Thursday, August 22, 2013

Don't Stomp on My Cake!

Okay, so this is a true story about me and my writing. Namely, it's about me screwing up, hurting myself and my work, and then figuring out what steps to take so I don't do it again. As with every post in this blog, I'm posting it here in the hopes that you will spot the warning signs faster than I did and act more wisely. SPOILER: There are no actual cakes in this post. The cake is a metaphor.


So you might recall back in the day I wrote a blog post about dramatically increasing my daily word output through planning and observation (side note: this is probably what will be inscribed on my tombstone. "Here lies Rachel Aaron, That 2k to 10k Lady."). What I failed to mention in that original post, however, was all the time I spend not writing. I'm not talking about writer's block or other creative lapses. I mean legit "I have real life crap to deal with and can't physically sit down to type" not writing.

Now, for the most part, this sort of interruption is natural and unavoidable, even healthy (can't write all the time). My problem came with how I reacted to said interruption.

As you probably noticed from the multiple time tracking spread sheets I've posted over the years, I tend to approach my work from a "best case scenario" angle. I'm the sort of person who will suffer a minor interruption in my work flow, and then, if I don't think I can return to an optimal environment, I will rapidly flip in to screw-it mode. This tendency can range from minor ("I finished a chapter at 4:30 and I have to stop writing at 5... screw it, let's just quit here and play Minecraft!") to enormous ("I spent the morning at the doctor and now I'm tired, I've lost half my day, and I have to start a new chapter. Screw it, let's take the afternoon off and play Minecraft!"), and it's lost me more time than I care to think about.

This sort of behavior drives me crazy. I can't seem to make myself be good, even when I know full well what I'm doing and what it's costing me. It's not that I'm lazy (no one who actually gets through a book can ever be considered lazy), but every now and then I'll just hit this wall, especially if my non-writing life gets unusually stressful. And once I'm off a little bit--a few days behind where I want to be, then a week, then a month--it gets harder and harder to push ahead and easier and easier to say screw it, until finally there's no "it" left.

I'm much better about this now than I used to be earlier in my career, but this summer, I had a serious lapse. A combination of family trips, vacations, and various other unavoidable interruptions poked my schedule so full of holes there was barely any time left. Combine this with the fact that I was between books with no solid story line to pull me along and I haven't gotten crap done since June.

Naturally, of course, I feel awful about this. Nothing makes me feel more like a failure than looking at a total word count that's off from it's goal by a power of ten. And I'm a full time writer! The whole point of quitting my job was so that shit like this wouldn't happen. It's like I worked so hard making this beautiful cake of a life, and then the real world came in and stomped all over it.

Now, normally, this is the part of the blog post where I'd present my genius solution to the problem. "You must protect your writing time!" I'd say, or "Plot out your lost time on bell curve and science will show you the solution!" Or I could go with the tried and true writer axiom, "Word harder, slacker! Stop letting life kick you around like wuss and just write!"

The truth is, though, I don't have a solution. Life is messy. No matter how many walls I build or steps I take or plans I enact, shit still gets through to stomp on my cake. For someone as obsessed with optimal numbers as myself, that's a bitter pill to swallow. Looking back, there are definitely places where I could have worked harder or used my time more efficiently, but I can also see why I didn't...and I'm slowing starting to understand that that's okay.

I talk a lot about writing skills on this blog--plotting, tension, character building, etc.--but perhaps the most difficult writing skill of all to master (at least for me) is the ability to accept failure without turning it back on myself. This is amazingly important, because writing is absolutely full of failure. It comes in all sizes, shapes, and flavors of humiliation, and since writing is a solo endeavor, it's all too easy to pin the blame squarely on myself, even if the failure is something I had absolutely no control over. Add in the fact that writing pays the bills at my house, and we're talking lethal levels of guilt.

For the longest time, I thought this guilt was just part and parcel of the writing gig, a side effect of responsibility. Recently, though, I've started to realize there's nothing responsible (or noble, or laudable) about tearing myself down.

As much as I might like to pretend otherwise, writers are not super beings. We're not robots either, tuning ourselves to operate at maximum output efficiency at all times. We're just human, and humans fall down. We mess things up and get tired and make stupid mistakes and say screw it. When you're handling such potent materials as Great Dreams of Being a Writer, it's all too easy to get caught up in the goal, and (for me at least) to hate and guilt yourself over every fumbled step and missed opportunity. It is very easy, in short, to become a guilt fueled writer. But while guilt works in the short term, it's a treacherous fuel source, and enough of it can poison the stream of creativity and shut down your writing forever.

The sad fact is there's no way to completely protect your cake from getting stomped on. You can't will or guilt or threaten yourself into being an infallible super writer anymore than you can will or guilt or threaten everyone into loving your books. That said, just because your writing life cake has a big boot mark in it doesn't mean it's destined for the trash.

Authorship, storytelling, and creativity are life long endeavors; journeys of thousands of miles and multiple peaks and valleys. While we're on the trail, it can be very hard to take our eyes off the immediate mud holes and backtracking. But if we take a breath and look up, we'll see that these problems, however huge, are dwarfed by the enormous, endless, breathtakingly beautiful expanse that is the writing life. And while a change in perspective won't do anything to fix the hole you're in, it can and will make that hole look smaller, and it's amazing how much that helps you find your way out.

