When my older brother and I were 8 or 10 or 12 years old, Mom would turn off the Olympic Games because we got so down in the dumps about how little we had achieved in our lives.
These days, it’s even easier to see what everyone else is achieving. Don’t misunderstand: I love to see writer friends achieve challenging milestones! It gives me hope that it can be done.
Over time, I’ve collected a lot of friends who write and publish, so there are more and more milestones to celebrate. This is wonderful! It’s thrilling to see hard work rewarded and see good work in the hands of readers who enjoy it.
The problem comes when I look at my current projects and measure them against the goalposts of all my writer friends simultaneously.
I start wondering if my pumpkins will EVER bloom into coaches and drive away to the palace. It’s a kind of ambition sickness that makes me dissatisfied with my work and leaves me hopelessly unproductive.
So, what’s to do? How do you cure the Olympic Games Blues? Here are some questions that help me. Maybe you’d like to try them:
- Am I writing regularly? When I see a bit of progress* in my creative work, I feel much happier about my projects. If it isn’t possible to write a LOT, make time to write a LITTLE, regularly. A bit of scribbling in a notebook scares away the imposter syndrome.
*progress by any measure: word count, improved scene, dialogue, or understanding of character motivation etc.
- What creative work have I done this year? When I feel like I’m getting nowhere, it helps to widen the window. Bill Gates widens it even more: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
- What have I learned about writing recently? I don’t mean information about writing or publishing. I mean what have I experienced about writing or tested out in publishing. (Show Don’t Tell applies to more than the written page.)
- Am I taking risks in my writing and publishing? Risks can be queries, contests, workshops, whatever. Risks are scary to the lizard brain, but they fill the creative brain with hope. Something is about to happen!
- Whose work inspires me right now? Reading reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place. It also makes me happy and happiness makes the creativity flow. Reading books I love gives me the experience I want to give readers. That experience gives me ideas of things I want to try in my own writing.
- What’s the very next step? I had an advisor in graduate school who helped me so much during my dissertation research. He took time to meet with me, listened to what I was working on, and asked, “What’s next?” This question works wonders because it’s easy to get behind when you get ahead of yourself.
- Do something else. The elusive joy of writing sometimes shakes loose after we play hard to get for a while. Try gardening, long hikes, cooking, or whatever hits your reset button.
- Broaden your gaze. Put your work in perspective. Get involved in a charity auction, visit a prison and do a workshop on writing, or do an open mike with a girl scout troop. Figure out how your work can give something to others in another way. Take the pressure off the words.
- Lose a rule. What are you telling yourself about writing and publishing that might not be true? Try dropping a writing “rule” and see what happens.
Ambition puts the focus on an inflexible, predetermined, and probably inaccurate future. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ambition is called a “grievous fault” and is connected with greed for power. Ambition is an attempt to steal the future.
Creativity happens in the present. It solves problems playfully, without worrying about the Olympic Gold. Persistence puts the focus on the creative work and not on the uncontrollable outcome.
What helps you when the bar seems too high? Feel free to share in the comments below. I’d love to know what you do to get your writing life back on track.
If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.
Terrific advice, every bit of it! Maybe I’ll print it out and post it above my desk… And I have one thought to add. My sister has taught me something that helps when I’m feeling overwhelmed, something related to what your adviser said (“What’s next?”). She taught me to just “Do the next thing.” When I’m overwhelmed by so much that needs to happen in my novel (or in life), I just “do the next thing” and focus on that, not on grappling with everything at once. It’s pretty much the way everything works anyway!
Do the next thing is brilliant. I love it! How about a set of espresso cups with inspiring slogans? 🙂
Excellent article!! I commented. 🙂
Great advice! I also keep a “goodies” folder, where I store e-mails containing praise I’ve received. I don’t actually open it very often, but just knowing I have a folder full of items that impressed other people sometimes helps.
That’s a super-smart idea too! It helps so much to see that we’re making progress in some area or other. Thanks @LauraRuekert!