest. Be brutally honest if you can, and be real. No one has tolerance for fakery and hypocrisy these days. Don’t pretend to have an opinion if you don’t have one (and if you do have an opinion, don’t be afraid to share it even if it’s an unpopular one).

(5) Read.

I don’t think it’s quite possible to become a better writer if you don’t read. But don’t just read any writer. Read good books. You can Google for reading lists and book recommendations online. People on the Internet have read through thousands and thousands of books and come up with must-read lists for you – make use of them! You also don’t have to read only books. There are a ton of good writing online. If you are lost and don’t know where to start, follow my reading recommendations in the Resources section below. If you read all of my recommended books/links you will almost certainly become a better writer.

(6) Imitate your favorite writer(s).

Find a writer you like. No, if you can, find a writer you LOVE, and imitate the hell out of him or her. The truth is, we all want to write like our favorite writers. Find that writer whose sentences make your heart skip a beat. When you write, pretend you are that writer. Put yourself in his or her head. After some time, you will slowly find your stride and develop your own style.

(7) Write for an audience.

If you do this, you have the chance to receive feedback for your writing. Even if you don’t, knowing that people are reading will make you put in more effort into your writing. Intentional practice works wonders. Even though blogs are deemed to be pretty old-fashioned these days, start one and make your friends and family read it. Who knows, maybe in time you might even attract an audience.

(8) Write like how you talk.

The best way to start writing is to write like how you talk. Try it. It will liberate you from all your worries of not having a “personal style” and will get you to actually start… writing, which of course is the most important thing you need to do if you want to improve your writing.


So there you have it.

Simple, actionable advice for non-writers. Practice them. You might not become the next Ernest Hemingway if you follow the above advice, but you will most likely become a much better writer.



Here are some resources that will help with your writing. I love all of the following writers and I’ve selected them because they all write powerfully and beautifully, and share a certain effective economy of style.

Books on writing:
On Writing – Stephen King
Bird by Bird – Anne Lammott
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Zen Habits
The Minimalists
Derek Sivers
James Altucher
Ryan Holiday

Ernest Hemingway
Raymond Carver
Haruki Murakami

Good luck with your writing, and drop me a note if you want to open a conversation about this subject.

To end off…

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway