When the going gets tough, real writers…

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This post is part of the DIY MFA Street Team Question of the Week series

You know the saying… “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley…” (Thank you, Robert Burns). It’s our way of mourning the death of every New Year’s resolution… If you’re anything like me, you start out the year with the best intentions (#writeeverydamnday). You may have even had a plan for how you were going to accomplish your goals.

But what plan doesn’t run into kinks? Sometimes the kinks are nothing more than the common cold or sleeping through your alarm a couple of times, but other times major life stuff comes up that you can’t just get around dealing with. That’s how life goes. We all know it’s true. Having a plan for how you’re going to accomplish your goals when everything is going smoothly is one thing. What’s your plan for when everything “Gang aft agley”?

What Real Writers Do

If you’re the kind of person who never makes a false move, you’re probably not reading this blog, and obviously I’m not writing this post for you. Honestly, you’re the person we all aspire to be… but you’re also the person who makes the rest of us feel shitty when real life gets in our way. Why can’t our lives go perfectly, too?

Lofty goals of writing  (Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, “and only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”) are all well and good, but come on. Who has the time/energy/resources to live up to Stephen King’s standards?

So if you don’t live up to that prescriptive method (or anyone else’s list of things that “real writers” do) does that mean you’re not a real writer? Or that you don’t take your craft seriously?

No freaking way. You should always have goals, always set out for the top of the mountain. The good news is, you don’t have to feel shitty when you have to stop before you get there. Because let’s face it, it’s gonna happen. And your writing life (career/identity/dream/whatever you call it) should be built to take it. How?

My friend Gabriela at DIY MFA* calls it “Honoring Your Reality.” Also known as Elisabeth’s Second Commandment: Don’t compare your journey with someone else’s.

The secret is recognizing what you need in order to be the most happy, healthy, productive person, and doing that. It doesn’t matter that Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. How many words a day can you write? Or maybe it’s how many words a week? Whatever your number and time-span is, own it. Be proud of yourself for getting any words out at all. IMO, some words are better than no words. The actual number and time spent writing varies from moment to moment.

Honor Your Reality

For me, the more I allow myself to do what I need to do, the easier I find to make time for the things that really matter to me. And right now, writing is one of them. But sometimes it’s making sure I’m well rested. And sometimes it’s going out with my friends and having a new experience. Because those things, even if they take away from my writing for a day, will make me a better writer in the long run.

Who writes well when they’re exhausted? And who writes creatively and with nuance when they’ve been shut away from the world for too long (well, besides Emily Dickinson)? But see? Even she honored her reality. She could have said, “I’ll never be a real writer because I haven’t seen enough of the world.” And we all would have missed out on the beautiful brilliance of her voice and her perspective.

And sometimes there are even heavier issues than just being worn out or needing to get out for a while. Sometimes life throws you a real curve ball… When that happens you have to give yourself the space and grace to do what you can when you can. The alternative is living with pain and guilt and shame. And, having been down that road before, I’d advise against it.

So you, yeah you. What’s your reality? What do you do when the going gets tough and you’re struggling to find the time to write? Do you make yourself feel terrible for it? Because you should stop that right now. Figure out what you need to be the person you want to be. And then go do it! That’s what “real writers” do. We write. And we also live.

(Hey! Did you know that Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA has a book coming out this summer? Check it out and order your copy here!)

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Don’t Let Mental Monsters Stand in the Way of Your Goals

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-SquareI ran 70 miles during the month of November. I also wrote 50,000 words of a novel. Both of those numbers are HUGE when you think about the average amount of running and writing I normally do. No, I don’t have super powers suddenly. I didn’t do it all at once. I took it a day at a time, followed a prescribed regimen, and when I wanted to quit I  didn’t allow myself any wiggle room.

November is National Novel Writing Month. I used the momentum and accountability of that group event to propel me through my writing goals. I made sure to meet or exceed expectations every day because I’d made a public commitment that I wanted to uphold. But more than that, I’d committed to myself and to my characters to tell their story and I didn’t want to let myself or my characters down.

Does it always come easily? No! Do I ever have days where I want to just give up and go back to my old habits? Yes!

Old habits die hard

With both my running and my writing, I have days when I wake up and think “Oh god, I just want to stay in bed.” Those are the days when I need the running and the writing the most. The mental monster, the one that’s telling me I’m too tired to run or too boring to have any good ideas to share in my writing, that’s the one that I confront with my schedule, with my commitment, with my determination.

When I let that monster win I feel terrible. My self-esteem and self-talk go down a dark, even abusive path. I hate how I feel when I allow myself to shirk my goals, when I give in to the monster talk and let another day go by without working toward my dreams.

But!! Every day that I get up and refuse to listen to that monster telling me to shut up and stay in bed, I kick that monster’s ass again. It doesn’t get easier over time. Every time I have to fight that mental battle, it sucks and it’s painful and I want to cry before I finally convince myself to do the hard thing, to do what I committed to do.

And yet, the more I choose to fight for what I want for my life, the less often that monster speaks up.

