On showing up

There’s a quote I remember hearing years ago, one of those quotes that really resonated with me and has stuck with me ever since. It was by Woody Allen, I think, and he said something like “90% of life is about just showing up”.

I may be misquoting slightly, but that’s the gist of it. Woody Allen said he wasn’t any more talented than a lot of other people, but what made him successful was that he kept showing up when others didn’t. He kept writing even when he was getting rejected, he kept sending his scripts even to people who’d never consider making his movie or play, and he kept writing and submitting and meeting people and generally showing up whenever he could, wherever he could, as often as he could.


Showing up, though (or ‘turning up’ as we call it in Britain) is incredibly hard to do. It requires a consistency and determination and thickness of skin that few of us possess. In my life there have certainly been times, ranging from hours to weeks to years, when I just stopped showing up. I stopped doing the things I knew I needed to do, because those things were just too hard. I wanted a break, I wanted to enjoy myself, I was scared, and I just couldn’t face showing up. I did things that in no way took me closer to my goals and dreams, and often took me in precisely the opposite direction.

I bet I’m not the only one. I bet you’ve done the same, whether with writing or another goal. Aren’t we good at justifying these detours and evasions to ourselves? We often tell ourselves we’re being responsible, or practical, or putting others first. These are good qualities, after all, qualities valued by the watching world. So much better than admitting that we just couldn’t face taking the difficult  risky steps it would have taken to get to what we really wanted.

Why this post now?

Well, I’m having one of those days when I feel as if I can’t show up any more, and I want to head that feeling off at the pass.There’s no particular cause. There hardly ever is. Life is still generally good for me, and nothing terrible has happened. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe it’s the usual money worries that have dogged me ever since I gave up real jobs and tried to make a living from something as ephemeral as words. Or maybe it’s chance, or fate, or something totally out of my control. I don’t believe in astrology, but I can see why people do. It feels as if a planet shifted somewhere, and all the things that were turning to gold a few weeks ago are now turning to something browner and stickier. It feels as if there’s no point.

And yet, I must show up. I must show up when all I want to do is hide. I must write, and think, and read, and I must send my work out into the world and take the rejections and the disappointments in the knowledge that if I put myself in a position to be considered for enough opportunities, some of them will come good. I will find a way to make a proper living from doing things I think are important. It will all come together if I just keep showing up. Thanks, Woody! And thanks to you for listening.

Do you have trouble showing up for the important things in your life? Share, and make me (and maybe others!) feel better…

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There are 35 comments

  1. Andrew, yes, it’s a great sentiment. A certain brand uses the caption “Just Do It” and it’s the same idea. I turn up to quite a few poetry and writing evenings – one this evening actually – and often it’s like going into the unknown! But, I am always glad to have done it. It’s better than sitting at home with that little voice in my head not allowing me to enjoy my comfort zone 🙂

    1. Hi Fiona,
      Yes, you’re right. I wonder if there’s a thought left in the world that hasn’t been monetised by the advertising industry… Anyway, yes, it’s better to take action than to sit at home feeling sorry for yourself. The trouble is, when you’re feeling sorry for yourself, it’s hard to motivate yourself to get up and engage with life again. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Last night I sat outside for a few hours and considered this very issue, and your post solidifies my thinking.

    I’m great at justifying practicalities. I repeatedly scribe back-up plans, seek sell-out strategies, and generally abscond the responsibility of showing up everyday. I show up when I feel like it, and I’m getting better at feeling like it, but I haven’t yet figured out how to show up when I don’t. What if it doesn’t work out? That’s the question that paralyzes me.

    I don’t have any answers, but I think you’re on the right track. Also, thank you for sharing your personal struggles here, especially acknowledging the general, inadequate excuses that dog us. We all have them, but rarely are we willing to air them, but I think airing them might be critical to overcoming them.

    1. Hi Corey

      I think you’re right about airing our issues. When I get into a mood like the one I was in when I wrote this, I feel as if I’m alone, and yet of course I’m not. Hearing you saying that you were sitting on the other side of the world thinking about the exact same things makes me feel better somehow. Even if we don’t have the answers, at least we can share stories along the way as we try to figure things out. Thanks very much for commenting!

