A Writer’s Vulnerability and Discouragement

How often do you unmask? Bare your soul in public? (This is me as an introverted writer asking.)

If you happen to follow the writings of Steven Pressfield you will know that he and his community are currently responding to a writer from Finland. “Katie”, at 4 a.m. after staring at the ceiling for some time, wrote him a raw message expressing her discouragement and saying that writing is a bad idea. “Failing is really hard, particularly when you are too tired to get up anymore.” She concluded with, “I hope I am the only loser. I really do. I want everybody to succeed. Maybe I am just a sad exception.”

No, Katie, you are not an exception! At least not as a discouraged writer. Perhaps an exception in your honesty.

Writers spew out words onto the page all the time, but they are most often words belonging to their fictional characters. We rarely “bleed onto the page” from within our own hearts. Admitting our uncertainties is too painful.

But at 4 a.m. Katie had hit rock bottom. In facing the reality that she could not make a living from her writing and at 60 she was too old to find another job, she concluded she was a failure. When Steven asked permission to reprint her letter he had no idea the number of people who would respond. In his next post he admitted, “Sometimes when I’m writing these posts, I wonder if I’m crazy to keep doing them. Some posts will get three Comments, or four, or six. I find myself asking, Is anybody out there? Is any of this doing any good?” Nearly one hundred fifty responses provided his answer.

So, what am I taking away from the discussion?

The writing community is awesome.
Discouragement is universal.
We’re more resilient than we realize.
We haven’t failed unless we’ve quit.
We can always start again tomorrow.
Success means different things to different people.
Age is a relative thing and I’m not the only “old” woman
still writing.

We’ve often heard that writing is a solitary activity. It is indeed. Some writers get together occasionally for a shared time of putting words on the page, but the majority of our creative time is spent squirrelled away in our office or some quiet corner in a library or coffee shop, oblivious to the presence of others. We focus on writing our stories. We don’t compare notes about our feelings of success or failure.

Katie from Finland did us all a favour in sharing her pain-filled yet very brave message. In doing so, she also reminded us it’s okay to reach out to others for encouragement. Knowing how many successful authors admit to the same need is in itself empowering.

We don’t have to make a living with our words. We just have to find joy and satisfaction in getting them out. Publication of them isn’t always something within our control. If it’s something we hope for, doing so should be seen as a bonus. Not doing so shouldn’t be seen as failure, but as motivation to find alternative ways of making our writing feel purposeful.

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Where do you look for encouragement when writing begins to seem pointless?

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Maybe I’m Writing; Maybe I’m Not

Success as a writer depends on many things. When I started writing fiction I didn’t think much about being successful. I just wrote. I wanted to create an interesting story in an imaginary setting. It took me years, but I completed that story, then revised it several times. In some ways it was a waste of time.

Despite all the revising, I knew it wasn’t a good story. It had fatal construction flaws. During those years I also began exploring authors’ blogs and writing sites. That’s when I realized I didn’t know how to write a novel, so I backed off the writing and began reading how-to books.

Since then I’ve written more novels. I’ve even sent off occasional queries and submissions, investigating the possibility of agent representation and publication. But I haven’t persevered. The reasons are vague — partly lack of confidence in the quality of my work, partly reluctance to share with a public audience what seems like a very private part of me.

To be a good writer I truly believe one has to be honest — willing to do what K.M. Weiland so aptly describes in her recent blog post:

“Creating is about sticking your fist down deep in your soul, ruthlessly clawing at whatever you can find, and then dragging it out to be shared in the shocking light of day.”

In the novels I’ve written, I haven’t been digging down far enough. I know I’m a private person, and that has me wondering if I can ever find what it will take to write with complete abandon and honesty.

Does that mean I’m thinking about quitting? No, I love writing too much; but my goals may be changing. Instead of writing fiction, I’ve been inserting other tasks into my free time, feeling the push to complete projects that have been sitting in a corner (literally) for years. One involves gathering bits and pieces of our family history together to finally create our family tree. I’m sure my advancing years play a part in this (I’m appalled at how quickly time passes!) but a dose of reality is redirecting my focus.

