Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There are wolves in a lot of great stories, but did you know there are also wolves in great writers? And it’s not just a coincidence (existentially terrifying as that would be) – those wolves are the key to being a successful author, or, at least, they are if you handle them correctly.
That’s because those wolves represent a verifiable truth about establishing beneficial writing behavior, and considering how their story applies to your own habits may be exactly the prompt you need to write your bestseller.
Keen mind that you have, you’ve likely already assumed that the wolves in question are a metaphor. If not, that’s exactly what’s going on, so please stop clawing at your midriff in a vain attempt to placate the lupine pack ensconced within. Also, maybe have a muffin: that growling wasn’t coming from nowhere.
The wolves in question are from a parable you may already know, sometimes called ‘Two Wolves’ or ‘Grandpa Tells’. It does the rounds on social media every so often, sometimes about wolves, sometimes about dogs, and while you may have dismissed it as trite, it probably has something to say about your writing.
The ‘Two Wolves’ parable has appeared in many different forms, from the overly complex to the disappointingly simple. In pop culture, it’s often described as an ancient Cherokee story, but there doesn’t seem to be much real evidence for this (and plenty against), and this likely sprang up as a way of lending some extra profundity.
In the basic story, a young person goes to an elder and says that the two sides of them (good/bad, love/hate, beauty/ugliness) are in conflict, describing the twin forces as wolves and asking which will triumph. The story is versatile, able to be applied to any binary approaches to a goal, so in the actual telling, we’ll tailor it a little to speak directly to writing.
Of course, the core of the story is more important than its imagery (feel free to substitute ‘wolves’ for ‘fifteen-foot robots’), but we’ll stick with the ancient aesthetic for our own version.
A young man visited his grandmother, seething with rage and frustration.
“I am at war with myself,” he said, “caught between two halves that are like wolves in my mind. The first wolf is lit with the fire of creation; it wants me to make, to create constantly, and to share what I have made with those I make it for. The other wolf broods in the darkness of a deep pit; it demands that my craft must be perfect before it can see the light of day, cautioning against humiliation and failure. The first would have me work all day to produce the slightest thing, the second bids me wait for a moment of perfect inspiration. This is no slow battle – they fight daily, and though their feud is constant, I can feel the balance shifting. I ask you now, Grandmother, knowing you must have been subject to this same struggle: which wolf will triumph?”
The grandmother thought for a moment, turning the embers of her fire.
“Whichever one you feed,” she replied.
So that’s the story (though feel free to swap ‘feed’ for ‘oil’ if you went the robots route), but what does it mean, and how can you action its advice?
Unpacking the parable
In general terms, the parable suggests that the ideas and behaviors you indulge most often will increase in influence, while those you ignore will wither. Spend today writing, it suggests, and you’ll find it easier to do so tomorrow. In contrast, of course, shirking breeds shirking.Write today and you’ll find it easier to write tomorrow.Click To Tweet
Some of you are rolling your eyes because you think this is obvious advice, and some of you are rolling them because it’s just not that easy. Well, maybe it’s something you knew already, but be assured that it’s far more than an airy assurance.
In fact, this idea crops up again and again in advice from bestselling authors. Some of them put it more clearly than others, but once you start poring over quotes with this in mind, examples jump out at you. In 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book, I included this quote from Stephen King.
This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon, or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.
– Stephen King, On Writing
It’s good advice, but it sounds like King is playing a numbers game. He says as much: be at the desk when the muse shows up and he’ll help you. Thinking about it, though, it’s odd advice – King currently has fifty-four novels on the market. Doesn’t it make sense that he’s not just good at waiting for the muse, he’s good at inviting inspiration on his own terms?
The quote below says something similar, but edges closer to the reasoning behind the act.
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
It’s still sounding a little mystical, but that’s to be expected when you ask authors about their process. Haruki Murakami, author of IQ84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, doesn’t entirely remove the magic, but he does suggest the process is about purposefully developing a specific mental state rather than reaching out to the supernatural.
I keep to [my routine] every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.
– Haruki Murakami, ‘The Daily Habits of Famous Writers’ from Open Culture.
Cognitive therapy teaches that motivation follows action, not the reverse. Likewise, inspiration comes from writing, not the flip.
– Stephen Gregg (@playwrightnow) November 27, 2016
So it’s not just a parable that might help you write, but a fundamental truth that supposedly separates successful authors from the rest of the pack. If that’s the case, we should be able to nail down exactly what ‘feeding the good wolf’ involves.Authors agree – establish a routine and your writing will benefit.Click To Tweet
The science of good habits
Writing regularly and productively is just another good habit, and so it’s the science of habit-forming that should inform an author’s approach to mastering their craft.
The bad news is that turning yourself into someone who writes every day (or almost every day) isn’t going to happen without effort. The good news is that it will get easier, the longer you do it – that’s the point of the exercise, after all.
Pseudoscience tells us that forming a new habit takes twenty-one days, but this is misleading. Not only does it twist the facts into some pretty interesting shapes, but it downplays the difficulty of teaching yourself a new way of doing things. Despite this, James Clear, author of Transform Your Habits and Mastering Creativity, argues that there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that ingraining a habit really is a matter of time.