  3. hi andrew. thanks for this post and writing about something with which, i think, a lot of people struggle. i guess my feeling is there is momentum created when you just show up. it might not be big at first, but perhaps it’s cumulative and gets better or easier with time?

    i wonder, too, about how you measure the show up? for me, getting a certain amount of writing done each day is great. i showed up and did the work. it might not look like a traditional professional accomplishment from the outside, but it’s just as valid. though i am certainly no expert and probably would be more of a specialist in the ‘low momentum’ category. heh.

    as self-employed writers i think it’s a tricky task, showing up. we work from home and, since i am being honest, some days pants really aren’t that important. or going outside. throw introversion onto the pile and, well, i think you get the picture. and so we have to, at some point, feel that we are worth our own effort. complacency and physical comfort (read: sweats) are just so…comfortable sometimes. and easier. but then things would always stay the same, wouldn’t they?

    i was glad to find you through your web site and i enjoy the work you do. so know that i am appreciative of your work and that you are out there in the world doing your thing.

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I really appreciate what you said in your last paragraph – made me feel better!

      You also make a great point about writers and working from home. It’s easy to stop showing up because, at least at first, there are no consequences. Eventually, yes, the money will dry up and my agent and publisher will drop me and I’ll be destitute. But I could stop showing up for life for a few weeks before anyone even noticed, let alone cared! It’s not like a normal job, where you have to show up or you get fired. You’re right, it can induce complacency and lack of pants.

      To answer your question, I measure “showing up” primarily by getting my writing done, but for me that’s (usually) the easy part. What I find harder is going out into the world and rustling up freelance writing gigs, submitting short stories for awards and publication, applying for residencies or prizes, drumming up interest in my books, etc. That’s usually the first stuff to go. When I stop writing altogether, then I know I’m really in trouble.

      1. Ah – sorry! When I wonder about defining ‘showing up’, I was thinking of how that would be different for each person and didn’t mean to put you on the spot specifically.

        YES! For me, too, the tasks of the job beyond the writing are the biggest challenges. It’s a bit of a dichotomy in this career.

        1. No need to apologise – it was a good question 🙂 It’s one of the paradoxes of the career that people who just want to sit alone and write actually have to spend a lot of time out in the world shaking trees.

  4. Hi Andrew

    Yes, your piece struck a chord. With great serendipity, an arts programme I listen to had a piece about writers’ rejection letters: have a look

    I’ve just emerged from a three year stint of having two plays I was working on rejected by the theatre companies they were originally commissioned for. It was tough, it knocked my confidence, and I spent the last year not writing at all. But I came to the realisation, rather like you, that to be creative means putting up with vulnerability. It’s either that or accepting you won’t have an artistic life. After one year of playing safe, I’m aching to write again and recognise there’s a hollow that can’t be filled unless I do. Starting my blog was one way to get back into the discipline of writing regularly and it’s been a wonderful way back. Every time someone subscribes, it’s a little victory. Someone enjoys what I’ve written, there’s hope!! I’ve often thought that artistic pursuit is like those “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” that Lily Briscoe discovers at the end of “To the Lighthouse” (still, to my mind, one of the best novels about creative struggles). This might be as good as it gets – but give me those flashes of light, every time.

    1. Hi Dina

      Wow, I’m so sorry to hear that. I can see how that would knock your confidence. I love what you said about playing safe. That’s how it feels when I stop showing up. I do things that are safe and comforting but go nowhere. It’s tough to admit vulnerability and go ahead anyway, but you’re right that’s what we have to do.

      The image of flashes of light made me smile and remember the best parts of being a writer. It’s a wonderful feeling when the words flow and the story seems to write itself. Makes it worth hanging on through the dry times. Thanks very much for stopping by!

      For what it’s worth, I enjoy your blog and am glad it’s helping you to find your way back. You sound like someone with plenty of worthwhile things to say.

  5. Beautiful post, Andrew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this interesting topic. I love that Woody Allen quote. Doing the simple things well and consistently in the long run is what counts but it is something which is very hard to do. Most of the time we have grand plans on which we work with a lot of energy for a brief time, or we get distracted by the things we are not doing instead of focusing on the things we are doing (this happens to me all the time) or we give up on the simple things we are doing because they don’t give us the results we expect. I found your post very inspiring and I think my day is starting well after reading it. Thanks for the inspiration and for sharing your experiences.