Take that first step

My running is another story but it follows a very similar mental track. Who knows why I decided that November, when I started my most intensive month of writing, was a good time to kick off a half-marathon training program? Maybe the timing wasn’t ideal, but then maybe it was. I have a larger goal with my running. Before I turn 40 I want to run a marathon.

And as with writing, I have to start if I ever want to finish. I know that if I want to reach my goal of 26.2 miles, I have to step out the door. And if I ever want to see my name in print on a novel that I’ve written, I have to write the first words. And then the next words, and the next step, until I get to the finish line.

There are bound to be set-backs along the way, but just because I know I will fail sometime, does that mean I should never start? No! I cling to my dreams and push myself forward, pick myself up when I fall down, and start again.

So why am I telling you all this?

I know I’m not the only one who goes through this daily ritual of talking down the monsters, of putting the fears aside and taking a risk to achieve my dream. And I want you to know that you CAN do this. You’re not crazy. That dream you have of publishing (or of running a marathon), it’s yours. You should cherish it, commit to it, and show up every day to prove how much it means to you.

It helps if you can find your tribe. The encouragement and accountability you get from people with similar goals, or even just people who unquestionably believe in you–that’s solid gold. When you find it, never let it go.

But sometimes you have to go it alone. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that your goals are for you, and that even if no one else understands why you’re doing what you do, you have to commit to them. That’s not an easy place to be, but it’s no excuse to quit. You owe it to yourself to follow your heart, to reach for your dreams and never give up.

So… Show up. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather not. Even when it seems like the finish line is so far away. Every step you take, every word you write, brings you closer to achieving your dreams.

Your Turn Challenge – Day 5 – Get Unstuck

Day 5: What advice would you give for getting unstuck?

Imagine this: You’ve had an idea for a great novel forever. It’s creative, it’s compelling, and when you pitch it to your friends they seem to love the idea. You’re no stranger to writing, and nowadays there are so many different support networks out there that can help you get your novel written, so you think “Hey, why not? Let’s write this thing!”

So you sit down at your computer and you bang out a first draft, or part of a first draft, or some pages, and then… nothing… Maybe you’ve written yourself into a plot hole a mile wide… maybe you just can’t think of what should come next… maybe you find it’s more rewarding to outline and map out your story, but when you go to write it your fingers freeze and you find yourself unable to get the words out in the order you want them in.

Every writer gets stuck once in a while. Whether it’s because you’re just not sure how to fix a plot problem, or you’re too scared that you’re going to mess up your brilliant idea… we’ve all been there. Fixing the problem is easier, and harder, than you might think.

Here are some quick steps to help you get unstuck:

  1. Change focus. If you keep focusing on the problem at hand, you’re likely to bind yourself up in it. Stop. Breathe. And look somewhere else first.
  2. Keep writing! Just because you’re changing focus doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Just pick something else to work on for a little while. A short project, something to break up the block, to give you something else to think about for a little while.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up. If the solution isn’t coming right away, don’t give yourself a hard time. Wait for it. It’ll present itself.
  4. Keep writing! I know I know, I already said that, but it’s so important. Do daily writing prompts. Post on your blog. Whatever it takes, keep words flowing from your fingers, even if it’s only for 15 minutes every day. Working on these smaller, less significant pieces will help oil the machine, and it will free up your mind to focus on your main manuscript without all the added pressure of “OMG I’m writing a novel and it has to be the best thing ever!”
  5. When the solution finally hits you, dive back in with gusto! This goes without saying. But relish the joy that writing brings you. And, if it doesn’t bring you joy, maybe consider doing something else!
What do you do when you’re stuck?

Day 2: Your Turn Challenge – The what

Day 2: Tell us about something that’s important to you

For my second entry in the Your Turn Challenge I’d like to talk to you about resistance.

Most of the people I work with, people that are in a creative industry, face resistance every day. Here are some examples: Our ideas are too “out there” for a mainstream audience; they’ll never amount to much. (Who will ever even read that novel?) We should just get a real job and stop pretending that what we do is worth someone’s hard earned money. (Why would someone pay to read anything that you write?) Someone else does it better, has more experience, does it cheaper, does it quicker, etc. (You’re self-published? Oh.)

Add that to the voice in your head telling you that you’re an impostor, that it’s only a matter of time before people discover the truth and tell everyone else… and that’s some pretty strong resistance to the idea that you can achieve your dreams.

But what I’d like to propose is that those frustrating, depressing thoughts that make you want to give up… they’re not resisting you, you’re resisting them. The pressure you feel as you talk yourself into sitting down to write again today is a direct result of you not taking that bullshit, you refusing to believe the people who want you to quit. By not giving up, YOU are resisting, pushing through, pushing back against all of the naysayers. They’re just standing there. You’re the one in motion.

Don’t listen to the bad talk and the people who tell you you can’t do what you have set out to do. If you don’t know something that you need to know, learn it. Find someone who does know and who will help you. Surround yourself with cheerleaders and people who will help you solve the practical problems rather than just pointing out that they exist. If you don’t know anyone else who will support you, e-mail me! I would love to cheer you on to your dreams.

Be the resistance. Fight back. Make your art. Tell your story. Find your voice.