I’m interested in your feedback. If you’re a writer, has your writing journey moved ahead without interruptions? Has it ever changed directions? Am I wrong in taking my current approach?

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Musing

More than six years have passed since I wrote about a young man in our church (see ‘Supporting a Young Singer/Songwriter’s Dream‘) … about his talent and his dream. Johnathan Booy didn’t win the CBC competition that year, but he has made great strides towards achieving his dream.

In 2015 he graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Music, and then went on the next year to complete a Master’s Degree in Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games at Berklee College of Music, Valencia Campus in Spain.

On his website his Bio says,

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best musicians around the world, recording at amazing studios such as AIR Lyndhurst in London, Budapest Scoring Stage, and The Warehouse in Vancouver.”

He’s already made good progress on his journey and I have no doubt he will reach his goals. In the world of artistic endeavours he has what it takes — talent, desire, persistence, and a humble, faith-filled heart. His music always moves me. (He’s a source of inspiration to me, too, as I putz my way towards goals of my own, in writing and publication.)

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It’s also a particular joy that he has returned to BC just at the right time to once again fill a vacancy in our church. As of February 1st he has become our pianist, choral director and Director of Music. Haney Presbyterian Church is blessed!

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Writing Time vs Online Time (It’s all about balance)

I did say this post would be coming last ‘Friday’, didn’t I? Mmm, yes. This isn’t Friday, is it? Some bloggers might be inclined to say, “Oh, well, suck it up and let’s get on with it.” Personally, I wouldn’t think that was a polite way to respond. I’m more the apologetic type. “So sorry,” I’ll say. “Unavoidable interruptions. Sincere apologies.” Now suck it up and let’s carry on.

We writers sometimes need a jolt to unsettle our complacency. In my previous post I mentioned a comment from a book I’m currently reading by Jeff Goins. I went to his website for the URL to share with you, started reading his post and that’s where I got today’s jolt.

“…what do writers do? They write. There’s nothing mystical or magical about it — you just have to show up and commit to doing the work. Place butt in chair, fingers on keys, and start typing. And this, of course, is where most writers fail. They never actually write a word. They talk about writing, think about writing, even read about writing. But they do not write.”

I think that makes last week’s post even more appropriate. Not only is our “crazy social media platform maintenance” frenzy a form of stalling, the talking, thinking and reading about writing are all equally effective deterrents to any success.

It’s decision time. Time to make strategic choices that will provide the resources we need while allowing us to spend the majority of our time pursuing our creativity. So, what will those choices look like? Take a moment to…um, I’d say smell the roses, but it’s too early for them…so maybe just admire the snowdrops (they’re everywhere in my garden right now), then grab your notebook and start planning.

Winter Snowdrops

(Winter Snowdrops – Galanthus)

  • Restrict social media networks to the few that are the most useful

We agree: we can’t do it all. Ideally, the best networks will be the ones where we encounter people of similar interests, the sites where we will find the information that is most suited to our purpose or that will reach the most people who are likely to be interested in our product or subject matter. It isn’t necessary to constantly explore cyberspace. Once we’ve found them, settle on a select few sites.

I have a group of writing friends on Facebook in addition to my family, church and purebred dog connections, so next to my blog, that’s my network of preference. I check in on Twitter occasionally, but don’t spend much time there, I recently quit Google+, and I’ve avoided Pinterest entirely because I know it’s addictive.

My list of regularly visited blogs and websites have been whittled down considerably this year to include those of a handful of friends, fellow authors, and writing mentors, the Seekerville writing community, and a couple inspirational sites. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally visit some that are on my earlier lists, or go to places like Amazon and home-decorating sites, but they are no longer places to dally on a daily basis or let eat into my writing time.

  • Allot specific amounts of time to spend online

How long do we realistically need to check and respond to e-mail, to peruse a limited number of favourite blogs or websites, to do the research for a particular writing project? Determine that ahead of time and set a timer. Knowing it’s counting down should keep us more focused on our task and less inclined to dawdle. Once our ‘social’ time is over and we move on to the day’s work, I try to resist checking in online every few minutes. If it’s a writing day I might work for an hour and then allow myself a ten minute break to check for messages, get a Coke or a coffee, and carry on. Your daily tasks will be different from mine, depending on your day job, family responsibilities, and other commitments. How much time we allot to social media is up to us but we need to be disciplined, honest and realistic about how we ration it.

