My intention has been, over the last few years, to build a writer’s life. I had to figure out what it meant to me, beyond all the myths I’d built up in my mind. It is important to establish from the outset that I will never feel like what I’ve always imagined a writer to be.
It occurred to me that how I feel about what it means to be a writer or not is completely irrelevant to what I do as a writer. The drill sergeant within says Write, dumbass. But writing is what I’ve been doing. How do I get beyond my computer? How do I improve my skills? How do I feel like writing is woven into my day?
Writing Out Loud
Over six years ago, I began to write blog posts. I felt sick to my stomach each time I hit “Publish”. I got over that, got hooked on and unhooked from Stats, and eventually hit a pace with which I was comfortable. I’ve spent hours writing and re-writing blog posts. The key lessons I’ve learned from that are:
- Keep it in perspective. It’s an unpaid labor/writing practice and that is important to remember when setting writing priorities. As I have ambitions towards publication of a novel and short stories, writing blog posts cannot account for all my writing time. It seems logical, but it’s easy to rationalize any writing as being productive, regardless if it actually gets you closer to a personal goal or not.
- Building a community requires generosity, patience, and boundaries. I like to share links of other people’s work, but I generally don’t re-blog or write guest posts. Since I read other blogs because I like the writer’s voice, it sets the expectation that when I go to a blog, I’ll hear the writer’s voice. I also learned after the first year, that blog awards, while flattering, are chain letters with homework. The biggest lessons are that patience and courtesy are the name of the game – and don’t obsess about stats.
- Review, re-commit, and sometimes, just take a break. Burnout is something I’ve experienced about 263 times in the last six years and a few times I considered giving up blogging altogether. But I’m still here. I regularly review why I blog (firm up that mission statement), recommit to better writing, or take a break. The first year, I took the summer off. Since then, I’ll take 2-4 weeks off at a time, with a notice on the blog of when I’ll return. Too many blogs drop off and never return – I’d like to stay on your reading list!
In my experience, there is no growth without fear, so I’ve been doing things I’m scared to do. I’m an introvert/perfectionist/procrastinator – so yeah, the things I’m scared to do as a writer comprises a very long list.
- I wrote a novel over 5 years ago during NaNoWriMo, revised it over and over, and then let it go. I’ve started a second novel.
- I went to a writer’s conference and pitched my first novel to agents.
- I went to a book club. That really didn’t work out, so I’m trying to start an online one of my own.
- Another writer/blogger contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to mentor her. Me? She had a great plan and caught me on a day when I was feeling confident. I said yes. Thinking about what she needs as a writer has reminded me that I know things, some of which are useful.
- I submitted my first piece of work, despite making myself panicky-ill and mangling the submission. I’m not waiting 50 years until the next submission.
- This month I’m applying for a highly competitive writing fellowship. My stomach tightens into a pit at the thought of it. My odds are slim, but they’d be zero if I didn’t apply.
Each step is practice for taking the next step. Failure is victory, because it means I’m doing something.
Improving Writing Skills
I wanted to be a writer because of what I read, so it seems logical that if I wanted to elevate my writing, I needed to elevate my reading. I started digging into more challenging works and learned to take assiduous notes. I subscribe to World Literature Today which diversified my reading lists, as well as learning about translated works at Asymptote.
My reading is more directed and less whimsical. Sometimes it’s hard to read great writing and not get that sinking sense that I may as well be writing with a crayon in a dark corner somewhere. But that’s the nature of reading above one’s level of skill. Skip over the discouragement and the negative litany, right on over to practice, practice, practice.
The Absence of Motivation
I’m rarely ever inspired or motivated, in the moment, to do what I need to do. It’s this magical thing that other people apparently experience. Accepting this fact has been very useful. I can’t wait until I’m in the mood to write or exercise or until the stars have aligned to create a zen time and space for me to work.
Inspiration and motivation come in small ideas. This week, I’ve been thinking about the Mel Robbins TED talk I listened to – the idea that productive impulses are often overrun by autopilot because we don’t act on them right away and our habits take over.
I’ve been practicing, acting on that annoying “should” dialogue. I am trying two things: 1) re-framing the should into a want. I should workout = I want to workout because I know it will make me feel better. 2) Practicing the five second rule. Positive impulse? 5-4-3-2-1…do it. I’m not giving myself time to stomp down that change in behavior, in favor of habit/autopilot.
The little habits are a great place to start. I should have herbal tea instead of coffee = I want to have herbal tea, because I’ll feel better with less caffeine. 5-4-3-2-1…grab an herbal teabag. It seems silly in the scheme of things, but as I’ve learned over the last year, the smallest components of a life, the minutiae at the margins, shape our lives and it is in those places that we have the greatest ability to make changes – to be what we’re pretending to be.