      1. Yes, grand plans! I have plenty of those. I think grand plans are just grand, but the hard part is breaking them down into small steps and taking action. Otherwise they just sit there, staring at you, making you feel bad. And those bursts of energy and enthusiasm feel so good, don’t they, until it all dissipates and you wonder what happened? I suppose it comes down to patience, and the trouble is that we are impatient people who crave instant gratification (I don’t mean you and me, Vishy, I mean everyone!). For long projects, we have to disregard our instincts and spend lots of time on stuff that seems pointless at first, trusting that all the small actions add up to something in the end. Thanks for the comment – with each comment I am feeling more like showing up again!

        1. Your comment on we becoming impatient and craving for instant gratification made me remember this, Andrew. I met one of my childhood friends recently after many years. He was a bigger reader than me during schooldays. When I asked him what he was reading these days, he said that he doesn’t read now and he stopped reading long time back. He said that reading was hardwork and he didn’t have the kind of time or patience that it demanded. I felt very sad, because I was looking forward to sharing reading adventures with him. It has become a world craving for instant gratification and it is sad. Reading the long book, starting a long project – people shy away from these things these days.

          Hope your long projects are going well. Wish you all the very best!

          1. Wow, that is a sad story, Vishy. Of course it’s his choice whether he wants to read or not, but it does seem a shame that he views it as hard work and doesn’t have the time or patience for it. I think that even when we do read, we have shorter attention spans. When I’m reading older books, say from 100 years ago or more, I notice how long they often take to get going. They set the scene, they describe the room or the house in great detail, they go off on tangents… A contemporary book has to be much tighter, or people lose patience. I suppose it’s a reflection of life, and the pressure that people are under and the demands on their time. Also perhaps technology plays a role. I read a good book called The Shallows recently, talking about how our brains change when we spend a lot of time on computers. The author mentioned impatience and instant gratification seeking as some of the effects.

            Anyway, thanks for commenting, Vishy, and I wish you all the best with your long projects, and long books 🙂

  6. That Woody Allen quote is a favorite of mine.

    All I can say is that I totally understand your feeling. I too am not generally depressed or lazy or anything like that. Yet the feeling that you describe can so pull me down!

    Hang in there!

  7. I’m going through a phase, must be about 2 months of it now, where I’ll have a few days of wanting to keep going and then not wanting to and so on. It’s getting annoying, because like you there’s no reason I can pin-point for it to be so. If I have trouble for one day I might give in to it but any more and I’ll push myself, even if I’m still feeling the same. If you can stop without bad consequences it’s fine, but otherwise I think you do have to just keep going, ‘fake it til you make it’.

    1. Sorry to hear that, Charlie. Yes, I think you can give in for short amounts of time, but you have to rein it in pretty fast, otherwise you can lose a lot of time and momentum.

      I see you’ve started offering manuscript critiques on your site – that’s great! Do you think maybe that’s contributing to the phase of not wanting to turn up? Putting yourself out there can be anxiety-inducing, more pressure than writing about books. If that’s so, I think you’ll be OK in time, because you have a lot of great, well-informed things to say about books, and I’m sure your author services will be a big success!

      1. Yes, I think it is contributing. Both anxiety (because of course I worry about it not going well) and because of the extra work of creating it. Dealing with two blogs is quite a challenge! Thank you, I’m working on gaining some level of success but still crossing my fingers regardless.

        1. Yes, that makes sense. Keeping up two blogs is extra work, and extra pressure! Read litlove’s comment further down – she makes some excellent points about when to just stop and have some downtime…

  8. There are days when I don’t feel like showing up. I’ve learned to listen to such foible. It maybe the weather, the stars, or my intuition. When younger, I showed up unfailingly, so maybe it’s something about getting seasoned, and more attuned to timing.

    1. Interesting point, Ashen! Maybe it’s just my intuition telling me I need a break, and I should listen rather than fight it. The trouble is, there are lots of times when I don’t feel like writing, but force myself to do it anyway, and end up having a great day and producing something good. So I suppose it’s about knowing the difference between generic negativity and true intuition that needs to be respected. As you say, maybe as we get more seasoned, we become more attuned to these things. Thanks for bringing a different perspective. Much appreciated.

