High school students in China understand the burden of expectation. As this article points out, 9.4 million of them compete for the most coveted prize in China — a spot in one of the nation’s top universities. So great is their burden that the entire country takes extreme measures to allow students to perform their best.

“The country stays respectfully silent, flights are re-routed, and people are banned from honking car horns near exam rooms.

Beforehand, many families book hotel rooms near exame centres so their children can study and rest. Anxious parents wait outside, many having spent weeks making offerings at temples to ensure success.

Within the halls themselves, monitors are not allowed to wear high heels or perfume for fear of distracting the students.

There is also a spike in the sale of pricey food supplements to aid concentration, while many parents opt to send their children to an oxygen chamber to help them think more clearly.”

Athletes and other high performers know the burden of expectation as well.

But what of the rest of us, especially those of us who write? Don’t we also feel the pressure to perform?

Two of my best writer friends and I were having lunch several months ago to discuss one’s progress with her novel. She’d already written the book to near perfection and had gotten a major NY agent to represent it. She’s currently revising before the book is sent out to publishers, and she’s found a highly sought after freelance editor to help her see anything she might be missing, and trust me, it isn’t missing much. She’s worked on this book for a long time and it is polished to a fine luster. The other friend is very well published and has an agent and many book credits under her belt. I’m extremely proud of them. They are two of the hardest working, most talented writers I know. I have other successful writer friends as well, some with dozens of books published in multiple languages, and others who have won major literary prizes. It’s hard not to be covetous, but it’s even more difficult not to crack under the pressure of trying to keep up.

It’s feast or famine with writers, it seems. Many other writing friends with equal talent seem resigned to lives of other endeavors. It’s not their destiny to find the success they hope for, it would appear, and they’ve allowed their writing to quietly slip behind them where they can pick it up now and again as a secret indulgence. They’ve cut themselves off from any further expectation so that they might at least reclaim the joy writing once gave them.

After lunch our conversation spilled over into several written correspondences, and the brilliant friend who is staring down this big revision pointed out something that is helping me get a handle on my own burden to complete a first draft of my novel. She pointed out that while I resent it, I am extraordinarily adept at meeting the expectations of others. I am an over-achiever and a perfectionist. She articulates it so much better than I do, so I’ll just quote her.

“So while you resent the hell out of ordering your life around the expectations of others, you have chosen to work your ass off to live up to them. It may not seem like free will, but you have to choose, over and over again, to restrict your personal freedom to truly excel in the manner you have in a variety of settings. You’re near Olympian at it. So I was thinking all of this during my run and it occurred to me that part of what shuts you down when it comes to writing, and most particularly writing a novel, is that very fact that it pushes you into the unknown. You are creating an entire universe, you’re transforming chaos into order. And it’s the sheer freedom, the abundance of choice that freaks you out…I think it might be the absence of a clear set of expectations that is shutting you down.”

The absence of a clear set of expectations. Yes. Exactly.

Writing a novel is the most gut-wrenching, daunting thing I’ve ever attempted, and it isn’t because it’s the most difficult thing a person can undertake. There are many things more difficult. Running a marathon is difficult. Building something like a house is difficult. Getting into a top university and landing a six-figure salary is difficult. But all those things come with instruction manuals of a sort. I’ve never run a marathon, but I have completed rigorous physical conditioning when I was in the military. I haven’t built a house, but I have overseen the construction of one. I don’t earn a six-figure salary, but I did graduate summa cum laude from a private college. If I were compelled to run a marathon or build a house with my own hands or earn a six-figure salary, there are clear sets of expectations that might allow me to do those things. Not so with writing a novel.

Sure, there are tons of books and workshops and all manner of devices designed to help us write our novels. But there’s no one to see that we actually do it. We alone make the rules. We alone enforce them. We alone admonish or praise as necessary. We alone celebrate triumphantly or lick our wounds and go on.

Freedom, it turns out, is a bigger burden than expectation.

Learning to be Free

“Show Biz” by Charles Bukowski

I can’t have it
and you can’t have it
and we won’t
get it

so don’t bet on it
or even think about

just get out of bed
each morning

and go out into

outside of that
all that’s left is
suicide and

so you just
expect too much

you can’t even

so what you do
work from a modest

like when you
walk outside
be glad your car
might possibly
be there

and if it is-
that the tires

then you get
and if it

it’s the damndest
you’ve ever
in it–

low budget
4 billion

and the longest
you ever hope


So there you have it: Don’t expect anything. Work from a modest minimal base. When you sit down to write, be glad your laptop is still operable. Or if it isn’t, be glad you have a good pen and a full ream of notebook paper to write on. Free your mind of any further encumbrances. Computer, electricity, pen, paper. Write and shut out the 4 billion critics. Wash, shave, clothe yourself, and go out into it. Outside that, all else is madness.

Later, I’ll ponder ways to set clear expectations that limit our choices and hopefully minimize the anxieties that come with learning to be free.

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