  • Include opportunities to ‘give back’ to the writing community

It’s easy for writers to become immersed in our fictional worlds and believe the online hype we try to create is all about us. It’s not. We relish the support and encouragement of those we look up to, those whose efforts have brought them success, and in turn we should be ready to offer what help we can to others. Whether it’s leaving comments of encouragement, interviewing newcomers on our blogs or offering book reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads, we can show appreciation by giving back, regardless of our level of expertise or inexperience.

  • Schedule time into the day for creative refuelling

Whatever our workday consists of, it’s important to make sure we carve out a niche for personal refreshment. (And that doesn’t mean to go blog-hopping!) Some of my favourite writing books aren’t actually on the craft itself, but on nurturing the writer within. Julia Cameron recommends artist’s dates — going for a walk, visiting an art gallery or museum, spending quiet time in an environment that is personally rejuvenating. It can be a whole afternoon, or just fifteen minutes. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s “me time”.

That’s about it. I’m not all that proficient when it comes to how I spend my online time, but I’m trying to be intentional about it. When I succeed, I’m surprised at how much more I get done in a day.

As for those links I promised, here’s a list in random order of some of the more helpful writing sites I particularly like (no, I don’t visit them everyday, and you’d better not, either!):

Writer UnboxedWriter’s Digest, Anne R. AllenK.M. Weiland, Jessica Morrell, Chip MacGregor, Rachelle GardnerJane Friedman, The Write Life, Seekerville, The Writer’s Alley, Write to Done, Story Fix: Larry Brooks, The Kill Zone (Hey, don’t raise your eyebrows; I write cozy mysteries!), Jeff Goins, Pub Rants, Molly Greene, Kirsten Lamb, Live-Write-Thrive: CS Lakin, Jody Hedlund, Agent Query, Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, The Passive Voice: The Lawyer Guy, American Christian Fiction Writers, The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, Writers Helping Writers, Absolute Write WaterCooler Forum, Bookends Literary Agency blogWriting World: Moira Allen (blog has concluded, but has sixteen years of archived articles). 

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Sleepers Begone!

 

Dogs

I bit the bullet today and deleted my Google+ account. It was a sleeper anyway — a place I rarely visited. My blog posts from here were set to automatically show up there as well as on Facebook, but when I chose where to spend my social media time, apart from here, Facebook usually won out, despite some of its features that annoy me.

Every time I checked my Gmail messages I would find some ‘interesting’ yet unknown-to-me man had added me to his Google+ circle. Today it was another military guy supposedly from Iraq. I’m supportive of our military, but don’t appreciate stalkers of any ilk.

Sleeping accounts are risky. Without monitoring, I don’t remember to change passwords, and that’s a security hazard. I don’t see inappropriate comments and spam. It truly is a situation where, excuse the cliche, one shouldn’t ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. Right! So, after considering its lack of usefulness to me, and without a twinge of guilt, I deleted the account.

I spend most of my online time here. Second on the list is Facebook, because that’s where most of my online friends hang out. A distant third is Twitter. I don’t find Twitter conversations particularly satisfying, but I do check my account regularly, albeit not often, because I believe visibility there is a useful tool for writers. But I no longer have to worry about who’s tiptoeing around me on Google+.

No more sleeping dogs! C’mon, guys! On your feet! It’s time for some activity. Let’s go for a walk.

~

Where do you spend the majority of your online time? Do you ‘post and run’, or do you stick around for meaningful conversations? How useful is social media to you?

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Reading for writers

I hear it all the time. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. It’s logical, but apparently not considered necessary by some aspiring authors. I’m not sure how a person can know how to write or what is worthwhile to be written if they don’t read extensively. But what should we read, and what’s considered extensive?

