Here early in this new year, I’m thinking of how much 2020 asked of us, not only in our day-to-day lives but in our writing lives as well.
As I’ve said in other places, some of us have struggled to write and some of us have immersed ourselves in our writing either as a way to escape the reality around us or to understand what it has to teach us about ourselves, others, and the world around us.
No matter whether we’ve been productive or not, it’s okay as long as the choices we’ve made have led us somewhere necessary to our survival.
If you haven’t written much, or if you have, don’t feel guilty. We’ve just closed the door on a year unlike any other, and now, as we move forward into 2021, we may feel in need of motivation, or at least we may need a way of thinking about what it means to us to call ourselves “writers.”
I’ve been writing for over 45 years, and there have been numerous times when I’ve been tempted to stop.
When I was a young writer, despondent because of a steady stream of rejections, I thought how nice it might be to give up the writing life for a more ordinary way of being, one in which my ego wasn’t tied to the gatekeepers who over and over told me “No,” a life where I could work a job and leave it behind when quitting time came.
Then I realized that writing wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was. If I stopped, I’d be someone else, and that someone else wouldn’t be anywhere close to the person I really was. Without writing, I’d be living the life of an imposter. I had to ask myself who I was, and the answer was I was a writer no matter if anyone wanted to publish what I wrote. So I kept on.
Another truth was I enjoyed writing, and I’ve kept enjoying it over all these years. Nothing gives me more pleasure than moving words about on a page, and I don’t need any external validation to do that. Oh, sure, it’s nice when it comes, but the simple truth is it has nothing to do with what happens for me when I’m alone in my writing room seeing what words can do to capture all that mystifies and astonishes me about this complicated world in which we live.
It’s true that for the most part the larger world doesn’t care about what we do. Accepting that fact can be freeing. You know the value of the hours you spend writing. Don’t let anyone take away the feeling that you have when you do that work.
There are times when I don’t write, and I’ve gotten better, as I get older, at forgiving myself for these down times. Sometimes we simply have to recharge. I know that no matter how long I’m away from my writing room, the life of the writer will always be with me, the work will always be waiting, the blank page will always be welcoming.
The hardest truth we writers have to accept is no one cares if we quit. Once we realize that, we can free ourselves from what constrains us—the apathy of the world, the blows to our ego, the uncertainties when it comes to our talents, the fears that we won’t be good enough, and on and on—and we can write with pleasure because it’s who we are. We can keep doing the good work that we’ve been called to do.
I’ve just gotten an email. Hope fades like a rainbow as I scan to the part where they tell me that my story isn’t a good fit for the magazine and wish me luck on finding a home. This time, they’ve included reviewer feedback. I try downloading the attachment on my iPhone as I’m away from my laptop but it’s painfully slow, so I give up.
I don’t want to read these comments, partly because I dread discovering that I’ve done something really stupid, the recollection of which I’m trying to resist, but mostly because I fear that reading these comments may crush any lingering desire I have to write.
I know, I know—all about the gazillions of rejections Stephen King or J.K. Rowling (not comparing myself to them) got. You just have to persist. Rejection is part of the game. If you aren’t getting rejected, you’re not writing. I’m not trying to be a best-selling novelist, but I would be happier if my stories had a home.
I have been writing for 14 years, and I’m humble enough to know that I still have a lot to learn.
“Rejection is part of the game. If you aren’t getting rejected, you’re not writing.”
I have read dozens of books on writing techniques and on story and the hero’s journey—all written by the Greats. I have found the golden nuggets and tried incorporating them into my writing. I have attended writing workshops where we critiqued one another’s writing.
The net result of all this training is that I came to a point where I had read so much about writing, I couldn’t write anymore. The creative juice had evaporated. I was trying to be a writer and a censor, which doesn’t work.
