Hello! Thank you for your interest in The Stoic Writer.
I've been revisiting Stoic philosophy and practice with a view to exploring its potential for living a happy writing life; a life of writing with purpose and meaning.
Whether we are writing now or hope to write someday (and we all have stories that must be told!), a Stoic practice should help us do two things:
1. Remove self-imposed obstacles leading us to happy productivity and completed texts, and
2. Welcome a more holistic approach to our role/job/hobby/dream of writing, where writing is one aspect of our overall flourishing existence.
(And, then, we can die happy!)
You probably found me via my recent blog post for Modern Stoicism. In that post, I wrote about how unhappy I've been as a writer. Unhappy because of a rather long and depressing bout of writer's block.
In that same blog post, I confessed that the cause of my writer's block was my death anxiety. I have become devastatingly afraid of death. I think about it. I shut down. I suffer.
I won't go into the details of how I got here, but ever since I developed this irrational fear of death I have stopped writing. This has been very disappointing because I always believed writing would be the fundamental way of my being in the world. I'm a paper thinker; I learn by thinking about the world on paper.
I kept "showing up," kept trying to hack my productivity-lapse, kept reading the How To Write Your Novel In 90/30/5 Days, but the productivity hacks for writers with severe blocks are useless. On a good day, I'd schedule a plan and start writing; and then, the death thoughts would come and with them, the heart palpitations, the difficulty breathing, the self-diagnosis of all the terminal possibilities via Dr Google, the terror, the paralysis.
Clearly, I was a Stoic's worst nightmare.
By chance, or maybe via some insightful Google or Facebook algorithm, I came across Donald Robertson's online videos and online courses. His Stoic Contemplation of Death course was emotionally and intellectually difficult to work through at first: I would click through it; then reject it. (Yes, I'd not only argue with Epictetus, I'd argue with Donald, and I'd argue with Death itself.)
Still, I kept going back to it. It took a while, but I finally read through the entire course, completed the activities, and explored the further reading.
It's quite remarkable, actually, that just doing the mental work constantly, consistently, and repeatedly, reading and re-reading, getting my head to shift and accept the inevitability of my death and to accept that it's all way beyond my sphere of control, well, it really lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.
It is hard, relentless work. But it comes with a radical payoff...
Robertson quotes from the French classical philosopher and historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot.
(This quote is from page 137 of Hadot's What is Ancient Philosophy? published by Harvard University Press in 2004. )
Reading this quote was a !eureka! moment for me.
I mean, for so long now, my fear of death has turned me into an inactive writer (which is an impossible role to sustain and, believe me, no one wants to be around a writer who is not writing).
I was given one role in this play of life--There, Kathryn, you shall love words, read them, teach them, and write them. Go forth and play your role to the best of your ability. (Note: That was neuroscience and physiology in the guise of Zeus).
So, back to the Hadot quote: Could Stoic contemplation and practice transform me back into an active writer? Now that would be a radical transformation, indeed.
It is time to meet my death anxiety head-on and beat it. I will spend the month of September focusing on death. Fun times!
It is not going to be enough to simply read about the concept of death contemplation in the Stoic handbooks, discourses, letters, and secondary literature. To this learning task, says Epictetus in his Discourses, I must also add "practice" and "training."
So, my three-part disciplinary approach will entail the following tasks:
1. learning about the Stoic notion of death
2. practising the contemplation of death
3. ongoing training and transformation of my actions (both in my writing, and beyond).
Or, as per The Stoic Writer's tagline:
1.Philosophy: Studying the Stoic concepts and implications for action.
2.Practice: Practicing them through meditations, readings, imaginative exercises, journaling.
3.Prompts: Implementing them through radically transformed action that values every instant of opportunity.
The Stoic Writer's 3 Ps.
First, the philosophy.
Robertson's Free Mini-Course on the Stoic Contemplation of Death is proving to be a great overview of the Stoic concept of death.
It is also a simple framework within which to start feeling my way about how to develop a Stoic plan of action for myself as a writer.
Robertson comes to Stoicism as a psychotherapist, not a philosopher, plus he's Scottish, so I just love his straightforward, common-sensical, evidence-based approach. (On a side-note: I'm married to a Scot who offers the much-needed relief to my Greek/tragic intuitions. I must hail from Sophocles not Socrates!)