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I included the above photo in a 2011 post, displaying how-to books from my bookshelves on the topic of writing. Did reading them make me a better writer? A successful writer? I don’t think so. I learned what other people said I needed to know and do. Trying to apply what I learned — trying repeatedly — has been a step in the right direction, but it’s hard work, and I still have a long way to go.

More than craft books about writing, what’s important to read is well written narrative by successful authors … in any genre, but especially in the one we are trying to write. We need to be able to recognize good writing before we can hope to produce it.

Reading isn’t an option for writers, it’s a requirement; and it isn’t an either/or thing. If you read at the expense of actually writing, you’ll defeat yourself before you start. You don’t have time to do both, you say. Make time. Yes, I know it’s hard, but nobody promised being a writer would be easy.

An article on Hugh C. Howey’s blog earlier this week talked about the dream of becoming a professional writer. In “So You Want to be a Writer“, he suggested the goal is attainable — that a lifestyle of “sitting in your underwear, hearing voices, talking to people who are not there, mumbling to yourself, Googling how to dispose of bodies and the firing rate of an uzi submachine gun” can be achieved, provided we’re willing to do certain things.

There are ten points Howey offers as priorities we need to consider if we want to be successful at writing, and perhaps make a living at it. I wish I could reproduce the whole article here — it’s that good — but, of course, I can’t. Here’s an excerpt:

“…here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period.

“Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.

“Let me tell you about my luck. I was lucky in that I started writing when a whole lot of people were working a whole let less. The amount of effort required to make it as a writer today is in some ways greater, even as the tools of access have lowered the barriers to entry. Yes, barriers are down. And yes, the castle courtyard is now more crowded. So you’ve got to do more than your neighbor. [Below], I’ve ranked the priorities I believe you should have and how to approach them. Anyone who follows this list has a great chance of making a living as a writer. I don’t say this as someone who saw it work for me; I say this as someone who has studied the hell out of this industry and profession, who has taken a very large sample of those trying to make it and those who are making it, and finding out what the latter group has in common and what separates them from the former.”

The rest of the article contains the other nine priorities, and I highly recommend you click over — here — to read the rest. I’m going back to read it again myself. I think it should be compulsory reading for all aspiring authors.

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What’s your philosophy about writers and reading? What have you read lately that is helping to make you a better writer?

~  ~  ~

Is it Discipline or Discouragement?

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When used correctly, crates and exercise pens are very handy tools for dog training. Like a child’s playpen, they can be overused, or used for the wrong reasons, but they are invaluable when it comes to having a safe place to contain a puppy and avoid the havoc he could wreak when left untended.

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Yes, he’d rather be outside romping with the children, tromping unfettered through the gardens, or chasing birds through the meadow and scampering down the driveway to the road, but for his safety and my sanity he can’t be allowed that kind of freedom.

As wistful as he may look in these photos, he doesn’t spend all of his confinement grumbling about it.

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He snoozes, plays, and observes what’s going on — and dances with anticipation when one of us approaches with his leash. That means there’s a training time coming, complete with praise and snacks, and followed by a walk with opportunities for lots of exploration. It’s all part of the discipline associated with a puppy’s education (and in the early stages, of housebreaking).

I was writing a short story the afternoon I stopped to take these inside photos of our new puppy. When I later reviewed one of the shots, his expression seemed like one of reprimand. “How come you won’t take me outside if you’re not really working?”

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Why was I so easily distracted? Was it lack of discipline or something else? I have to admit it was more a matter of discouragement. I have three pieces to write this summer, each with a deadline. The one with the closest deadline is for a contest I enter every year, and it’s giving me the most trouble.

I’ve had a breakthrough, though. I recalled the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein — that it’s doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. While my early entries in this particular contest were shortlisted a few times, they never won, and more recently they haven’t caught anyone’s attention. The same two people have been judging the fiction category every year for more than a decade, and I’ve realized that if they haven’t rewarded my writing before, it’s probably ‘insane’ to think they ever will. The contest is sponsored by a very reputable group and there’s great prize money, but no feedback is provided, no critique. You either win, or you don’t. I don’t, and I’ve finally concluded I’m wasting my time, energy and entry fees!

