Here is my presentation in a modified, blog-friendly format. Hopefully it encourages someone.
I have the privilege of speaking to you today about something I think goes painfully untreated in the course of our careers. If you’ve already had a look at the projection screen behind me, the topic has been spoiled for you. You can slip from the room judgement-free for the next thirty seconds. They’re talking about real writing next door, but don’t let that influence you. If you choose to stay, just a reminder that profanity is frowned upon in the comments section of your speaker evaluation forms.
Being positive and staying positive. On the list of things we manage each day when it comes to our careers, this is a footnote. And truly, it should be number one, our defensive perimeter. Being a positivity advocate on the regular, I take some Mary Sunshine lumps now and then. I can promise you my soul was once black and over-steeped. I also wrote more slowly, panicked constantly, and quit writing forever about twelve times a day. If you have aims of being a serious career-author, this is not your ideal lifestyle. I practice what I preach, what I’m about to preach to you, so any lumps I do take are joyfully received. Except Julie’s.
First let’s talk about what positivity looks like. Despite what motivational posters and social media influencers peddle, positivity is not the same as happiness. Being positive isn’t sugarcoating, it isn’t smiling when you’re absolutely gutted. These are superficial coping mechanisms. Positivity comes from a much deeper place. We don’t put it on and take it off. If anything, it’s perseverance.
At the beginning of the year I reread Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. If you’ve never picked it up and you choose to read one book this year for your craft, I’d recommend it over any technical manual.
Natalie is quite Zen, in the literal sense. She was raised in a Jewish family and adopted the Zen lifestyle as an adult, and her writing illustrates perfectly how this way of being, this quiet positivity, can work in tandem with any, or no, belief system. It can work regardless of who you are.
Like some of my closest colleagues in the audience today, I am not Zen, not by nature. This made Writing Down the Bones a struggle my first time through. I didn’t want to sit still and feel the shape of water. I wanted to have opinions, and a temper, and passions and always be unraveling a little. Not being volatile felt like the worst. That wasn’t the point of her message, though, and it took early-twenties me a while to figure that out. She was really preaching positivity, an open acceptance of what we can’t control paired with an unshakeable belief that we will reach our goals no matter what.
Bones was billed to me by a college professor as a writing guide and it is, but not Strunk & White style. If you expect this, like me you’ll toss it down around four chapters in and use it as a coaster for a few weeks until in a panic you realize you have nothing to read for tomorrow’s flight. You’ll be forced into a literary hostage situation and eighteen hours later, reeking of defeated pride, mini shots, and international travel, close the book admitting it was great and you were wrong. Just skip to the end of this painful timeline.
Key words, demographics, reader trends, story structure; so much of writing, publishing, and marketing is technical, structured. But writing life isn’t. It’s not architecture or math where you just do grades and angles and formulas, and two plus two equals four, and if it doesn’t your whole life is in ruins because you’ve made a huge mistake. You have to get okay with this, get fluid about your writing career, or make peace with being miserable and dissatisfied. Tide goes out, tide comes in. You can’t wrestle this fact into a different shape. You can try but I don’t recommend it. Put down your T-square and learn some sculpture. You’ll be happier.
We don’t like to be Zen, us authors, in general. Prickly, critical. Day-drinking. Parolees. We don’t like to be self-helped, and often with good reason. Hemingway and Poe, post-therapy, might have been perfectly lovely people but God, what bores. I wouldn’t read them. We have to protect that dark little spark inside that makes the magic happen, but equally we have to protect the conduit for getting it out. Sorry to my junior high poetry teacher and all of you in the audience but no, it’s not your heart that gets it out; it’s your brain. Heartbreak has written some of the most profound, moving works in human history. Anxiety and writer’s block…not so much. The human brain cannot exist in a state of uncertainty. It has to find equilibrium, even if that requires believing something patently untrue. Our hearts get big billing, but we know who really comes first in the contest of feelings and reason. If you can’t think, your feelings sit in the dead-letter box, molding.
But there is so much to worry about! Being an author is like living in the outlet mall of anxiety. What if I never start my book? What if I never finish? Okay, I can finish, but I can’t follow it up. Well, I can follow up but I can’t see the bottom of my idea-well and I’m pretty sure it’s 1932 and this is Kansas and there are cattle skeletons littering the cracked mud below. Pretty soon you’re sitting in the anxiety-mall food court, covered in tears and nacho cheese, wondering if you should have finished up your degree in chemistry. This is the point in writer’s groups where we circle the wagons and tell each other it’ll be okay. This is natural. Everyone before us went through it. It actually took God like, five thousand years to send the Ten Commandments to Moses because he had encore-anxiety. Moses was kind of a pompous editor, too. Twelve-point on stone tablets? Okay. I think it’s considered bad form to mention it now, though.
So everyone reassures us it’s all fine and we’ll get through. They rarely tell us how. Maybe because writing careers aren’t a linear formation like a marathon. No one is truly ahead – we’re just kind of milling in the pool and some of us have a better idea where the current gets rough. Or maybe it’s that the answer is frightening, and ruthless. It’s not any one book we can read, or a process or habit we can adopt.
You’re going to do it, or you’re not.