In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, [Phillippa Lally] and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit.
The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt…
On average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life – not 21 days.
That estimate may not sound ideal, but it’s certainly doable. Totally embrace a new habit and, within two to eight months, it will feel like a natural part of your life, becoming easier to perform and maintain.
Two to eight months isn’t much time to dedicate to growing your good wolf so it can take on the bad wolf on any given day, especially when you only need to invest a small portion of your time to do so.
How to feed your wolf
So we’ve covered why feeding the good wolf works and how long it might take before it starts to dominate its opponent; that just leaves exactly how the whole feeding process works.
Most writers know what good writing behavior looks like. In an ideal world, you should sit down and write a minimum number of words per day. You should set hard rules, compartmentalize your writing, use mental tricks to motivate yourself… and basically do everything else I suggested in 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book (note how that ‘guardian and gremlin’ advice meshes with the parable of the wolves).
That’s the regime your good wolf needs to grow big and strong, but that bad wolf is sneaky and, unfortunately, often much easier to feed. To really succeed in forging a new habit that has your back way into the future, you need to watch out for the scraps.
Don’t forget the scraps
The scraps are the little morsels of food you leave out for your bad wolf – a smorgasbord of tidbits that don’t seem like much on their own, but will sustain and grow your bad habits if left unchecked.
I’m talking about skipping a day of writing, shrugging off a word count, or even avoiding a passage you don’t want to deal with. These minor acts snatch food from the good wolf and give it to the bad, and their strengths will be reapportioned accordingly.Breaking routine doesn’t just lose you the day; it weakens your process.Click To Tweet
That might be okay in other walks of life, but very few people instinctively have beneficial writing behavior. Most of us have to decide to sit down and write, have to force ourselves to edit, which means the bad wolf starts off with an advantage. Keep feeding it and it’ll keep batting the good wolf around.
Of course, your bad wolf has its own particular features. Maybe it wants you to focus on the dialogue, even when you know you should be looking elsewhere, or grows stronger when you redraft your first chapter rather than writing the second. You know, deep down, the writing behavior that’s getting in your way, and from there you can figure out the scraps that keep the bad wolf in power.
That’s not to say that you should just stop doing these things out of pure willpower. Building good habits doesn’t work that way for most people. Happily, the parable of the two wolves presents us with a useful binary – if we’re trying to avoid feeding one wolf, we need to turn that into an opportunity to feed the other.
Turning bad habits into good
I can’t cover every tempting scrap of bad habit here, but I can cover a few of the most common. Remember, by reversing these problems, you’re not just stealing food from the bad wolf; you’re throwing it to the good wolf. Every act of resistance strengthens you for next time, and while slipping up a few times isn’t the be-all and end-all, it’s always beneficial to do the right thing. To that end, here’s some advice.
Seek out solitude
Don’t try to barrel through distraction. Remember, good habits support good habits – set yourself up without the internet (or at least block your favorite sites), or even sit staring at a wall. There’s a ton of great technology to help you, so set it up now, before you need it.
Write to write
Writing to achieve something with a project can be great motivation, but it also leaves you vulnerable to the stage where there are no clear goals, and no reason not to stop writing early.
Keep in mind that you’re writing to build a habit, and that’s the goal to pursue. Many authors find it beneficial to keep a journal of ‘side’ writing – something to work on if you’ve got five minutes of ‘writing time’ left. Alternatively, you could spend this time experimenting with the story; rewrite a scene from a different perspective, in a different tense, or from the point of view of a different character.
Not only will this feed the good wolf, but you’ll almost certainly discover a killer idea in the process.
Leave yourself tasks
Noticed something that needs fixing? A wonky paragraph, a stilted piece of dialogue, or even a misspelled word? Make a note of it today, but leave fixing it until tomorrow. It’s something about which you already have an opinion, so it’s a great way to tempt yourself into the writing mindset. Not only that, but giving your brain the chance to work on it overnight will probably lead to a better solution.
Don’t suffer in silence
Listen, there are wolves in you: this isn’t the type of thing to keep quiet about. Make sure your partner/parents/friends understand that you’re trying to establish a pattern of behavior, not just finish a book.Establishing a writing routine is a separate goal to finishing a book. Treat it that way.Click To Tweet
Understanding your goals means the people you love will be less prone to tempt you into bad behavior. If they think you’re trying to write a book, telling you to forget the word count and come out can feel like a nice way to give you a break. If, on the other hand, they understand that you’re trying to establish a pattern of behavior, they’re less likely to play the devil on your shoulder.
No more big, bad wolf
It may not be an immediate process, but follow the advice above and you’ll find that your good wolf starts to win more and more fights. Feed it up and there’s no telling what you can do.
For more advice that comes free with a weird metaphor, check out What A Blacksmith Knows About How To Fix Your Story and Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel. Or, to find out about a particularly insidious type of bad wolf, try How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published.
How do you deal with your own personal big, bad wolf? Let me know in the comments.