Articles for Writers -- By Theresa Scott
Bullet Lessons Learned for Career Authors
Engineers have a beautiful concept called ‘Lessons Learned’. They compile, in written form, the various problems and solutions to problems they’ve tackled over the course of a project. That way, if another engineer is faced with a similar problem, they know someone else has tackled the problem before and they know of at least one possible solution to it. I think that is a comforting, useful practice. So today I’d like to write about a Lessons Learned topic from my writing career.
The topic is perseverance. Now perseverance is a word tossed around casually and loosely in writing circles. As it should be. It is a word that has comforted and encouraged many of us in our day-to-day writing work, especially in dealing with rejection. It is a mantra that gets many of us to our destination.
It is the concept behind the word that intrigues me. When we talk about perseverance, the basic idea is that we hang in there, we write our guts out, we stay on task, we are in for the long haul, and a number of other cliches and slogans that come readily to the surface, all of which get us writers through the hard times.
But I do not often hear or see mentioned the ‘how’ of perseverance. How do you hang in there?
Surface answers to the ‘how’ question might mean you show up at your computer and actually write. Or that you devote time to thinking about the story you are working on, or to reading about story and structure, or to reading great authors. And also include going to conferences and hanging out with other encouraging, positive authors. ‘How’ can especially include consciously living your life, and when you experience difficult situations or happy situations, you reflect back on them later to gather important impressions and examples to use in your stories.
Today I’d like to dig a little deeper into the ‘how’ of perseverance in a writing career. I’d like to discuss methods and ways to get the strength to keep going in the face of the seemingly overwhelming odds you are going to meet in your writing career.
The first tool on my list for how to persevere is knowing my ‘why’ and re-committing to it. At its deepest level, the act of storytelling, via writing, brings a sheer joy that comes from setting a story down on paper, of expressing it so well that you know, deep inside you, that others will want to read it too. This feeling can be incredibly joyous. When you taste that kind of joy in your life, it brings you a happiness not found anywhere else. Important note: the joy takes place while you are creating, and shortly after you’ve done the writing. Not before.
So let’s call it ‘re-committing’ or ’re-enlisting.’ Whatever you would like to call it, it is the moment you experience when you consciously decide, one more time, that you want to do this crazy thing called writing fiction. You’ve set yourself upon a path with the goal to produce a novel or a screenplay or a poem or a play, and you have just met something on the path that has the potential to dissuade you from what you are doing. Therefore, you need to make a conscious decision: ‘Do I quit?’ or ‘Do I keep going even though I’ve encountered this difficult problem?’ Beginning writers may ask themselves the first question when they first meet with problems, challenges or setbacks, early in their writing. More advanced writers can skip this question, most times; though there may be rare situations they encounter that will raise the question again for them. When that happens, ask both sides of the question. Do not stop with the first question.
Ask yourself, ‘Is my goal worth it to me? Is it worth putting up with this pain?’ If the answer you give yourself is “Yes, this problem is a minor setback, not a crushing force that will kill all my hopes, plans and dreams,” then you have just given yourself the reason to keep going!
Another tool for persevering is affirmations. Affirmations are on my list because I’ve noticed, in my life, that not only do I tell stories outwardly, to an audience through my writing, but I tell myself stories, too. Inwardly. And these stories get repeated over and over in my mind. So if I can make the conscious attempt to give these stories happy endings where I will succeed at whatever I am doing, then I already have the fuel I need to keep going. I have met men who have transformed lives fraught with pain and bad decisions into positive, happy lives. They transform their lives through the conscious application of affirmations and positive thinking. That’s the porch where I want to seek shade for the rest of my life.
Another way to persevere is through prayer and meditation. Out of respect for every person’s individual view on spirituality, I will leave you to interpret this in a way that is reasonable to you and works best for you.
The ‘how’ of perseverance also includes physical presence. By this I mean you have to physically do the planning and physically do the writing. Because fiction writers have great imaginations, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are working on a story when we are not. You know what I mean. When we’re thinking about the story, there is thinking and then there is thinking. There is the prodding type of thinking, as in “Hmmm, I should get to the computer today.” But then I go and put it off. And so I get to the computer later, if at all.
What I’m talking about here is the thinking that is a sincere mulling over a story, giving it some time to jell in my mind, fleshing out the characters and moving the story forward. I like to picture in my mind where I am going next on a particular story. I'm speaking of actually taking the time to think about the story. That’s one kind of physical presence I refer to here. The second kind of physical presence is when the writer actually sits down at the keyboard, or with the writing pad in front of her, and places cursor to screen or pen to paper. That kind of writing. When I am engaged in either of those activities, I am being present to my writing and actually doing it. And that activity is a powerful reinforcement of my decision to write.
Time also factors into the ‘how’ of perseverance. There is a certain timeless quality about writing which I find fascinating. I’m referring, of course, to the time when we are so caught up in writing the story--the time goes by and we have no sense of how much time has passed. But there is also another kind of time to consider, and that is the time passing in your career. If you take the long view, you know that you want to do this for a number of years, perhaps your whole life, or perhaps not, but you probably have a time frame that you’ve been working with, maybe even just below the conscious aspect of your mind. Pull it out now and look at it. (Sometimes I think storytelling chooses you, you don’t choose it.) Look consciously at the assumptions you’ve been making about how long you plan to do this thing, this writing your thoughts and stories down, and if you’ve been thinking that its for a short time, you may want to extend your time-frame. That’s because there are areas of your writing career where you have no control over what happens to your work. It is only the act of persevering over time that will make up for those blips of time when your work is passed over, or forgotten, or lost in the mail, or given the old heave-ho. If you are beginning to think that you are one of those people who will engage in writing and storytelling for the long haul, then remembering or writing down this realization also helps give you a perspective to weather the small setbacks. And in the long view, they are all small setbacks.