  9. I love this post, Andrew, because it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time now. There’s a TED talk that deals with this, and I listen to it a few times a year. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching it if you can. I wrote a post about it here: http://michelledargyle.com/2009/02/14/keep-showing-up/

    On another note, I’ve been wanting to ask you how I can get a signed copy of A Virtual Love. I finally have a little bit of money and would very much like to purchase a copy from you if it’s possible. If I need to email you, let me know. 🙂

    1. Hi Michelle

      Thanks for the link! It was really good for me to watch that. I agree with her (and you) that the best creative moments do seem to come from somewhere else. I’ve always struggled to define it, and I don’t really have a personified version of a muse or genius or daemon, but I do certainly believe that true creativity doesn’t come from conscious effort or logical thought. You do have to show up, so that you’re ready to receive whatever comes your way, but you can’t force it. And knowing that does take the pressure off. I laughed when I saw your post title – you beat me to it by 4 years 🙂

      As for the book, well normally I ask people to send me £10 on Paypal for the book and postage, but I don’t want to charge you, Michelle. You’re my oldest blog commenter (sorry, I’ll rephrase that – longest-standing blog commenter!), and I really appreciate all the support and friendship you’ve shown me over the years. So I’d like to send you a signed copy as a gift. Please email me with your address, and I’ll send it on over.

    2. Thanks for sharing that TED Talk, Michelle. I love them but for some reason had not watched this one from Gilbert before. It’s given me a lot to think about and process.

  10. In my husband’s family, when you don’t ‘show up’, then you are deemed to be ‘copping out’. If there’s ever a phrase I hate, it’s this wretched ‘copping out’. The thing is, how often are we really just being lazy? Is it equally important to regroup and take stock, and conserve our energy and think twice and hesitate and daydream and sometimes just simply faff? When I didn’t do these things – and believe me, there was a long period in my life when I eliminated all waste from my life and was super-efficient – I got chronic fatigue and enjoyed none of my killer time management skills. I nearly killed myself.

    I think it’s really important to realise that the down time is essential to creativity. We don’t understand much about the creative state, I think. And we have this foolish dream that we can just sail on into it whenever we want. Yet I have never created anything of worth without that act being preceded by chaos, confusion and a measure of procrastination. They are necessary. Oh and I hate to tell you this, but mercury IS retrograde at the moment, and although I am not a believer in planetary movements, that cheeky mercury retrograde seems to coincide with frustrations, setbacks and complications every time….. 😉

    1. You’re absolutely right – it’s very important to regroup sometimes and take stock. I think I should have been clearer in the post that I was talking specifically about showing up for myself and for my writing. I “cop out” all the time when it comes to other things, because I do need quite enormous amounts of down time. But I find that with my writing, and writing-related activities, I need to keep “showing up” even when I don’t feel like it. Sometimes “showing up” involves sitting at my desk for three hours, writing a paragraph and then scratching it out in disgust. But it’s important to me that I sit there anyway, and don’t go off surfing the web or something. But your point about needing time to regroup and take care of yourself is very important. I wrote the post quickly and didn’t cover everything. So thanks very much for adding to the discussion!

  11. Andrew –
    I just finished reading The Sense Of An Ending and in a desperate state to soothe my perplexity, googled “explanation of….” Your site was the first listed and also sounded the most quenching to my thirst for clarity. After reading your explanatory comments, I saw “on just showing up”. My curiosities about The Sense had calmed enough that I turned to what I thought was another book review. It was instead, of course, your thoughts articulated on that particular day. Thank you for your open invitation to share a response. That is a generous offering of self.

    First off, thanks for the help with The Sense Of An Ending. I had never felt so unsure of my grasp of a tale as when I came to the end of this one. And I hated that feeling — as though I had been contentedly gleaning in a field of ripe warm wheat only to find at the end of the day the weave and warp of my basket insufficient to hold the harvest. Very unsatisfactory. So I had suspected the affair with the Mother. At least I was not that obtuse. And I absolutely agree with you about Veronicas silent rage being more understandable as Barnes’ plot delivery tool than a believable characterization.

    I smiled at your expressed fondness for this book and intention to re-read it. I know that feeling and have my favorites that live near me like friends on a shelf, comforting me with waves of pleasant recall as I catch sight of them while moving about the house or staring at them (as a canvas I paint my listening upon) as I’m on the phone. This book won’t be on my favorites shelf. I’m too unhappy with Tony’s assumption that he understood Adrian’s suicide and the accompanying absence of questioning that assumption. But then, that was true to Tony.

