A Post about Negativity and Writing

I received a lovely comment from Beatrice (hi Beatrice!) asking for some writing advice / general thoughts about the process of being a writer.

Beatrice writes:

How often do you work, how often do you write? I find it hard to work a job and also find the time to write.

This is a doozy of a question! I work about 40+ hours a week, including my actual time working shifts at the coffee shop, and then whatever things I have to do outside of my shifts (e.g. do sales tax, go to the bank, pick up supplies, manage crises–of which there are a lot!–and do upkeep on my relationship with vendors and the like).

In regards to writing, I haven’t done a whole lot since taking over the coffee shop three years ago. My goal is 30 minutes a day, usually before I go to the gym after my shift ends at 2:30 PM. Lately, though, most of those 30 minutes have been devoted to trying to figure out a print version of STAR-CROSSED, re-reading parts of my next novel ENCHIRIDION, or submitting some old short stories to literary mags. I count all of this as ‘writing,’ though, because it’s all part of the process that contributes to my career as an author.

But, my advice is: start off slow! If 30 minutes a day sounds like too much, then do 10 or even five! Even thinking about a story you’d like to write while you’re showering or doing the dishes counts as drafting or planning, which is, to me, an important step in my writing process. Got a few moments at work? Plan out what happens next, or do a quick character sketch or plan out an environment. Even a few moments a day just thinking about writing can help, once you finally put pen to paper.

You’ll be surprised how, once you make a habit of it, how easier it is to build that writing muscle and go for 45 minutes, maybe even an hour.

(Back when I was writing almost full time, three years ago, I remember spending one Tuesday afternoon writing for six hours, just like a real job! Now, that would be pretty impossible, but I’m working on getting my writing stamina back up. Just like riding a bike or playing tennis, writing is an exercise that you have to repeat over and over until it’s basically just routine.)

And if you’re struggling to sit down and write, it happens to the best of us! There are days where I seriously plop down in front of my computer and stick my tongue out and stare at a blank, blinking cursor for twenty minutes and then give up. Where it becomes most difficult is not actually giving up, and instead, making yourself go for just a little longer, even if what you produce (or don’t produce) is utter crap. Just feel accomplished for what you DID do, and promise to do better.

(I recently started running and the similarities between the two is astounding. A few months ago I couldn’t even run for 4.5 MPH for half an hour, but now I’m already running faster and for longer. It just takes patience and commitment.)

Beatrice continues:

How do you deal with those who believe writing is “easy” and “everyone can do it”? I’ve encountered those people a lot; they view me as a narcissist or egotistical because I have the “gall” to call myself a writer when I haven’t been published yet.

First of all: shut down those haters. Even if one of them is inside of your own head. You have every right to call yourself a writer, even if you haven’t been published, even if you never will be published (which I doubt will be the case–persistence!). The most important thing is to call yourself whatever you want (in this case, a writer!) because you gotta dress for the job you want, not the job you have. In this case, the dress is your mental picture of yourself, but the same rules apply.

I, too, before I got published, felt weird calling myself an author, but one day, someone asked what I did for a living as part of a small chat and I just blurted it out: “I’m a writer!” Didn’t matter that only my friends and mom had read my stuff (hi mom!), and it didn’t matter that I had only been writing a weird sort of teenage angst vampire novel, I said it and truly believed it and have never looked back.

In regards to the fact that ‘writing is easy,’ I would say it never has been for me. I struggle to write every single word in every single sentence I’ve ever composed. I ache for the right words and I reach and grasp and barely get finished, just to start over again in the next paragraph. And then the next. Until, finally, hundreds of thousands of words later, TA DA! I have something.

But that’s just me. Maybe for some people it IS easy, but that doesn’t mean that their work is better than mine or that mine is better because I slave over it. It just means we have different processes. And even for me, sometimes it is easy. I can sit down, and, in what seems to be seconds, look at the clock and realize it’s already been three hours and I’ve gotten down 2,000 words. But most of the time, it’s not. You just have to find a pace that feels right to you and most importantly: NEVER GIVE UP.

Which leads to:

So my last question is, can you do a blog post on what has and hasn’t worked for you as a writer? Not just writing but mentality wise too (like letting go of negative thoughts etc.)

There is a thing (and it’s totally a real thing) called Impostor Syndrome, where a person, no matter how successful or how accomplished they are, feels like they’re not good enough or that they’ll never amount to anything. Pretty much every author or artist or engineer or doctor I’ve talked to has suffered through this at one point or another. It’s the inability to internalize accomplishments, which leaves you feeling like you’ll never be good enough, even contrary to concrete proof.

Case in point: when I got my first short story published, I thought it was a fluke. “Well, they only wanted it because they’re a fledging magazine and they were desperate,” I thought. When my second one happened it was, “Well, I knew the editor.” When the third and fourth came around, it was, “Well, they’re already familiar with my work and they didn’t have the heart to tell me no, even though they didn’t REALLY like my story.”

I still, hard-core, rationalize that all of my accomplishments weren’t really because of me, but because of dumb luck or nepotism or something equally implausible. I have a hard time sitting myself down and saying, “No, it’s because they actually like your work and they want to share it with others.” But, slowly, I have been working in banishing thoughts like that and not simply because more stories are getting published, but because I am becoming more confident in my skills and, not only that, but realizing that there are people out there who simply won’t like my work, just because.

And that’s fine! Once you realize you can’t please everybody, you lose some of that fear that makes it impossible to recognize your own talent. I sort of have this mentality that when I get my first negative review of my novel, it’ll be like an ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: Someone who doesn’t have my ego in mind read my work and is offering me a different perspective.

So, I look at it as an opportunity to find any weaknesses in my own writing and then change, or, simply shrug and think that, “steampunk zombie comedies just aren’t for everyone.” Which, they aren’t. And that’s okay.

I think the key is to embrace that aspect of fearlessness and be confident that your best is your best right now and not everyone will like it. Some people might even hate it, but there’s nothing you can do except to NEVER GIVE UP and trudge along. See it as a point to take any criticism and improve or to simply ignore. All you can control is your reaction; you cannot control what other people say or think, nor should you.

My last piece of advice is this: write write write write. Write until your fingers are sore. Write until your pen runs out of ink or your computer loses all of its juice. Even if what you think sucks is what you’re writing, continue to write it. I promise that a few weeks later you’ll look over it and think, “Oh, that’s not so bad after all!” The worst thing to do is to stop and allow other people or your own head to think that you should quit while you’re ahead because then the haters have won, and they’ve stopped you from doing something that obviously you need and want to do.

You’re only as good as the last thing you’ve written. And I know that seems tough and like you’ll never get there. (I just finished my first novel and am thinking, “WHAT? You want me to do that AGAIN?” But I know I need to.) But just 10 minutes a day and eventually, you’ll have a spectacular piece that you can be proud of and show to the world (or just keep it to yourself!) What matters is what you derive out of writing and how it can make your life better. Writing, though you should treat it like a job, should never FEEL like a job.

Good luck, Beatrice! Thank you so much for the thoughtful response. I really appreciate your input and your questions and am humbled that you were brave enough to ask.

(My last point in this novel, I promise. If you want to know more about Impostor Syndrome and how it affects artistry, I highly recommend Amanda Palmer’s THE ART OF ASKING. She is far more eloquent on the subject and has more advice to tackling being a woman in an artistic industry and how to deal with the life/work/writing balance.)