Walking a thin line
On the one hand, I must write and write and get better at my craft. One great inspiration for just that has been Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer. Her basic premise is that writers often make the mistake of putting the focus on learning the craft of writing long before we ever become writers—you know those people who sit down and write. I took this to heart and for several months did morning writings just about every day, and after about 100,000 words, proved to myself that I could write. And out of those daily writings, I had quite a few short stories—stories that I polished and sent out to a few literary journals only to get the same message—your story is not a good fit.
Sometimes I feel that we writers burden ourselves with too much asking for permission. I have started rethinking the route of submitting (pun intended) to literary journals. Do I need a license from them to call myself a writer? A painter paints. She puts her paintings out for display and says, “Here is my art. Take it or leave it.” People don’t typically come along and say, “You know, I think you need to make those trees a deeper green and you have way too many stars in that sky. Revise it.” And so I have asked myself why a writer can’t simply put out a work and say, “Here it is.” To answer a somewhat rhetorical question, it is because a publisher (we are not even talking, a film producer) needs to invest in your writing. Errors don’t fare well with printing presses.
It isn’t you simply buying the canvas and producing the whole thing yourself. Now if that painter wants her art hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her works have to be accepted.
It’s the same with a literary magazine. The editors must decide out of hundreds or thousands of submissions what to print. Today we can self-publish, so maybe I’m whining over a moot point.
But more to my point, the critiques and rejections, which I feel authors face far too many of, can inhibit a writer. I once had a story rejected because the main character, who happened to be a woman, hated (and was poor at) math and science. The magazine was willing to publish the story, provided I changed the character to a male. I am a woman writing about a girl who hates math. Is this really sexually biased?
Last night I had a dream. My husband and I were living in a large house with lots of people. We had a shared central living room and all around it, up and down the stairs, our housemates had their bedrooms or sleeping quarters. One day I was walking down a hallway and a woman was getting rid of an old mattress that had been standing up against the wall for ages. The space looked so nice without the mattress that everyone started relooking at their own areas and rearranging things. We all worked on this for several days.
At one point, I walked into the space that had once been the living room and saw that it no longer looked like a room. With all this rearranging, we had destroyed the very part of the house that we loved. Everyone had worked so hard to make the changes that no one wanted to admit that we had gone too far. At one point we were having a house meeting when I stood up and adamantly declared that the previous living room had been wonderful and that we needed to put it back the way it was. Then I woke up.
I’m thankful for this timely dream because it pinpoints the problem with the constant critiquing: the story you wrote can lose its essence. When is enough, enough? When do you say, “This is it, I have created this work and I am happy with it”? When—and how—do we stop asking for permission?
For many years, while I was working full time, I got up early to write before my kids woke up and things got hectic. As a die-hard night owl, adjusting to that schedule was rough. I’m not gunna lie. It took me about eighteen months to settle in, but I know now that I went about it all wrong.
If you’re a writer trying to eek out an hour a day for your work, consider getting up early. Here are seven things I learned along the way that might make the process a little easier:
1. You don’t have to be a morning person.
I was absolutely NOT a morning person when I started. It was painful, no question about it, but eventually I got used to it because I had to. If your writing is important enough, you’ll get used to it. Here’s how:
2. PRE-PROGRAM YOUR COFFEE.
If you own a coffee maker, it probably has a delayed start function. Take 10 minutes, google the make and model to find the owners manual, and read up on how to set it to start brewing ten minutes before your alarm goes off.
You want the coffee to be ready to drink when you drag yourself out of bed. Hot coffee can be a powerful motivator.
3. Give yourself a foot massage.
I know this sounds strange, but sometimes, when I was too tired to get up and even the promise of hot coffee wasn’t enough, I would pinch each toe for a few seconds. Somehow a quick little foot massage helped drag me into consciousness. I don’t know why. It just did.
