A few weeks ago, I wrote a newsletter post about saying YES to your book. I received a reply from a reader named Michael. He wrote this:
“Thanks for this. It comes at a good time for me. I’ve done everything possible to line up my book for success on my terms (completing a compelling book to read), and yet I hesitate in following through. I’m letting everything else take precedence.
Yes, I’ve moved house, looked after my new wife through surgery, taken on a raft of client work, looked after my kids, and the list goes on. But none of this should get in the way of spending at least a few minutes a day writing. It’s the past holding me back, the fear of failure and the nightmare vision of boxes and boxes of my dad’s unpublished manuscripts filling up my parents’ garage.
I know I must write and I know I must do my utmost to get published, but the fear of the garage that I will have to clear out when my parents pass fills me with paralyzing dread every time I sit down to write. I must detach myself from the result and look at it as a practice, same as I do my yoga and meditation practices. Somehow I must remove the emotion from the act of writing and focus on the energy of the stories I want to tell.
But tell to whom, is the thing that horrifies me. Am I going to reach people, or just end up shouting in a garage full of boxes? There’s no way to tell, of course, and that’s what scares me.
So how do you carry on with that uncertainty?”
I let this note sit in my inbox for DAYS because it had so much emotion in it. I kept looking at it, and closing it; looking at it, and closing it. It was so raw and so real. I mean, who among us hasn’t felt this way? I felt as though I had nothing useful to say to help Michael — and a thousand things to say.
Here are some of those thousand things:
1.) Life happens. A move and a wife in surgery and kids and clients — that’s a lot of life. You can’t do it all. You really can’t. And sometimes writing has to take a back seat. Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-forgiveness is the thing writers need the most. This applies in this situation. I think Michael deserves a little self-forgiveness.
2.) The intense times when life demands a lot of us come to an end. But garden variety busy-ness? That never ends. And what do you do now to make room for your writing? Michael said it. You design a practice that works in your life.
You make a commitment to your work, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day. You can write a book in 15 minutes a day. And maybe you give something up like cooking, folding the laundry, going out to lunch with co-workers you don’t even really like so that you can have room to write. I recently gave up cooking in order to make more room in my day for the things I want to build in my business. Not having to plan, shop, prepare, cook and clean up, and has bought me a lot of headspace.
You can’t wait for a chunk of free time or for inspiration to strike. There is no muse who visits us from the outside and grants us motivation. There is no cabin in the woods where we can steal away to write free of distraction. There are only the 24 hours we have in a day and what we chose to do with that time.
There is time to write in any life if you make it a priority.
3.) Take the emotion out of writing? I don’t think this is possible nor do I think it is desirable. The tool writers work with is emotion. Emotion is to a writer as paint is to a painter or clay is to a ceramicist. It’s your medium. You have to work with it and I don’t think you can be selective — feel SOME emotion you need to write and feel NO emotion in another realm. I think whole-heartedness is what is needed: to feel the whole range of things.
And honestly, this is why writing is so hard. Putting words on a page is not hard. Sitting at a computer is not hard. Learning how to craft a scene or develop a character or make an argument (in nonfiction) is not really that hard. What’s hard is feeling what you have to feel in order to write well. We’re trying to capture the human experience. We feel so that our readers can feel.
I don’t know what Michael is writing but I would suggest one of two things to deal with the big emotions he is feeling:
a.) Use the fear you feel in the work. Channel it into the work. This would be effective if you are writing fiction and have a character who is afraid or scared or angry or if you happen to be writing nonfiction about topics related to fear or anger.
b.) If that fear doesn’t belong in what you are writing, write about your dad’s failure in a separate piece. Write about that garage. Let’s see the dust on those boxes of books. Let’s feel the crushing anxiety about repeating that history. It would be a powerful thing to get it on the page — and out of your head — not for public consumption necessarily, but because it would help you to do it. This is the therapeutic nature of writing. It’s real and proven.
4.) Remember that fear is specific. Anyone who is stuck or scared about writing has some specific reason for being stuck and scared. These emotions aren’t just random. In Michael’s case, there is the shadow of his dad’s failed book-writing career haunting his mind like a ghost in the attic.
