Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this writing life. It’s hard to ignore the upheaval in the industry and the number of authors abandoning traditional publishing–or writing altogether–because they’re not happy. But you want to know a secret? When you hang out with independent authors, they do the same thing the rest of us do–they bitch about writing, they angst about their careers and their stress levels Granted, they also talk about how much money they’re making and how much freedom they have, but it’s not like they’re all finally like, “Hey, writing makes me happy.”
Here’s the thing: None of this is new. There’s a long and rich literary tradition of the tortured writer. There’s a reason we’re all thought to be drunks and crazies. Some might say it’s a chicken or the egg argument: Did writing make us crazy or does writing attract crazies?
There’s little in the act of writing that fosters a feeling of security. Sometimes you’ll have glorious days when the stars align and you spend a few delirious hours in The Zone or write a passage of prose that is brilliant and down-to-the-marrow true. But usually, it’s an unglamorous slog through page after page while constantly worrying that the story won’t come together, or your editor will hate it, or your readers will hate it, or, or, or …
Beyond the somewhat bipolar existence of creation, there’s the absolutely erratic and fickle nature of the publishing business. Writers have some control but not much. It’s not uncommon for a writer to work their ass off and write a great book only to have some experimental pricing scheme by their publisher, a major retailer, a tanking genre, or a bad release date torpedo that book’s chances of success. Then, once the book comes out, you’re barraged with reviews and comments and emails by people who don’t know you personally but have no problem saying incredibly personal and insulting things about your life’s work.
Please don’t misunderstand. The writing life has a lot going for it. The truth is that this life wouldn’t break my heart so often if I didn’t love it so much. I love writing. I love, as James Michener said, “the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” I love books and reading. I love book people, including my colleagues, editors, agents, and booksellers. I love meeting readers and being invited into their lives just because I managed to entertain them by spinning a yarn. I feel very blessed and lucky that I’ve managed to have the career I’ve had so far.
This is where someone will say, “Boohoo! No one forced you to be a writer. You knew what you were getting into!”
Well, yes and no. I did chose this. But I did not know what I was getting into. No one does. This comic gets pretty close to showing what it’s like. But even though I chose the life, and regardless of whether I knew what I was getting into, I am in this life. Writing isn’t just my job. It’s my lifestyle. It’s as part of me as being a mother or a wife is. Walking away from it would be as painful as divorcing my husband or sending my kid to be raised by someone else. I complain about it because I want to have a happier relationship with it than the dysfunctional one it has become.
I was thinking about all of this the other night wen I watched Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary about backup singers. Merry Clayton, who sang backup on The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, as well as some of the other biggest songs of the era, commented on her lack of success as a solo artist:
“I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”
When I heard those words and heard the catch in Clayton’s voice as she spoke, I had a corresponding dip in my gut. This, I think, is at the crux of so much suffering for creative types. We’re told that if we work hard and are talented we’ll be successful.
I recognize that this may sound childish. After all, no one is guaranteed success regardless of industry. Luck plays an uncomfortably large role in everyone’s lives. But we like to look for patterns. When our friends hit lists and score movie deals we try to figure what they did that we did not do. We wonder how we can shift our plans to increase the possibility of luck blessing us with its golden rays. We keep gambling on luck. We keep hoping that the next book will be THE BOOK.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my own career, it’s that the Next Big Book mentality is a recipe for heartache. As I’ve said in the past, the writing life is not the work of weeks or months, but the work of years and decades–it’s the work of a lifetime. How, then, do we craft this life so that our happiness is not tied to the success or failure of an individual project? How do we shape our habits so that we can be happy day-to-day, week-to-week in this work of a lifetime?
1. Redefine success. I’ve said a million times that if you judge success as a writer based on income 95% of writers are miserable failures. You get to define what success means to you. Remember to make it quantifiable and within your control otherwise you’re making wishes, not goals.
2. Create habits that foster contentment. This year I started doing yoga a minimum of three times a week and I meditate often. These mindfulness practices help me battle my natural tendency toward anxiety. They also remind me to stay connected to the people in my life who love me regardless of the kinds of reviews my books get.
3. Spend less time online. Social media has lots of great things going for it for writers. But it can also be a huge energy vampire for us. Several days a week for the last few months, I have logged into Twitter or Facebook in the morning to see links to news or commentary by one of my colleagues on the Amazon-Hachette feud. How much writing do you think I got done on those days? That’s just one example. We have all had days ruined by shit online. Trivial shit, important shit, shit that had nothing to do with us but still altered our mental weather system. Choose your time online wisely.
4. Foster other interests. Writing started as a hobby for me when I was a stay at home mom. Writing time was my reward at the end of the day or during my son’s nap time. It was an escape and a joy. But then it became my job and suddenly I didn’t have anything I got to do just for fun. Now I cook and I do yoga, but for years I had no interests outside of writing. It consumed everything–hell, writing conferences were my only vacations. Not only does this make you a workaholic, it also makes you pretty boring. Have something else you can do that doesn’t have pressure attached to it.
5. Play. A few years ago I did a class based on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. You can buy the book and go through the steps on your own, but I enjoyed having the classroom set up. Regardless, the best part of Cameron’s techniques for rediscovering your creativity was the concept of artist dates. These are opportunities you create for yourself to go do fun and creative things. During the class, I took myself on some cool artist dates. The point of them is to remember to play and also to get out of your comfort zone a little. Also, remember that play is the fuel of creativity. Remember to have fun when you’re writing instead of verbally abusing yourself and driving your muse like a task master. Trust me, your writing will thrive much better if you enjoy it.
6. Get help. A friend sat me down yesterday and told me it’s time to get a virtual assistant. For the last several years I’ve been managing to write multiple books a year and overseeing every aspect of my marketing efforts, which results in a really inconsistent shotgun approach but also a lot of stress as I try to keep all the plates spinning. Identify the areas that cause you stress or keep you from writing and see if you can abandon them or farm them out to someone. This is especially true for anything that causes you undue stress or that is a trigger for insecurity or an inability to write (like reading reviews or social media, etc). If you’re short on money, maybe there’s a trade you can arrange with an organized family member or friend. The point is, none of us is a superhero. Sometimes we need help. Our first job is writing, and if all the other tasks of being published are keeping that from happening, find someone who can help you.
I guess the bottom line is that writing won’t make you happy. Money and best seller lists won’t make you happy. Happiness comes from within and doing the work of getting happy is important. A happy writer will weather the roller coaster of the writerly life with more calm that one that depends on money and fame for self worth.
I don’t claim to have all this figured out, and I’ll admit one of my reasons for posting this is to hear how other authors deal with these issues. If you’ve got some happiness habits, I’d love to hear them in comments!