When you're in a partnership for a long time, you eventually learn to eat crow. (Maybe literally, if that's the kind of culture you're in, but I'm talking metaphorically.)
Seven years ago, when I was neck deep in query rejections from literary agents, I had the idiotic idea to send my novel manuscript to my father for his opinion.
Well. I was young.
His unvarnished opinion hurt, a lot. Not that my father wasn't nice -- he was -- but just that he pointed out all the places where I was falling short. I was reduced to tears. I curled up in bed sobbing, and all I could think about was how terrible my writing was, how my novel had been rejected countless times and would never improve. You get the picture.
When, soaked with tears, I asked my spouse what he thought, he looked at me in confusion.
"But don't you write because you love it?"
I think I threw a pillow at him and stormed back into the room to cry some more.
But over the years, I've realized that yes, my dearly beloved was right. I do write because I love it. I can't imagine not writing. My only tattoo is a reminder to myself that no matter where my writing goes, I am still a writer.
Still, it can be hard to remember how much we love the writing itself, for itself, when we're caught up in the drama of trying to find an agent, sell a book, get on a best-seller list, win an award, or whatever. (Or trying to get into Pitch Wars!)
So I thought I'd share some ideas for how to keep in touch with the core of your love for writing. Sure, it's fine to enjoy the thrill of chasing the dream. But I'm learning that the more I focus on the delight I find in the writing, and the less I stress about the auxiliaries, the more content I am. (I've written more about that tension between publishing dreams and personal happiness here and here. It's kind of a passion of mine.)
Some ways to find and hang onto your love of writing:
- Focus on the process. What do you love most about the act of writing? Is it the fugue state you fall into when you're building a new world? Is it the opportunity to learn new things when you're researching a story? I use my historical fiction writing as a prod to explore aspects of humanity I might not wander into otherwise, like reading Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy because I wanted him to have a cameo in my novel about 17th century Holland.
- Be proud of what you've learned. Whether it's the concrete facts that you've picked up through your research ("the Spanish Civil War started in 1936") or the insight you've gained about humanity (people doing bad things rarely see themselves as the villains) or simply the craft progress you've made -- revel in it. Be proud of how you're using writing to grow as a human. And emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth are arguably the true meanings of life. (Not publishing deals!)
- Embrace the challenge. In the same vein, look at how you put your nose to the grinding stone to address whatever challenge faces you. From the difficulty of churning out enough words to combine into a "novel" to the feat of shaping those sentences into a narrative to maybe just learning how to spell better, you're like an athlete, working to improve. That's pretty awesome.
- Separate your dreams from your actions. It would be nice, of course, to be a best-selling novelist. I'd love it for me and for you. But we can't control that. I really want to earn enough from my writing to be able to quit my day job in a few years so I can be home when the kids get out of school. That's a burden, however, that I can't place on the writing itself. There is too much chance and luck and talent, all things I can't control, factoring into that particular future. So I pluck the dreaming out, admire that dream, and set it apart from the actual writing.
- Ask for a compliment when you need one. Everyone has their low moments, and we don't need to walk alone. It's ok to occasionally ask a friend or a critique partner for something nice. Since you don't want to do that all the time, take that compliment and file it away. Maybe you're good at description. Maybe it was just one particular sentence that was beautiful. Treasure the praise that you get.
- Give your writing as a gift. This isn't my idea, it's Ann Lamott's in her fantastic Bird by Bird. (Read it, if you haven't!) She suggests writing a story or a poem or essay for a loved one. If you write something truly personal and heartfelt, it will be appreciated. And even if, like with most gifts, the gifter feels more gratified than the receiver, that's ok. You'll get pleasure out of it. The last Christmas of my father-in-law's life, I gave him a story about my relationship with him, and I'm so glad I did.
- Keep a private journal. If you're having trouble conceiving of your writing as anything other than destined for massive readership and fame, try crafting something that is purely for you. Write a journal that you never, ever intend to share with another person. Not your spouse, not your child. Consecrate your intention for privacy by writing something deeply embarrassing or private in the journal. Digging that deep might prove beneficial to your writing too -- but ultimately, learning to write for yourself and you alone is the true reward.
- Take a break. If you're getting too caught up in anxiety about publishing or not writing as well as you want, step back. Read some wonderful books. Feel the drive to write build up. If that urge doesn't manifest itself ... continue to take a break. When you need to write again, the words and the stories will make themselves known, and you won't have a choice.
Do you have any other tips? I'd be glad to learn of them here or on Twitter.