There are a lot of tips and advice out there on what makes for a great writer. I’ve written on this topic many times before, myself. It takes persistence and determination, say the experts. Writers have to be brave, says Charles Bukowski. You have to be clear on your goals, ready to receive hard feedback, and have an organized daily schedule, says the internet.
However, I’ve actually met and befriended hundreds of real life writers and I can say with a good degree of certainty that not all of us are all of these things. Or, we’re only some of these things some of the time. The rest of the time we’re disorganized, self-doubting, afraid, and not at all ready to hear harsh criticism of our work.
But there is one thing that you’re forced to be if you’re a writer, whether you like it or not:
That’s one of the biggies that new writers don’t expect. When you’re first starting out, you’re not yet accustomed to the long wait times for just about everything in the writing world, and it can be really frustrating to feel like you’ve been blocked or completely derailed by circumstances that are out of your control. Also, it’s very typical to be flooded with inspiration or motivation all at once and then have to wait to see that transcendent feeling made tangible in your work. So, it can feel like your writing is totally consumed by this weird sense of: “Hurry up! Now wait.”
Kind of like you have the gas and the brakes on at the same time.
A few examples:
You’re driving home from work and get hit by a lightning bolt of creative inspiration. You see the main character you want to write, almost all of the plot, and even a few of the supporting characters, too. You can totally picture this story as a finished novel, maybe even a movie.
You get home and type until your hands feel like they’re going to fall off. You look back and count that you’ve written 20 pages, and you can see now that most of it isn’t that great. You realize you’re going to have to put at least eight months of work into finishing even the sloppy first draft of this novel. And then a year after that into revisions.
The zippy feeling of lightning flowing through your veins is now gone.
You’ve finished the novel you’ve been working on for three years. You want EVERYONE to read it, RIGHT NOW. You send it off to 10 people who have volunteered to be your beta readers and then you compulsively check your email every hour for the next few days. Other than a polite response to acknowledge receipt, no one says anything about the book. You wait another three weeks, still nothing. Finally, after a month you email everyone to check in. Most of your readers say they haven’t had a chance to start it yet but they will, soon.
The rush of triumph you felt when you typed “the end” all those weeks ago is now only a distant memory.
You’ve just finished the final editing touches on your book, slaved away and drove yourself crazy over writing the perfect query letter and synopsis, and screwed up the courage to send off your materials to 15 of your “dream agent” picks. The days drag by, and then the weeks. You hear nothing. Finally, the rejections start trickling in and then you realize you have to start all over again with another batch of agents.
The scenarios above might sound exaggerated, but if you’re a writer who’s already gone through the process, then you know I speak the truth. One of the hardest parts of being a writer is that sometimes it seems like you have to wait for EVERYTHING and you have to wait FOREVER. There is no getting around this because this is just how the writing world works. Even if you go the self-publishing route you still have to wait on beta readers, editors, cover designers, formatters, and even yourself sometimes.
So, how do we deal with this constant challenge of working with the energy of impatience? How do we stay persistent and determined and brave and all that other good stuff writers need to be when it seems like we’re always waiting for one more thing to happen before we can proceed?
The answer is:
Creative adaptability is a mindset and a skill set. It is the ability to accept that a certain road is closed—just for now—and so you’ll need to explore other avenues for the time being. It’s the willingness to recognize that you cannot, for the most part, control the schedules of other people, and so it’s best to have a Plan B that you can focus on while you’re waiting. It’s the readiness to embrace a revolving roster of creative projects, so that you can move between the novel that’s your most precious baby, a few short stories that you’re just having fun with, and your author website (which you’ve been procrastinating working on for months anyway).
It’s the ability to shift out of resistance and resentment because things are taking longer than you would like, into curiosity and surrender to the fact that everything is unfolding just as it should.
This is a hard thing to do. Every one of us struggles with impatience on a daily basis. But think about it like this: when you’re standing in a long line at the grocery store, how pleasant does it feel to stand there fuming and constantly checking on the progress of the clerk and the customers ahead of you? How much good does it do to mutter and grumble to yourself about how the situation is unfair and stupid? How much faster does that move the line you’re in?
It’s the same with your writing life. You can stand in line and mutter and grumble and feel put upon and outraged and upset with how everything is taking so long and drive yourself crazy checking your email a thousand times a day. Or…you can relax into what’s happening and go with it as it unfolds. You can spend that time in line daydreaming about your next story, or ruminating on the amazing book you’re reading at the moment and what lessons it has for you and your life.
In the writing life, we all have to spend some time in line, that’s inevitable. But it’s up to you how you choose to feel about it.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.