    I do think this is more of a “mans book”. Male and Female psyche are dependably different. Perhaps this is enough to account for my lack of bonding with Tony. But even as I write this I know that is not true. The author to whom I am most grateful could, I think, be called a man’s writer, and yet his stories and non-fiction top my list. Norman MacLean. If my house were burning I’d grab the dog, the cat, and his books. Which is silly, because I could buy replacement copies. Of the books, of course. But you get my point. It is a matter of temperament. I could not align myself with Tonys valuations. And my sensitivities found him a bit crass. Sympathise with him, yes. Hang out with him, no.

    Anyway. Thank you for helping the collective with “The Sense…”.

    This is getting long and I began this with the intention to respond to your thoughts on just showing up.Quickly, two thoughts.

    1) Heard a person (famous for their business success) address an Ivy Leauge graduating class and say essentially the same thing as your remembered Woody Allen quip. Something like “the people who will consistently be found succeeding in life” (not defined) “are not neccessarily those with the highest I.Q or the the most charisma. If you want a formula for success, it is this — “show up”.” Like you, this stuck with me. It stuck with me because it made success sound more achievable to the average bear. And it stuck with me because it was terrifying. “showing up”, was not my strong suit. So in answer to your querie, yes, this happens to me, for one. And I can, for one, confirm your suspicion that you are not alone.

    I hear your intention to tough it out, fight the good fight and keep on keeping on. I cheer you on. I also offer a relief tactic if you find the incline too steep, the distance yet too far, the decible too high, to show up again today or the rest of this week, or month. I stop and acknowledge the plaquing desire to hibernate, go on a monastic retreat, hide in a cabin beside some water, convalesce from an indistinct non-lethal illness, fly to a remote beach, or otherwise roll over and play dead for a while. I acknowledge it with manners. I resist the shame (really hard to do). I try to not pathologise it. Acknowleding it seems to render it less iminent, or lethal. I believe our desire to be “apart” from time to time is the accompanying shadow of the soul otherwise illuminated by and in awe of… what is it? Beauty? Mystery? I don’t know the best word right now. But I do know how deeply I have been moved by a single exquisite sentence. When we give ourselves over to such realms, or more accurately, accept that we dwell in them most naturally, I think we stand a better chance.

    When I say “shadow” I do not mean dark as in menacing. I mean the lesser known geography of self. Please forgive me if all this seems remedial. I really only know of you what I glimpsed in your comments about showing up. Or maybe I just caught a glimpse of myself. Anyway, for what it’s worth — give your temptation to not show up once in awhile a respectful nod and then go on about your craft and the business of putting it out there.

    Sorry about my poor spelling. I don’t participate in this format much (at all) and do not see right now how to summon spell checker to save face. Love to read and write but can’t spell worth beans.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Audra

      Wow, thank you so much for your comment. I smiled when I read at the bottom that you don’t participate much in this format. It explained why your comment felt so refreshing to me. It was like receiving a letter from a friend, something thoughtful and considered and full of ideas. Most blog comments, my own included, are just off-the-cuff thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to write something longer and deeper.

      Tony is indeed hard to like. That’s never been a problem for me, but I know it is for many people. It’s enough for me if the character feels real, and if I care about what happens to him/her. So something needs to be compelling about the plot, the characters, the themes or maybe just the writing itself, but I don’t have to bond with or agree with the characters. Still, I can certainly understand why it won’t be on your favourites shelf. By the way, thank you so much for mentioning Norman Maclean! I have been meaning to read A River Runs Through It for ages now, and am glad that you reminded me about it.

      Thanks for what you said about showing up. It’s good to know I’m not alone! And I also loved what you said about relief tactics. I know what you mean about the shadow of the soul, and didn’t find it menacing at all. It’s important to acknowledge that it exists, and that the urge to be alone exists, and not to shove it down but to, as you said, give it a respectful nod and move on. This really helped me a lot.

      I’m glad you chose to participate in this format, Audra, and hope you do so again. Your comment really gave me a lot to think about. And by the way, your spelling seems just fine to me!

  12. Hi Andrew. I do think that by just showing up, things and opportunities can open up. You never know what can happen if you are in the right place at the right time. I also think sometimes it’s okay to just hide out for a little while too. We all need to take time and contemplate things.
    Thanks for stopping by my blog 🙂

    1. Hi Naida

      Thanks for your comment. It’s funny, recently I’ve been hiding in some ways – from social media and things like this – haven’t even posted on here for a couple of weeks – but I have been ‘showing up’ for my writing and for a couple of freelance projects. Just don’t have the energy to do it all, all the time. You’re right, it’s important to take time and contemplate things!

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