The revelation is freeing. I finished a different article and submitted it today, well ahead of when I’d planned. The remaining one is drafted and I have a month to work on its edits. I have time to go romp with the dog! Woo hoo! So much for my self-discipline. 🙂

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How do you view writing contests? Do you enter many? Have you ever won?

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Uncluttered

This graphic always makes me smile. While it’s meant to be funny, there’s a kernel of truth tucked within. Einstein Cluttered Desk Clutter drives me nuts! A temporary, working mess doesn’t count, but the kind that builds slowly, insidiously, sneaking into places where it should never be–? I hate it!

Our master bedroom closet and my office are two offending locations right now. The closet is just plain overcrowded, while the office qualifies as cluttered. It’s important to make the distinction because overcrowding can be frustrating, but clutter is mind-warping. Granted, both are first world problems … an embarrassment of overabundance that should fill me with guilt for having what much of the world does not.

What it does, however, is immobilize me. In my office, creativity is at a standstill. I can neither write, nor push myself to do something about the clutter that is to blame, so I escape with my laptop to the family room. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’, right? Not totally, but it helps.

The closet is harder to ignore. It’s a mid-sized walk-in under the guise of being an all-season storage locker. If it were smaller, I’d do what one of my daughters does, and every few months sort off-season clothing into a bin and put it in the basement. But because our closet gives the illusion of being generous, my hubby and I keep our entire wardrobes in it. As a result, the rods and shelf space allotted to me are woefully inadequate, everything is squashed together and I can never find what I’m looking for!

(This is embarrassing, but it's all for the sake of honesty. I yanked a T-shirt out of the pile and it toppled.)

(This is embarrassing, but it’s all for the sake of honesty. I yanked a T-shirt out of the pile and it toppled.)

Closet-1 I need to clarify that I am not a shopper. Some of my most frequently worn clothes are ones I’ve had for more than twenty-five years. I own about six pairs of shoes, but wear the same ones almost every day. I’m not an hoarder, either, although perhaps I qualify as a keeper-of-things-I-like.

That’s why a recent Facebook post caught my attention. A friend talked of “creating a minimalist capsule wardrobe”. She advocates “paring down your closet to include only the clothes you love and really enjoy wearing. (And the ones that fit…not that you hope will fit in 2 months.)” Her inspiration came from the Un-fancy blog.

Now that our kitchen’s mini-reno is complete, I’m ready to embark on a new project. I’m not likely to go out and shop for anything to create a new ‘capsule wardrobe’, but I feel inspired to do some paring down. When I pack a suitcase my criteria is always comfort, coordination, condition and ease of care, and I see those as a good goal for my closet clearing.

A tidy closet won’t contribute anything towards my writing, and whether or not this exercise will inspire me to tackle the office clutter is yet to be seen. I’ll let you know.

Do I dare ask you to describe the condition of your closet and/or desk? Are you one who produces best in a distraction-free, pristine environment, or while nested within the comfort of familiar clutter?

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Inukshuk: You’re On the Right Path (Reprise)

I hope you won’t mind a reprise from my 2010 archives.

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They crop up in unexpected places – stacks of rough stones called inuksuit. They are Inuit symbols representing ancestors who learned to survive on the land.  In a harsh and unknown landscape sighting a familiar inukshuk (the singular of inuksuit) means,  “You are on the right path.” An inukshuk with arms pointing in a specific direction may indicate a safe navigation channel or mountain passage. Without arms it would likely mark the location of a food cache.

This one was on the northeastern shore of Howe Sound, and I wondered at its significance. Situated on the driftwood-strewn beach below well-kept gardens skirting the condominiums of Furry Creek, it apparently pointed in the direction of Woodfibre, a dismantled pulp mill community at the head of the Sound.  Fascinated, I took several photos on the way past, and more on the way back. Later in the day I realized my attraction was not so much to the figure but to its message. Like the inukshuk itself, what I took away was symbolic: You’re on the right path.

So is there anything to be learned from all this? For me it’s a reminder that with an appreciative heart and inquisitive attitude I can find encouragement for the journey all around me. God is good. 🙂

Have you had any epiphanies lately about the significance of unexpected encounters?