I think this fear can be incredibly motivating. I know because I have one of those dad things in my life, too, although my dad was actually a successful writer and professor of environmental studies whose books are revered in his industry. No books in our garage (you can see his books are on the shelf behind me where I do all my videos.) But when I was 10 years old, we were sitting around a campfire — my dad, some of his worshipful grad students and me. They were talking about their lives and what they wanted to do when they graduated. They were talking about how my dad’s life, with so much time in wild places, was a model for how they wanted to live. I piped up and said, “I want to be a writer.” My dad turned to me and said, “Girls don’t have to worry about what they want to be.” (Or at least that’s how I remember what he said…maybe time has either sharpened or dulled it…) And believe me, that comment has been the fuel for a lot of what I have done. I want to be something to prove him wrong.
I don’t actually mind that twisted motivation. I understand it. It works for me. I have found a way to use it.
So maybe Michael can do this, too. Turn that garage thing around. Get motivated to write the book, to write a GOOD book, and get it into reader’s hands and sell more copies than are sitting there in his dad’s garage gathering dust just to prove that he can.
5.) Who are you writing for? I mean, here’s the thing: writers need readers. We work alone in a room but at the end of the day, if our work doesn’t impact a reader, we have nothing. So unless you are truly writing for yourself (see the note on therapeutic writing, above), you must keep the reader in mind. You must write for a specific reader with specific needs and wishes and desires. Do they want to be educated? Entertained? Do they want a bit of escape, some laughter? Know what their pain is and write to give it to them. Your odds of reaching them will greatly increase.
But can you control whether or not you do, actually, reach the readers you are writing for? Unfortunately, no. Failure — however you define that — is part of the equation. It’s a risk every creator takes. It’s another reason why writing is so hard — we have to feel the emotion and do the work and risk having no one care. It’s a brutal truth, but it is a truth nonetheless.
It might help Michael — and all of us — to think about what failure looks like. Obviously a garage full of books! But publishing has changed dramatically since Michael’s dad filled his garage. There are now so many ways to publish and so many ways to get books into the hands of writers. So assuming you can find a more viable path to publication, what constitutes failure? Not getting a review in the New York Times? Not making a million dollars? Not getting a movie deal? Those are high bars that not a lot of writers meet. So assuming you don’t reach those, what does failure look like?
Another way of asking this is, What does success look like? How can you define it in a way that you can control?
Many people say that simply not finishing would be failure. They literally don’t want to die before they write a book. So can you finish? As the first measure of success? And what would then be the second measure of success? What would be wild success? Write those things down. Get clear about them. Then set out to achieve them.
In addition to asking yourself these questions, ask WHY you want these things. This is a harder question, obviously.
Right now I am like a dog with a bone wanting my business to hit the million-dollar revenue mark. I recognize that it is an arbitrary goal, a number that has little to do with how my business really looks or acts or performs. But I still want it. I have to ask myself: Why?
The answer goes back to that wanting to prove something thing. Wanting to be seen as special and accomplished and awesome. Wanting to not be like every other failed entrepreneur who had a good idea that didn’t fly. Which is the same thing as wanting to not be like the dad with the boxes of books in the garage.
And guess what? The ONLY way to not endure those failures is to take action to move forward. The only way forward is to try.
If you let fear stop you, fear wins.
So the answer to the question about who you are writing for is: yourself. You’re writing for that ideal reader, and writing so that you don’t have to live with the fact of not having tried.
6.) How do you carry on with uncertainty?
You embrace the fact that there is no other way.
You embrace the fact that if the outcome were guaranteed, it wouldn’t be half as much fun or half as satisfying when you reach “the end.”
You remember that every single writer whose work you have ever loved felt the same uncertainty and carried on. Imagine if they hadn’t, how much less bright the world would be. Take their accomplishment as inspiration. And establish and keep the habits you need to get the work done.
7.) Writers gotta write. And you can TELL that Michael is a writer: just look at how he wrote a whole story in this tossed-off email. And look at his gorgeous and brutal metaphor of the boxes in the garage. He’s a writer, through and through. And that is both a blessing and a curse. There’s no way out but through, as Churchill once said.