In our previous blog, Ten Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, we talked about the unfortunate fact that many of us have more unfinished writing projects than we do finished ones. However, in the words of one writing instructor, the big problems that writers face are actually few in number and are quite solvable. Since this often doesn't feel true to us at all, what else might be going on?
In this blog series, we'll cover steps of writing to lay down a roadmap, though these particular steps certainly aren't all-encompassing. The steps we cover aren't necessarily new either, but our perspective on them can be.
Here's the 10-step tour:
Now let's take a look at Step #1.
While a consistent writing schedule is important, and we'll get to that later, it is valuable to consider important internal processes that precede any discussion of writing ideas, writing schedules or the act of pen-to-paper (or fingers-to-keys). This is why I refer to Step #1 as "having a little faith" because what we bring to the writing table has the power to make or break our future writing aspirations. For this reason, I should probably also expand the motto to: "Have a little faith and listen to a little reason."
Example: Learning MMA
Let me back up a moment, though, and approach this from a different angle. Let's say that Robin has made the decision to learn martial arts and, for the sake of discussion, let's say she decided to take a class in MMA (mixed martial arts). If Robin is looking for a Dojo on the internet with the intent of enrolling and paying for the class, this means she's already worked through three things: 1) the need and reason for wanting to take MMA; 2) faith in herself that MMA is something she can accomplish, even if it is really, really hard; and 3) a commitment to take the class as evident by signing up and paying for the class. Showing up and sticking with it are different steps entirely, of course, but we'll discuss this later on.
In reference to our 10-step process above, this means Robin has already sailed through Step #1 because she's demonstrated a belief in her ability to learn MMA, Step #2 because she's made plans as to how to accomplish learning MMA, and at least some of Step #3 because she's narrowed her focus to MMA rather than Kung-Fu, Karate or any other form of martial arts.
So, Robin is now all set to go to her MMA class next week and she's even excited (and nervous) about it. What would happen, though, if before attending her first MMA class she start wondering if she would ever be any good at MMA? She starts worrying and goes online to watch sparing classes featuring MMA students. Seeing how skilled some of them are, which is intimidating, she starts having serious self-doubts, leading Robin to draw the conclusion that she'd probably never be as good as those student and Robin gives up on the idea entirely. As a result, she counted herself out before even making any attempt. This also means that Robin judged herself unworthy of the task before she ever started. What's worse is that she judged yourself on an imagined future outcome, not one based on real experience, effort or the possibility of incremental improvement.
The same would hold true if Robin attended a few classes, but because she was constantly comparing herself to more advanced students, she arrived at the same false conclusion that she would never be up to the task. To add insult to injury, what if she also thought one of the advanced students was looking down on her and believed that he was laughing at her behind her back? Well, Robin would likely leave the Dojo with a smoldering since of shame, would she not? Perhaps she would never return again. The really sad aspect of this outcome is that all of her fears may well have been totally unfounded. Yet, she'll never learn what was her true potential.
The only 100% guarantee of failure is not to even try. No matter how slim our odds of success may be, we at least have a chance if we make the effort! Even more of a chance if we don't give up!
Why is Writing Harder Than Other Hard Things?
The funny thing is that we can much more easily make a commitment to doing other really hard things, such as taking a college course, learning MMA, or moving across the country for a new job, while finishing our writing project too easily falls by the wayside. Why? As discussed in our previous blogs, Overcoming Your Writing Fears and Embracing Creative Angst, much of this has to do with how we perceive the writing process and ourselves as writers as well as the unfair judgments we are making (typically based on fear rather than fact).
Why Comparison Are Unfair and Unhelpful
In truth, the comparison between ourself (i.e., a novice) and an advanced student (i.e., an expert) is in no way fair or realistic! Not only that, it is grossly unhelpful because such comparisons only evoke a false since of shame in our imagined future lack of ability. And on an even deeper level, what does our novice state in MMA, for example, even mean? Does being a novice indicate a lack of ability or a lack of training? The latter, of course, which says nothing about what we can or will accomplish if we keep training because this is a future outcome that we cannot know ahead of time.