I'm still working on that solution for not letting life's unavoidable mishaps take such huge chunks out my writing schedule (current plan: if I decide not to write during work hours, I must do some kind of planning or writing related activity instead. So far, it's going more or less okay.), but I am slowly learning to accept my own mess ups with patience and understanding rather than guilt. That said, I've got a long way to go. I wasted years, years, guilting myself over every little thing and making myself feel terrible for missing what, I eventually realized, was an impossible goal. I can't be a perfectly optimized writer. It's just not going to happen. I can, however, be a reasonably good writer most of the time, and that is perfectly acceptable.

So here is the "learn from my fail" moment of this post: please, please, whatever you do, don't waste your time making yourself unhappy for years like I did. Polish that vital writing career skill of accepting failure and disappointment with compassion and understanding, and don't beat yourself up because you're not the kind of writer you think you should be, or someone else told you to be. Always remember that we're in this for the long game, not the short sprint--the career, not the novel. Anything else is just a form of self sabotage.

I'm going to wrap up here because I'm getting insufferably cheesy, but I really can not stress how much unnecessary pain and teeth gnashing I've put myself through over all this, and the idea of someone else going through all that pointless suffering for no good reason turns my stomach. So if you're mad at yourself and your writing, if you're frustrated with your lack of progress or characters or whatever has you blocked, know that you are not alone. You are, in fact, the opposite of alone. We have all been there, and while we all deal with it differently, I am going to go out on the limb and say that I feel you, and it's okay.

A few missed days or weeks or months of writing might feel like an epic failure, but in the long scheme of things it's just a blip. A long list of rejections definitely feels like the end of the world, but one story chalked up to a learning experience is just a tick on the long list of books you have yet to write. The only thing that really matters is that you get back in the saddle and keep writing, because the only thing on this Earth that can make you stop writing is you.

Life already stomps on your cake enough. Don't help it along by stomping down yourself. Focus on your Stories instead. Life's much more fun that way.

Happy writing!
- Rachel


ebooksgirl said...

Thank you so much for writing this!

I don't write stories; the best I can do is with my book review blog. There, I get to squee (or grump) about what I love best: reading the amazing stories you and others write.

Unfortunately, book reviewing does NOT pay the bills, so I get to work two jobs (+70hrs a week) alongside doing what I love. And recently, whether it's finding half an inch of water in the basement, or having a cat go into a diabetic coma, or my grandmother dying, it's been a rough few weeks. And as the reviews don't get posted, views dry up. So I get an immediate, visual reinforcement of how I'm failing to make time for one of my few enjoyments (complete with a line graph with a GREAT BIG DROP OFF).

I'm going to take this post to mean that it's okay to let life take over ever so often, and that I really will get back to the thrice-a-week posts I was writing at my peak, and that line'll go back up too. :-)

essbee said...

Where do writers get the material they eventually transform into great fiction? From life! And when does life happen? Mostly while we're not writing.

Nicola said...

I have two suggestions:

1. Build "mad" days into your plan. Plan to work 5 days a week - then when you work six you are building up a bank of "mad" days - so that if a day or week escapes you, you still have some in the bank.

2. Accept that one of the reasons for being a writer (and working from home) is so that you don't have to beg a boss for time off when life explodes. Face it if schedules and numbers meant everything to you - you would be an accountant.

Hugggggggggggggggs (all the extra g's are to reach through the interwebs and give you a big warm hug when you need it)

Christian Frey said...

Yep. Second all this. Although I'm not a full-time writer, I am a full-time creative freelancer who also tries to write, and I went through my own small crisis this summer both with "real work" and with writing. I wrote a post about it on my blog, which (much like yours) basically boils down to, "Don't be so hard on yourself. Geez."

If you care to commiserate, I also posted links to a few of the resources that have helped me out along the way:

Morgynstarz said...

When what you love puts the beans and bacon on the table, does it feel more like a job?

I've been there, done that. Not with writing, but my other love. I did things, assigned false values and turned my love into work. Sucked BIG time.

Found an offshoot arm of what I loved and turned that into a job. No more stress. It was WORK. I got it done asap and forgot about it. My love, once more was done because I loved it, could not live without it.

Writing is passion. There is so much you know what being slung about it being a business. Babe, that is toxic to passion, IMO.

Anonymous said...

this reminds me of something i read in one of barbara sher's works...

the example was something like someone learning to do yoga, who would then get upset if they didn't do it one day, like they were supposed to.
and the reply to that was, 'did you REALLY expect to do it EVERY single day for the rest of your life?'

unless it's brushing your teeth (and face it, have you ever skipped that? :X ), you're not going to do your thing Every Single Day.

which is not to be discouraging, but to promote not stressing over it.

this 'mad days' thing of nicola's might be fun, too...

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Danielle C said...

So glad I found this post, it's helped me to understand that everyone does feel like this at some point in the journey, whether it be in writing or another career. I spent 3 years of university feeling like a failure, despite putting in the hours and hard work, I always felt guilty for not helping my family or seeing more of my friends...and now I'm starting to feel the same way about my writing >.< So I am taking this as another lesson learned and that tearing myself down is not the way to go!
Thank you for posting this Rachel :) Looking forward to more insightful and helpful advice!

Unknown said...

This article is really (cliche coming) hit the nail on the head. I was comparing my daily writing achievements to another author who is doing much higher daily counts (and when asked for advice, blew me off). That was when I stomped on my own cake. But as you say we are not finely-tuned robots who can operate without letting the world have its share of moments (paraphrasing here...). I am going to keep a copy of your blog in my book of wisdom or how to keep going when you don't want to get out of bed. thank you!

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