So, it's always good to have a sense of the bigger picture and Robertson provides that in succinct form. But I don't want to focus on secondary literature (although I'll also dip into the Hadot, given that quote was so spot on).
My main goal will be to re-read Epictetus. Epictetus is special to me. Years ago, I lived by a beach just outside of Preveza, Greece, and less than 2 miles from the Ancient City of Nicopolis where, in 89 CE, Epictetus set up his own school. He taught there until his death in around 135.
I remember reading Epictetus's Enchiridion and walking through the city ruins, contemplating the transience of civilizations and lives, and ruminating on my own transient existence and future death. It was the most bittersweet time.
It also actually proved to be the most creatively fulfilling periods of my life: I was freelance writing (travel and other stuff about Greece); I was actively involved in an online writing community; and I was writing what became my first novel, Palimpsest (very much inspired by the geography and ruin of Nicopolis).
Sometimes you do things, and then you forget. When I left Greece about 8 years after I arrived, my life speeded-up, and I lost touch with Epictetus and with Stoic philosophy. Look at me now!
Epictetus: I told you so!
Indeed, in Book 4, 9.13 of his Discourses (p. 88 of the Hard translation, see below), it's right there:
On Robertson's recommendation, I'll be mainly working with Robin Hard's translation of Epictetus. That's the Oxford University Press, 2014 edition.
Both are available at the Perseus Digital Library, which I will be using because the library also has the Greek text, which you can load up opposite the main English text.
Even if you don't read Greek, I really recommend that visual experience; I think it is quite aesthetically enriching. Stoicism can be cold-blooded at times, but seeing the round, foreign text can add a sense of whimsy and, dare I say it, romance. I've also got a copy of Oldfather's version (pictured) with the Greek alongside (Loeb).
I want to start reading in Greek again; the language really lends itself to contemplation. So, I think part of my practice will involve reading segments out loud in Greek and writing out passages in Greek.
It sounds like I have a lot of time on my hands, and it so happens that I do have some extra time this month. Not everyone does. And, I certainly won't next month. So, by the end of September, I hope to have produced some resources, in the form of, say, summaries or even 5-minute guides.
Stoicism needs daily, constant training.
The Stoics, according to Robertson, "recommend picturing our own death regularly, perhaps even several times a day." I'd like to develop a practice that is sustainable for the modern day writer (who is also a person, a friend, a parent, a spouse, a colleague, a reader, a blogger, a social-media poster, a gym-geek, a wine-snob, a traveller, a kick-boxing experimenter etc, etc).
I want to develop a Stoic practice that will be the smooth and strong stage upon which I play my role as writer and human to the best of my ability despite or in spite of the speed and noise of my contemporary existence. I also want this practice to be both practical and aesthetically inspiring, serious and enjoyable.
1. The Stoic Writer website and blog
The official forum with subscriber content, such as blog posts that thoughtfully recount my explorations with Stoicism as it transforms my role as writer.
I'll also add resources for daily, weekly, monthly guides to the 3 Ps:
These resources will be in the form of PDF summaries, worksheets, prompts, podcasts and, potentially in the future, videocasts.
2. The Stoic Writer Facebook Page
A public discussion forum to accompany the website content.
The "Page" is "soft-launching" in September.
I will aim for this space to be a slow social media community, where participants, having thought and re-thought and written and re-written, wait to the very last to comment their most thoughtful and well-developed responses to the content.
3. The Stoic Writer Facebook Group
This will be a closed group. A private space for a small group to work on a specific writing project with like-minded Stoic writers.
If you choose to join this group, I would imagine you have a specific project you are working on now, or something you wish to start but are unhappily blocked. Also, I would imagine you'd have a sense that a Stoic approach will help you seize the writing day, and desk.
This will be a quiet, contemplative group with scheduled times for chat and live/online meets.
The first group will start working in October. Details to follow.
I have taken up far too much of your time and I really thank you for your time and interest. If any of this resonates, please feel free to respond with an equally long-form email with your thoughts on Stoicism, current mindset, and writing status. Otherwise, I'll send some more news soon. Now, I'd best take Seneca's advice and withdraw from the human world for a while to reclaim the only space I can control, my head, and to give you reprieve from my compulsion to make my new story heard.