Consider me the Dr. Laura of writing. (I’m not talking politics here; I’m talking attitude.) Just like the shrill, conservative radio show call-in shrink you love to hate – author of such enlightened volumes as The Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives (having a career being one of them) -- I will show you no mercy. I will confront you with your own folly. I will force you to take the responsibility you are so quick to off-load on others: bad editors, unruly children, unsympathetic partners, the people in your writing group who just don’t understand what you’re trying to do
Discouraged? Dismayed? Disheartened? De- or re-jected? Get a grip. You’ll get no sympathy from me. Writers are renowned for acts of self-sabotage, from extended experiments in procrastination to epic bouts of self-pity. You chose this ridiculous profession -- or it chose you – so quit whining.
Face it: You need more than good ideas and literary talent. You need to learn to stop shooting yourself in the foot. Here are ten stupid things writers do to mess up their lives. Whichever apply to you – and I know several will –- it’s time to get smart about your writing life and stop undermining your best efforts.
“I’ll just ‘clear the decks’ before I start writing.”
You know what? The decks will never be cleared. There will always be another call to make, another load of laundry to put in the washer, the emails in your in-box, those pesky weeds overrunning your garden. Life doesn’t stop, or simplify itself, to allow you time to write. Life, in fact, has an uncanny way of getting in the way of writing. But that’s only if you construct your days around everything you have to do that is not writing. If you construct your days around writing, then the question is not “when will I have time to sit down and write?” but rather “when will I have time to vacuum the living room carpet?” It’s a sure bet that at the end of the day –- and at the end of your life – you won’t be wishing you spent more time with the Hoover. So learn to work with cluttered decks. And, most important, make writing the focus of your day, the core around which chores and errands fit – or don’t.
“It’s time for me to have coffee with my writer friends.”
Oh no, it isn’t. It’s time for you to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and get some work done. I don’t mean writers should be without friends or, worse yet, without that tall nonfat extra hot latte. But it is all too easy to dissipate energy in conversation, spending irreplaceable writing time talking about writing rather than doing it. The hour-long phone chat comparing rejection letters, the long lunch gossiping about who got what published where, the potluck dinner where everyone talks about what they plan to write if they could only find the time -– give it up. Don’t talk away your enthusiasm or your ideas. Horde your energy and use it to write.
“A writing seminar on the isle of Crete?
The hills of Tuscany? Sign me up.”
Sure, go ahead…if you want a vacation and freelancing has been so good to you (!) that you can afford it. But if you want to write, stay put. Exotic seminars are dilettantes’ playgrounds not writers’ workplaces.
“I’ll just keep writing until I run out of material.”
It took me years to figure this one out: Don’t bop ‘til you drop. Although you may be physically capable of writing until you exhaust all your ideas, you sabotage your work in two ways by pushing too hard. First, the work you do at the ragged end of a writing jag is not going to be your best work. But even more important, writing until you run out of material means the next morning, when you get to your desk, you will be starting cold. And, as you stare at the screen or the pad of paper, you will be remembering that the reason you stopped writing was because you couldn’t think of anything more to say. This is not an auspicious way to begin your day. Stop writing after you’ve put in a few good hours but before you stop thinking. Stop writing when you know what’s coming next.
“I’ll just pass this new story by (choose one or more) my mother, my brother, my four closest friends, everyone in my writing group to see what they think.”
Maybe you are lucky enough to have friends or writing compatriots whose opinions you trust. That’s great. But remember, the more people you ask to comment and edit, the more comments and edits you get. One friend loves a scene; another thinks it doesn’t work. Your mother wants you to flesh out the main character. Your brother wants you to kill her off on page 4. Three people in your writing group love your title; four hate it. Do you really need all this advice?
No. The opinion you need to trust is your own. I’m not saying that presenting your work to others is a bad idea. I’m saying other people’s opinions should not substitute for your own. You can’t depend on others to tell you what you’ve done, or not done. You can’t depend on others to make you work harder or feel better about your work. You must learn to depend on yourself. The way to do that is to stop giving away the responsibility to others.
Of course, sometimes you have to share the responsibility. That’s called working with an editor.
“Revision? Whaddya mean? I got it right the first time.”
On the other end of the spectrum from those who foist their manuscripts on friends, relatives, neighbors and people they meet in the cereal aisle are those writers who don’t even pass their stories by their own eyes. Hey: It’s written; it’s spell-checked; it’s out the door.
There are a number of equally inexcusable reasons for this bad behavior. Maybe you haven’t given yourself the time to properly revise your work. Or maybe you don’t yet understand how important revision is to good writing. Revision isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t a quick once-over. It is an essential process that gives you the opportunity not merely to correct errors but to re-think, re-structure and re-invent. Or maybe you think the piece is so good it doesn’t need revision (Go immediately to Stupid Thing #9).
“Please…I’m an artist, not a businessperson.”
I know. It’s unfair that we have to both create the stuff and sell it. But that’s the way this enterprise works. Knowing how to assess the market, how to write a savvy proposal or a targeted pitch, working the internet, learning how to run your little operation like a CEO, understanding contracts, taking advantage of tax breaks -- this is all a part of being a published writer, like it or not.
“It won’t matter that I’m a week late with the manuscript.”
Oh yes it will. Maybe not now. Maybe not with this editor. But some day, and for the rest of your life.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever written.
I am a true creative genius.”
It may be the best thing you’ve ever written, or – watch out! -- the muse may have you by the throat. It is when we are most inspired that we are least objective about our work. Let this piece, which will surely bring you the Nobel Prize for Literature, sit a few days. Let your ardor cool and your hubris deflate. Give yourself time to forget just how long you labored over that turn-of-the-phrase. You know, the one that a few days from now will appear somewhat less clever than you originally thought. Or what about that dialog that just seemed to “write itself?” In a few days, you will see that you should have written it.
Consider the sobering results of a study reported widely in the media: Those who are the most confident generally have the least reason to be.
“I give up. I’ll never be any good.”
Can’t argue with that. If you give up, you won’t be any good. Or at least you won’t get any better. The idea is to stay with it. The idea is that writing is a life-long learning process. Remember that: process. The thing you write, the essay, the magazines story, the book, is the product. What gets you there is the process. If you don’t enjoy the challenge of its frustrations and headaches, if you can’t be patient with yourself as you learn, as you hit a plateau and seem to stay there forever, if you can’t stop doing these Stupid Things, then you should give up. But I’m betting you’re made of sterner stuff. So stop reading, and get to work!
LAUREN KESSLER (www.laurenkessler.com), the editor of Etude and Director of the Literary Nonfiction program at the University of Oregon, is the author of ten books.