~

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
[Proverbs 3:13-15]

A Writer’s New Year

The last candle on the Advent wreath has been lit. We’re half way through the Twelve Days of Christmas and coming face-to-face with the New Year.

There are so many bloggers posting about New Year’s resolutions that I hesitate to even mention the subject. Every year I tell you that I don’t make resolutions because I can’t face the idea of setting myself up for failure.

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But the year is almost over. This is my last post of 2014, and it feels like I should be sharing something of significance, especially since this is also my 965th post since I began here six years ago. 965!!! The trouble is, six years of blogging hasn’t necessarily been the valuable learning experience I expected.

It’s given me lots of practice, but amassing quantities of words doesn’t produce quality writing any more than long hours practising an incorrect tune on the piano produces the perfect song. Repetition simply reinforces a habit, bad or good.

During Sunday’s sermon it did my heart good to hear my son-in-law say he likes Mondays because no matter how badly he might have ‘screwed up’ the week before, Monday provides a clean slate, an opportunity for a fresh start.

You’ve heard me say many times how much I like Mondays, too, and I like the New Year for some of the same reasons. I don’t have to make a fresh start, but the opportunity is there. Of course, before the desire to do so takes hold, evaluating the status quo has to happen. That’s what the year end is for.

As writers, how do we evaluate the status quo?

  • Has our life changed for the better? Each of us will have various standards against which we measure our progress, improvement, or achievement. In each case, however, forward momentum is desirable. If we’re still in the same place we were at this time last year, still going through the same motions and offering the same explanations and excuses, we’re likely stagnating.
  • Are we satisfied/content with what we’re doing? Success can mean different things to different people. While some of us might daydream about a lucrative publishing contract, even if that were possible, the reality is that few are ambitious enough to put in the required effort. And that’s okay. Just because a person loves to write doesn’t mean being on a best sellers’ list has to be the destination. There are many outlets for creative writing, from composing letters of encouragement to shut-ins, to creating online devotionals or how-to articles. Discovering our niche and taking pleasure in it is a worthwhile achievement.
  • If a published book is our goal, are we taking appropriate steps to make it happen? Have we studied the craft of writing and what the constantly-changing publishing industry requires? Are we writing regularly, finishing what we start, getting our work critiqued and/or edited, researching and querying effectively, building a platform? Or are we only online, reading blogs, talking about writing and enjoying the social media experience? (Hey, I’m happy you’re here, but I know how easy it is to hop from one site to another and get nothing else done.) 

As writers, how should we move into the coming year?

  • Understand what’s needed to achieve desires and goals. If we’re already under contract, there are expectations and guidelines. Some will have specific edit deadlines. We need to have a realistic understanding of how many words we can produce or revise in a day or week, and the working conditions we require to meet those deadlines. Idealizing isn’t our friend. We need to know our abilities and limitations.
  • Stop procrastinating. A writer’s worst nightmare is procrastination. Yes, some of us work faster when we’re under pressure, but the resulting stress and long hours of work can make us crazy. (People think we’re a little crazy to begin with, but we don’t need to fuel their delusion.) If we’re waiting to finish a character sketch, or complete some research before we start writing, we may never get beyond that stage. We have to push out of the rut and get going… get the first draft done. There will be time later to revise and develop the story, but there’s nothing to edit on a blank page.
  • Become a list-maker. Don’t indulge in vague goals. Itemize specific plans on paper, put the list in a visible place, and check off tasks as they are accomplished. Seeing the results materialize will help boost our morale and fuel our drive to do more.

Notice how I haven’t mentioned ‘resolutions’? They don’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to move ahead with my writing goals. Desire and intent are great motivators as long as they’re combined with action. 

What’s one thing you want/plan to achieve in 2015?

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“Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.”

[Don Marquis]

~

“Turning pro is a mindset.
If we are struggling with fear, self-sabotage,
procrastination, self-doubt, etc.,
the problem is,
we’re thinking like amateurs.
Amateurs don’t show up.
Amateurs crap out.
Amateurs let adversity defeat them.
The pro thinks differently.
He shows up, he does his work,
he keeps on truckin’, no matter what.”

[Steven Pressfield]

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