Nancy: On the Care and Feeding of Writers

Nancy's official NaNoWriMo (and life) avatar.

Nancy’s official NaNoWriMo (and life) avatar.

This past week, some of us prepped for NaNoWriMo 2015. Others started looking toward the impending end of the year and taking stock of manuscripts not yet completed and writing blocks not yet overcome. And far too many of us started beating ourselves up about our writing shortcomings. So today I thought I’d spend some time reminding you, dear readers who are also (sometimes fragile) writers, that you are awesome and amazing, and gosh-darn it, people like you (and your writing)! I’ve gathered some cliches, put a writerly spin on them, and shared them in the hopes you’ll take comfort in them and return to your writing with renewed joy, or at least remember to cut yourself a little slack.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making story plans. And when life happens, it interrupts those story plans. Sometimes it’s fair, valid, and necessary for creative types to step away from their creative endeavors to take take of sick parents, young children, or friends or partners in need. But other times…

Unfortunately, most of us live in western societies which primarily value things that have tangible value, i.e., that make money. If you’re not supporting yourself and your family with your writing, far too many people dismiss the value of it. And if what you’re doing isn’t deemed valuable and important, then surely you should fill your time doing something else, something that earns money or at least contributes to others (volunteer work, housework, family care, etc.).

When people send you this message – and far too many of them will do it far too often – you have to remind yourself it’s just not true. As Gene Luen Yang wrote in his NaNoWriMo pep talk, stories are important. Stories matter. Your story matters.  Yang cited writing coach Brian McDonald who says “stories are our most efficient carriers of survival information.” Carriers of survival information. That’s deep. And avid readers agree. Many writers have discussed letters or emails they’ve gotten from readers who were struggling, hurting, or in some terrible place whose lives were made better or easier or even saved because they read a book that touched them so deeply.

If the naysayers in your life don’t want to look at the bigger picture of what your story could do for the world, you might prefer to remind them of what your writing does for them. I have been known to tell those who would like to fill my writing time with their priorities that if I haven’t kicked them out of the house/office, thrown their stuff out a window, or generally made their life hell, they have my writing to thank for it. Writing refills my well from which so many others draw benefit. It recharges my mind. It makes me kinder and gentler. It keeps me sane. If writing does any of those things for you, it’s not only valuable, it’s invaluable to you and to those around you.

There’s a world outside your window. Despite the value of writing and the fact that you may be doing it to feed your soul, it’s generally not advisable to only write. While creativity feeds the life well, life also feeds the creativity well. And I’m not circling back to money-making, day jobs, and taking care of other people, although those things are important and can provide inspiration for your stories. I’m talking about things that make your heart sing. Have lunch with friends. See a movie by yourself or with your favorite person. Visit a garden or a museum. Go to the library and just browse through the stacks (when’s the last time in this digital age you did that?).

Time away from your computer or notebook does not constitute cheating on your writing. Stop feeling guilty for not wanting to spend every available minute at the keyboard! It’s true, if you walk away for too long, you could lose momentum. If you stop writing completely for a period time, you could fall out of the habit of doing it and might not, as Chuck Wendig would say, finish your shit. But only you know the balance that works for you.

If you’re wandering away to do mindless stuff or things that don’t matter to you, that might be a signal that something deeper is wrong in your writing life. But if you just need a break from the characters talking in your head or, worse, the characters stop talking in your head, it might be time to let the Girls in the Basement take a nap while you do something totally unrelated to your story. Your story will understand, and it will still be there waiting for you when you return.

There will always be someone who writers better, smarter, faster, [insert favorite superlative here]. This is what we always think, isn’t it? The bad news is, it’s true. The good news is, you needn’t give a flying fig about that truth. It doesn’t matter if someone writes better (if one can even define what that means), because they can’t write your story better. They can’t even write your story. They can only write their story. Only you can do you.

As for speed? Yeah, these days that’s touted as the mark of success in many writing circles. There does seem to be some reward that goes to writers releasing a lot of material in short periods of time, especially in self-publishing. But if writing fast doesn’t serve your process and your story, don’t do it! Really. Don’t. And stop beating yourself up about it. Again, the process is yours. Embrace it. Love it. Do your very best work with it because, like your story, it is yours to have and to hold and to cherish.

If rapid-release publishing is really important to you, do what many of those ‘speed writers’ do. Write a number of books in a year, or two, or five, and when you’ve built up a stockpile of stories – good, solid, wonderful stories that only you could have written with your process on your timetable – release them as quickly as you see fit.

If these words of questionable wisdom aren’t enough to raise your writerly self-esteem, I recommend reading Chuck Wendig’s unofficial NaNoWriMo pep talk, which is a pep talk for non-WriMos as well, or stopping by Writer Unboxed to read Barbara O’Neal’s post about positive thinking for writers. And if all else fails, remember the writer’s emergency protocol: take a walk, hug a puppy, drink wine, and eat chocolate (not necessarily in that order).

Feel free to share your own words of wisdom and comfort for writers in the comments,  then hie thee to thy manuscript to create a work of staggering genius!

6 thoughts on “Nancy: On the Care and Feeding of Writers

  1. You said, “take a walk, hug a puppy, drink wine, and eat chocolate (not necessarily in that order).” I’ve done all four tonight!!

    As I sit here preparing for a week with Margie Lawson and Immersion (starting TOMORROW! FREAK-OUT TIME!), your advice is just what I need. I’ve been in a rut lately and perhaps it is the Girls wanting a break. Or maybe they need some fertilizer. Here’s hoping that’s what Immersion brings.

    • I’m glad to see you used the writer’s emergency plan appropriately ;-). I look forward to hearing how the Immersion program works for you! Is it online or in person? On her website, it looks like they are mostly in Denver, but will she will be in DC (almost my neck of the woods) in 2016.

  2. I hit my 1,667 target yesterday. It was crap I won’t use, but it was one of the things on my list that I needed to write as background/backstory. I figured out some stuff while meandering along. And most importantly, I sat down at the keyboard and wrote. That is my true goal for NaNo – to write everyday. I’d like to hit the magic word count, but if I write every day, I’ll consider it a success.

    I have yet to start my words today.

    I guess my words of wisdom are: If you like to write, just write.

    • Hey, if you figured stuff out, that is time (and those are words) well-spent! I went just a little past the daily minimum (2082). I thought I’d get back for a second session, but after watching the Ravens finally win a game! on DVR and a double workout, I was done for the night.

      I started my workday early so I can take an hour this morning to write, and hopefully another hour in the afternoon. The plan is to start getting up an hour early and writing before work, but that’s always hell on Mondays.

      • I already get up at 5 a.m. I don’t think I could get up any earlier. But I can use my lunch hour to write. Tonight, both my son and daughter work, so there is no need to spend time cooking a family dinner – more time to write. Erratic scheduling makes it hard to find a workable pattern for writing. And you have a new schedule that I’m sure is going to take some time to iron out. And Mondays are hell anyway.

  3. Cheers!

    I was particularly struck by this: There will always be someone who writers better, smarter, faster, [insert favorite superlative here].

    You know, we are probably only seeing their last drafts, too. There’s a good chance they don’t write smart or well at first. And fast? Well, 10,000 monkeys pecking at keyboards could write pretty darn fast, but nobody expects anything from the output.

    We only know what we have when we reach the end. Getting there is the big thing.

    So, thanks for the pep talk! Onward! Upward! Over and through!

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