I’m in need of a writer-to-writer pep talk today, so I’ve decided to give myself one.
This isn’t going to be easy. I’m realizing, to my chagrin, that being optimistic and upbeat comes much more naturally when things are going well. Who’d have thought? Maintaining a good attitude is a bit more challenging when you’re stuck at the bottom of the proverbial well with no rope and no ladder (and a creeping suspicion that something malicious may be lurking down there with you, just waiting to jump out from the shadows and give you a nasty bite, or worse).
Why I’m down here in the metaphorical muck is mostly immaterial, so I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just say that the struggle has been a little tougher than usual and I’m starting to feel like someone may be out to get me. In a recent conversation with a friend, my inner Pollyanna valiantly tried to put a positive spin on my current situation by pointing out that this must be what people mean when they say that tough times build character. My smart and talented friend, who has seen her fair share of difficulty over the past six months, commented wryly that she could do with a little less character, thank you very much. Indeed.
While part of me would like to wallow and lose myself in a binge-session watching Orphan Black, I know that neither of those options will help me in the long run. This is the point in the story where the heroine is supposed to pick herself up, dust herself off, and head back into battle with renewed conviction and purpose. This is where the plot twist becomes a key turning point in the trajectory of the narrative. This is where the rubber meets the road.
So, instead of wallowing, I’m going to engage in a little tough love. I’m going to give myself a compassionate but firm kick in the arse. If you’re feeling a little stuck or disheartened, I invite you to join me as a recipient of said tough love. There’s plenty to go around.
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Ok, you, I’m here to ask you what’s holding you back. I get that you’re scared and unsure. I understand that things are a little tough right now and you may even be questioning your right to continue pursuing your writing. I feel your pain and I empathize, really, I do. But – you knew there was a “but” coming – if you really want to do this thing, you’ve got to push past the fear and the uncertainty. You’ve got to blow up the obstacles standing in your way. It’s time.
The thing is, you’ve only got one life to live and – I hate to be the one to tell you, but – the clock is ticking on it, honey. So, how about if we dry those tears and take a good hard look at all the “Real” Reasons why you aren’t doing the writing you want to do.
We’re all afraid. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Even the people you admire most are afraid, but they did what scared them despite the fear. Writers, as a group, fear plenty of things. We fear failure and ridicule. We fear being thought of as silly, naive, and self-indulgent. We fear being put in our place by Other People who know more. We fear that sharing our work will leave us vulnerable and exposed. We fear offending people we care about. We fear being rejected, panned, and – worst of all – ignored. Heck, we even fear success.
And the worst part is, our fears are justified. If writing was easy, everyone would do it. Writing, if you share your work with others, is like going to work naked. Subjecting ourselves to the possibility of publicly falling on our faces or revealing more of ourselves than we planned is just part of the package.
I cannot take your fear away. I cannot tell you that the things you fear aren’t real or that you are overreacting. There is no magical badge of courage that will make you invincible against the things that give you nightmares. All you can do is, as they say, feel the fear and do it anyway. Just don’t let the fear hold you back. Don’t talk yourself into thinking that your fears are proof that you shouldn’t be writing. That’s your inner critic talking, and she’s a manipulative little twerp. Tell her your fear isn’t proof that you’re unworthy, but rather proof that you’re human. It’s human nature to fear the unknown, and damn but there’s a lot of unknowns when it comes to writing.
So, put on your big girl panties and put your fears in their place – away in the corner where you don’t have to listen to them whine. You’ve got better things to do.
I don’t have enough time.
You’ve got better things to do, and only so many hours in the day. I admit that finding time to write is hard. In fact, “finding” time is nearly impossible unless you’ve got a fairy godmother who can wave a magic wand and make extra time appear in your day. This is why we need to make time to write, not hope to find a few extra hours lying around somewhere.
Because the truth is, you do have the time. You’re just not using it wisely.
The bad news is that you’ll only ever have twenty-four hours to spend each day. The good news is that you get to decide how to spend them. What you aren’t going to want to hear is that making time for writing means giving up other things. I know. It sucks. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You have to make hard choices. You have to sacrifice. You have to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak.
What this means in your world is different from what it means in mine, but in addition to the obvious things (a little less Netflix time, a little more hands-on-keyboard time or maybe going to bed earlier so you can get up earlier, etc.), you also have to consider making “selfish” choices that might cut into time with family and friends. You might have to navigate the emotional minefield of explaining to someone you care about that, as much as you love them, you need time alone to work on your writing. They may not understand at first. There may be hurt feelings. But, that’s part of the Hard Work you have to do.
And – P.S.– you can’t just make time, you have to create space, too – not physical space, but head space. You have to give yourself permission to “indulge” in your writing even though it might seem like a frivolous pursuit. You have to learn to validate the time and effort you spend writing even though it may not earn you a single dollar. This is harder than it sounds, but it’s part of what you need to do.
Ok, got it? What’s next?
I need to make money.
You and me both, honey. You and me both. One of my favorite excuses to drag out when someone asks why I don’t spend more time on my fiction is that I have to make money. I justify myself by explaining that fiction doesn’t generate immediate income, and I can’t pay my mortgage with dreams and best intentions. I’m not wrong, but I’m also not right.
Here’s the thing. Basing decisions on money is a terrible, terrible way to live your life. I get that you’ve got bills to pay, maybe even mouths to feed. You’ve got responsibilities and obligations. You’ve got a standard of living to which you’ve become accustomed. Me, too. But that shouldn’t keep you from writing.