The same holds true for writing! We are constantly comparing ourselves to our favorite authors or other writers whom we admire and only seeing our flaws by comparison. First of all, we are each our own person and unlike anyone else on the planet so a comparison of our writing to another person's writing is like comparing apples to rocks (you thought I'd say oranges, didn't you?).
Secondly, it's ridiculous for us to compare ourselves to more advanced writers. Do we have any idea what it took for them to get to where they are, how long they toiled, how many rejections they received, how many books went in the trash before they experienced success or how many years they've been at it? Of course we don't know this because we can't. All we see is their success, as if this happened overnight and with little effort! Noooooooo!
Mistaking Who We Are Now for Who We Will Be in the Future
We too often cast our dreams aside in favor of claiming our current state (e.g., as a novice) as the permanent state of our future. Here's the kicker: such assumptions will be absolutely true if we quit now! And what exactly is this riptide of an undertow? Why, Mr. Resistance of course (must read: The War of Art). Resistance will tell us he's trying to spare us the shame, embarrassment and pain by keeping us from stretching our wings. After all, we might crash and then how would we feel? Bah! One of the most important tasks as a creative is to constantly be aware of the wooing voice of Mr. Resistance and run the other way, straight into the arms of our project, intent on getting it off the ground even in the face of gale-force prevailing winds!
Using Our Why as an Anchor
Have you made the decision to write, no matter what, no matter how hard it gets? Have you made the decision that you can learn the skills you need, no matter how absent they are in your current tool box? Have you explored your why for writing to give yourself a firm anchor? For example, if your why is something like, "I write because I want to be a best-selling author," then you're likely headed for a nose-dive off the nearest cliff because this is an outcome, not a personal why. Even more deadly is the habit of basing your why on outcomes over which you have no real control. For example, you could write a best-selling quality novel but the market not be ready for it yet or you have difficulty connecting with the right agent/publisher who can see its value.
Your why will hold you steady even while any particular outcome is an unknown, unknowable event in the future. Well, I take that back, you can know for sure that you'll never be a best-selling author if you don't write, write consistently, study to improve your craft...and keep writing! That aside, personal why's will be things like, “I write because I cannot help but write and I’m unhappy if I don’t” or “I write because I want to inspire/encourage others,” or “I write because I need to write about my passion,” etc. The reason that strong, personal why's are so important is that it means we can cling fervently to them even in the midst of rejection, negative outcomes or difficult markets.
For me personally, I write because I simply have to write. The creative force inside me demands a release. Do I want publishing success and good sales? Of course, but this is not my deeply held why. The desire to create and enjoy the journey of my characters, to strengthen my craft, to share the writing world with other writers, to make a statement about something I hold dear that may inspire and encourage other people...all these things keep me writing no matter what circumstances I'm facing.
Our Commitment to Write is a Decision, Not a Feeling
Remember that the commitment to write is a decision, not a feeling or a hope. It is based on the here-and-now, not what we want to happen in the future. Our writing must be firmly anchored in our personal why to keep us steady. Awareness of our current skill level and dedication to improving our skills is always an important focus. We would not ask or expect a five-year-old to build a skyscraper any more than we'd ask a beginning or mid-level writer to turn out a masterpiece. Mastery takes time and effort no matter the raw talent involved.
How can we know this about every other skills-based activity in life and not know this about writing? No one expects us to be a tennis pro the first time we pick up a racket. It's true, we might not be prepared for just how terrible we are as a novice, but only the delusional person would expect to be a pro on their first try. It's the same for writing!
Our greatest task is not in unfairly comparing ourselves to other successful writers (or at least more successful than we are), because this simply means they've worked through more steps than we have. It does not mean we cannot accomplish the same level of skill with time, practice and study of the craft. We can only compare our current self with our former self, as this is the only fair comparison. While we can have aspirations to be as successful as other writers, aspiring to be like another writer means abandoning our own unique profile in favor of being another person's shadow.
Have a Little Faith
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, writing takes having a little faith. And in this instance, faith doesn't have to be blind. Faith in ourselves is based as much on what we've already accomplished as what we hope to accomplish in the future. We want to write for a reason. Something compels us forward and won't let us go. Let's dig into that, explore it, finds its contours and edges and fully embrace this compelling force as our guiding light.
You can do this. I can do this. Let's do it together!
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