Simple, and not simple at all. You will eventually write another book. You will eventually get published. You will eventually learn when the hell to use a comma. But none of it matters until your brain decides, without reservation, that you will. And no mumbling. You pick an answer and that’s where you live. This commitment and discipline is all on you. No one can give it to you, or do it for you. Does it matter enough? It’s okay to say no. Writing isn’t everyone’s passion. But if you say no, you will need to relegate it to a hobby. It’s not your passion.
It gets worse from here, not better. You’ve shut up your brain, but now your heart, not always the brain’s biggest cheerleader, has to trust what the brain decided. This will be a daily struggle for a while, like getting your drunk uncle out of the house after Christmas dinner while he hugs you down icy steps and cries about the Who breaking up. Irrational, annoying, and hurtful because the Who breaking up is still really awful.
If you’ve decided to keep writing, have fully committed to it, wonderful! You’ll probably go through an experience similar to a terminally ill person, where you feel totally at peace, liberated and euphoric. You feel positive. This lasts roughly twenty-seven hours. You will need to fill the remaining forty or fifty years of your career some other way.
This is another place where we seem hesitant to give advice, often I think, out of respect for the process being unique to each writer. Still, we can offer a map if not an itinerary. How do other authors stay productive, inspired, and positive? How do they function separate from the churn of doubt and worry?
Goldberg talks about the importance of going other places. A change of scenery can reframe our thoughts, but more than that, we open ourselves to experiences. An experience, as opposed to a routine, uses our senses to the fullest, creating a more lasting memory and stimulating our minds in a way our everyday lives can’t. It feeds our writing soul.
This doesn’t mean booking a flight or spending a single penny, or being social if you’d rather be alone. Write at a different place than your usual café. Turn down a street you pass all the time. See where it goes. Wake up early on a Saturday and sit outside to watch the sunrise, something we usually take for granted through a window, if we’re even up at that hour. Be present with as many of your senses as possible. I know this sounds like a yoga class handout, but try it just once. We tend to close ourselves off inside our writing, fall deep inside fixed routines. Adventure makes us more comfortable with the fluid nature of our career. It’s harder to be anxious when you begin to feel brave.
Try to do something for your craft each day. Not boring things your college professor would recommend. Improve your writing space – or create one. If writing is your passion, then yes, you deserve a dedicated space. Feet get cold when you write? Fancy socks. Neighbor trimming his grass for three hours? Headphones. Good pens; journals. My electric mug warmer is the best five dollars I’ve ever spent. It keeps my coffee and tea from the abominable state of ‘tepid’ and that keeps me in my chair. Read books on leadership, inspiration; they don’t always have to be about conjugating verbs and three-act-structure. Just the opposite. Give yourself space to be less clinical, a little less white-knuckle. Remember: You have ambition, but not much control here. Love it all for what it is.
Have metrics. I know this seems to violate the whole zen tenet of what we’re discussing, but it’s actually the opposite. Humans love acknowledgement and praise. There’s a lot of science behind the why, and safety in being accepted by the herd and other boring stuff, but who cares? We thrive psychologically on atta-boys, no matter how much we claim to be an island. Who better to give that to you than the person intimately familiar with how hard you’ve worked? Keep a box, jar, or tin in your writing space, with a pen and small bits of paper that never go anywhere else. The papers are not for schedule reminders or keeping track of the people you intend to burn in effigy. Your pen’s soul is trapped here and it is incapable of traveling to other rooms of your home. Don’t try. It can’t go. It’s very sad. Best just to leave it right there by the jar.
What goes inside your designated container? Whatever you did today that improved your craft or got you closer to your goals as an author. Again, be unorthodox in your ideas about this. Maybe you gave helpful writing advice. Someone bought a copy of your book. You hit ten reviews or entered a contest. You answered a writing prompt that had you explore an uncomfortable topic, or you read a chapter of a book on dialog, an area where you’ve traditionally struggled. Be intentional about this, and quickly it will become an addiction. It feels good to throw your slip into the jar at the end of the day, and you’ll find yourself looking for something to do each day to make that happen. Decide how often you’ll review your progress. Resist weekly. This isn’t the level of perspective you’re going for. Half-yearly or annually is ideal. New Year’s Eve is a great deal less depressing when you have all those good things to read through, when you can see in big and small ways all the love and fidelity you’ve given your writing career. It sets a wonderful tone for the coming year, too.
Lastly, take care in how you talk with other writers, no matter their skill or experience level. Our inherent wry outlook and sometimes faint bitterness can run away with us. What starts as a tongue-in-cheek rehash of common struggles takes on a note of inevitability. This is just how it is. It’s hard and grim and it always will be. You can keep your seat at the table and suck it up or be on your way. How discouraging does that sound to others? How much does it discourage you from inside your thoughts? It’s so crucial to remind yourself every single day that anxiety, worry, and fear are not what writing and publishing are about. They’re as necessary to what we do as a hangnail is to having fingers. We can elevate ourselves above the negativity that keeps us from being our best writing selves, but it takes effort, maybe more effort than anything else you’ll do in your career. You will never be completely free of worry and doubt. If that’s what you’re holding onto, your road will be misery and woe. But we can reduce our struggles to a footnote, relegated to a place we once reserved for our positivity.
Post-notes, acknowledgements, afternoon schedule.