4. DO IT (ALMOST) EVERY DAY.
For the first two years, I thought I was going easy on myself by only getting up early to write every other day. Boy did I get that one wrong. Do it every day, or at least every workday. Just put it in your head that this is how you start workdays. It will be a drag at first, but eventually you will adjust. It will get easier. I struggled terribly with early mornings until I started waking up at 5am six days a week. I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s easier to settle into it if you do it (almost) every day. (For the record, I’m a big believer in having one or two mornings a week to sleep in. It gives you something to look forward to, and it’s oh so sweet when you’re waking up so early every other morning. Trying to wake up at 5am every morning forever will just lead to burn out.)
5. ESTABLISH A ROUTINE
When you wake up super early to write you will be groggy. You will not want to think about anything too much until the coffee kicks in. For me, this meant establishing a routine. I would fill my mug and sit at the kitchen table with my coffee and my journal. I would aim to fill one page of the journal with whatever came to mind – seriously anything. It usually took me about half an hour, and I would notice my pen moving faster as the coffee kicked in. Then, I would close the journal, set the mug aside, and attack my writing.
6. GO TO BED EARLY.
Depending on how old you are, and how demanding your days can be, getting up super early on a regular basis will start to wear you down if you don’t compensate by going to bed a little earlier. As a night person by nature, I never used to get tired until after midnight. But I knew I needed sleep, so I started brushing my teeth and getting into bed earlier. For many weeks I would sit up and read until my usual crash-out time, but eventually the exhaustion caught up and I started falling asleep earlier. It’s embarrassing for a self-proclaimed night person to admit to going to bed at 9, but you’re a writer, damn it, and you’re doing it for your art.
7. SET AN END TIME.
For me, writing time ended at 6:30 or when the kids woke up. Whichever came first. If you’re a parent, and/or if you’re working a full time job, you will need to set an end time.
Write as much as you can in your allotted time and then pat yourself on the back. Whatever else happens that day, you wrote. And that is a fucking victory.
A couple of years ago, I hit a wall with my debut novel, 142 Ostriches.I was so frustrated working on it that I literally felt nauseous when I opened the file to work on it. I needed a break, badly.
So I jumped ship and started working on my second novel. It was an idea that had been percolating in my mind for a while. In truth, this second novel was the story I had always wanted to write. But in a surprisingly insightful moment that I don’t remember, I decided that it couldn’t be my first novel. It was too challenging. It jumps around in time, it has multiple POVs, it plays with magic in parts.
But getting started on it turned out to be the perfect distraction when I just couldn’t muster the energy to keep working on the first novel any longer. It was a fun, shiny new idea and I jumped at it. I did research, I made a ton of notes, I even took a few trips to explore the places where it takes place. I wrote a couple of chapters, then added 50,000 words to the draft during NaNoWriMo . I was having fun with it.
Eventually, a friend of mine encouraged me not to give up on the first novel. Reluctantly, I read through the draft I had abandoned and was pleasantly surprised. It actually wasn’t so bad. So I tucked the second novel safely away, whispered a little promise that I would be back soon, and continued to work on the first novel with renewed energy.
Go Ahead, Write Two Novels
I share this story because I’ve often heard writers talk about how it’s a bad idea to have more than one novel going at any given time. I simply must disagree.
Having two novels to work on saved me as a writer. If I hadn’t had something else to pour my efforts into, I don’t know what I would have done. I dread to think how many writers have simply given up on writing because they hit a wall and thought they couldn’t start another project until they finished the first.
There are No Rules, People.
That said, I resisted starting novel three until I finished novel one. For me, three novels at a time is too many, and I worried that starting another project would just be a way to avoid finishing the first.
THAT is the trap. That is the thing that each of us must determine for ourselves: what is productive work, and what is just avoiding the hard work of finishing?
Now that my debut is out in the world, I’ve shifted my efforts. I spend most of my time on that second novel and when I need a break, I turn to novel number three. I can see this system working for me far into the future.
So go ahead. Start another project. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you should or shouldn’t do when it comes to your writing. Not even me. Especially me. If starting your third novel is right for you, you damn well better start novel three.
Figure out what works for you, and just keep writing.