Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Resolved to have a new attitude toward writing

Yesterday was my birthday, tomorrow is New Year's Eve, and I've always been a goal junkie. (Maybe you are, too?) That means it's time for a resolution post. But this one is a little different.

For years, in the writing category -- never mind the exercise, moderation or other lifestyle categories -- I've been focusing on achievement-oriented resolutions. For example: finish writing this book. Publish that one. Apply for a specific grant. Practice public speaking.

Last year, I added a 5-year, 100-book, fill-in-the-gaps reading list -- part of a collaborative project still going strong.

But this year, I looked back over the past and found a disturbing mismatch that seems to be growing between what I do in a given year and how I feel about my writing life. The years I write or publish or even earn more from writing have not necessarily been correlated with my contentment levels. Sometimes production and contentment seem diametrically opposed.

I'll still resolve to get a certain amount read and written this year, but I'm thinking of my most important goals in a different way.

This year, I resolve: To try to become better at waiting. I love reading writer's biographies for clues to how other writers coped with various difficulties -- from F. Scott Fitzgerald's problems with household budgeting to John Updike's psoriasis and self-consciousness. But what those classic writers seemed to do better than us was wait. Email has given us the impression we should hear back from people quickly, but as every writer knows, months often pass before we get answers or feedback from agents, editors, even close colleagues. After a book is accepted for publication, there are still long waits between rounds of editing, waiting for marketing plans to unfold, waiting for a book to hit the shelves or get reviewed, waiting (well more than a year and sometimes two or more) to get a real handle on how a book sold or didn't sell. It feels like I spend about one-third to one-half of my writing life waiting for what feels like some essential development to occur, or for some magical information to be revealed. The best answer is to get started on something new -- and I do. Always. But you know how it is. In the back of your mind, you're still waiting for that email, phone call, or statement; still directing those magic mental rays into the ether, silently begging (sometimes hourly, as I happen to be doing now, even as I'm blogging -- oops) for a certain someone to contact you with much-needed feedback or news. This year, I resolve to remind myself: I can't put my mind and heart on hold. I have to move on.

I have to remember...

To focus more on creation, less on reception. Of course, it's exciting to be read, to see one's article in a magazine on the shelf or one's book in a bookstore. But how our work is received -- and even whether it's published at all -- is largely beyond our control. I need to celebrate creation more, and remind myself that if I don't experience maximum joy and gratitude during the writing process, I'm missing at least 90% of the good stuff. I don't mean joy every second, of course. In fact, sometimes it's good to wallow in thoughtful frustration, puzzlement, angst. Solitary struggle is the writer's main occupation, not just time lost on the path to publication.

And another resolution, easy to write but hard to do...

I want to get better at giving and receiving writing feedback. To that end, I just finished reading Toxic Feedback, by Joni B. Cole (not the best title, I'm afraid, because it makes the book sound negative when it is in fact charming, funny, and positive). I didn't learn anything radically new from this book, I just enjoyed the company of an intelligent woman reminding me of those things I used to know better and repeatedly forget, including: how effective positive feedback (not just negative feedback!) can be in helping writers; how few things we can focus on at any one time (and therefore how important it is to focus carefully when giving feedback to others OR editing ourselves), how hard it is for anyone to process criticism (and how useless it is to suggest that writers should simply be thicker-skinned and stronger-spined).

Cole, a long-time teacher, reminds us that in most workshop settings where writers provide each other feedback, "14 % feels dead-on; 18 % is from another planet; and 68 % falls somewhere in-between." And we all know how hard it is to make sense of the "in-between." That's why I need this resolution. The next time I give feedback, I am going to shape my message more carefully and selectively, and the next time I receive feedback, I am going to listen more actively, delay my reactions, be patient with my own processing time, and have greater confidence in my long-term ability to follow my own vision while being open to criticism -- and praise -- from others.

I have other issues to tackle, but that's probably enough on-screen introspection for one day. (P.S. I just checked email for the second time in an hour and I STILL haven't heard from a certain person from whom I am waiting to hear. This 'getting better at waiting' resolution is going to be tough.)

I invite anyone else to add their resolutions or self-improvement suggestions, and I wish everyone a creative new year.


3 comments:

Deb Vanasse said...

So often it's the simplest thoughts that make the biggest difference. To relish in the creative process, to strive for nothing more than to be better - I'm embracing those goals with you, Andromeda. So much of this involves giving ourselves permission and relishing in the freedom to create, understanding that indulging the compulsion is what makes us whole. I also appreciate the underlying wisdom, too easily overlooked when we're overwhelmed by all the intangibles in our process, that regardless of the craziness of the "system" and the market, we can and must indulge in the joy of seeking, learning, and growing as writers. Great direction for the new year!

Eowyn said...

The waiting -- ugh! This has been the most unpleasant surprise for me in branching out into different kinds of writing. As a newspaper journalist, I counted my deadlines in hours, days at the most. If an editor or reader was pleased or unhappy with something, I heard immediately. I turned in my copy, and then I was on to the next thing. Now I'm measuring deadlines, and the wait for feedback and rejection etc., in terms of months, sometimes even years. I hereby resolve to follow your example, though, Andromeda. Instead of compulsively checking my email or watching the Publishers Marketplace sales, I will try my hardest to stay focused on the part I actually enjoy, most of the time -- WRITING. Ohh, but it's so hard!

Anonymous said...

Well said, Andromeda. I think all writers spend time on the wrestling mat with the issues you mention. And waiting is one of the most difficult. As my witty husband likes to say, "Good luck with that." Happy New Year and thanks to you & Deb for all your hard work with this site.
Anne Coray