You’ve heard the story about a certain author named J.K. Rowling – broke, single mom who worked on what would eventually become the largest fiction franchise in history while she was so down on her luck that she would sometimes have to skip meals so her daughter could eat. And yet, despite being that destitute, she kept writing.
Imagine if Rowling had based her decision to write on whether or not it would make her money in the short term.
You don’t need money to write. All you need is time and passion and maybe a pencil.
But, just as important, you don’t need to make money from your writing in order to validate writing in the first place. Don’t saddle your muse with the burden of generating revenue. Talk about a way to suck the joy out of something! Go ahead and nurture your dreams of becoming a successful (and well paid) author (if that’s your ultimate goal), but don’t let the weight of that expectation drag your writing practice to a screeching halt.
You’re right. You do need to make money, but you don’t need to make that money writing. Do what you do to earn your living and let your writing evolve separately from that. Many famous authors held down other, non-writing jobs throughout their careers. That’s a perfectly acceptable way to do things. It allows you time to explore and experiment, to play. Moonlight, if you like. Test the waters. Dabble. But don’t set yourself up for disappointment and failure by applying unrealistic earning expectations on your writing. That’s just mean.
I’m no good.
No one is good in the beginning, and the only way to get better is to study and practice. And, guess what? You are lucky enough to live in the age of the Internet, which means that you have almost unlimited access to a vast and ever-expanding wealth of knowledge. Seriously. Anything you want to learn, you can learn about it online. There are books, blogs, online magazines, podcasts, YouTube, classes, courses, forums, and endless other digital resources from which you can learn just about anything you need to know about writing. From story structure to grammar, finding your voice to finessing your theme, characterization, plotting, pacing, and on and on and on.
If you think you’re no good, get better. Stop fretting about being less than and figure out how to be more. Read, and then read some more. Visit the library and take out as many books as you can carry. Read about writing and read stories and novels from every genre, era, and age group. Analyze the shit out of everything – why does this work so well and why does that fail?
Be passionate about your craft. Don’t settle for subpar or even good enough. Take stories apart to see what makes them tick. Listen to your instinct and follow that up with research about what the pros have to say. Dig deeper. Ask harder questions – of yourself and the hundreds of bloggers out there who write about writing. Share your work. Ask for feedback. Get involved with a writers’ group. Take a class. Audit a class. Do whatever it takes to get better.
Do you think the writers you admire sat around saying they weren’t good enough? No. They studied and practiced until they had something that wasn’t just “good enough,” it was spectacular. You can do that, too. Start today.
I don’t even know what I want to write.
I know this one makes you a little extra crazy. You have a desire to write, but you can’t quite seem to focus that desire into an actual project. You have vague ideas and notes. You have half-formed plots and random characters taking up headspace. I get it. Happens to me, too. Sometimes, the trouble is less about having unclear ideas and more about having so many fabulous ideas that you can’t pick which one to pursue.
Either way, indecision = paralysis. Plain and simple. (And, not good.)
The cure is just to pick something. Anything. As Jessica Abel says, “Pay attention to your attention.” And, as I’ve said before, follow your curiosity. Look at what you read and watch. What kind of stories are you drawn to? What kinds of themes? What’s important to you in Real Life? Think about how you spend your free time and how that might be related to a certain kind of writing project, topic, or theme.
Don’t spend too much time on this part of the process. Just take an informal survey of your interests and pastimes so that you can hone in on some story element that captures your imagination. Then, start writing. Know that this isn’t the only thing you’ll ever write. You can get back to your Other Ideas later. Try to stay focused on one thing at a time. Give your attention fully to the story at hand. Listen to what it’s telling you, and then you’ll know what to write.
I never follow through, so I must not be a “real” writer, anyway.
You’re right. Real Writers follow through. They do the work. So, what would you have to accomplish to feel like you’re following through, and what would it take for you to achieve that goal? Stop saying, “I never do anything.” Figure out what you need to do and do it. Break it down. Give yourself a support network. It might be as simple as asking someone to be your writing buddy or joining a writing group for accountability. It might be entering a contest or taking on an assignment with a deadline. Don’t tell me you can’t follow through. You can.
I beat myself up for not doing the work all the time. Just a few months ago, I wrote about how New Year’s left me reflecting on my failure (again) to accomplish writing goals I’ve had for twenty, maybe even thirty years. But, even though I feel like I’ve let myself down, I never let it keep me from writing. In fact, although I haven’t accomplished those particular goals (publishing fiction and building a business around my love of writing/reading/story/creativity), I’ve followed through on a lot of other writing goals. And slowly but surely, the writing I have done is starting to converge with the writing I’ve always wanted to do. Do I still need a kick in the arse? Most definitely. But, I also deserve a little pat on the back – for never, ever giving up and for always, always continuing to write, even when it’s hard, even when I’m not sure why I’m doing it or where I’m going with it.
Take today. Part of me didn’t feel up to writing it because I wasn’t in the best mood and wasn’t feeling up to doing the work. Part of me wondered if I should forget about it since I knew it was going to go live several hours later than I usually post. Part of me thought about scrapping my idea for this post and instead writing something shorter and “fluffier.” But in the end I decided to just buckle down and do it. I decided to put my fear in the corner, make the time, shut down my inner critic, get clear about what I wanted (needed) to say, and just follow through.
And you can, too. Believe me. If I can do it, so can you.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, a nature lover, and an eclectic reader. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.