Dash Your Dreams: A Guide to Finding Happiness as a Writer

Absolute Blank

 By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Once upon a time, I worked with a bunch of people who disliked their jobs. One guy had figured out the exact number of days left until he could take early retirement. Each morning he would wander in and say, “2,524 days until retirement,” and the next day, “2,523 days until retirement,” and so on. Another guy was a Constant Complainer. Every time he walked in the room, he had something new to complain about. He hated everything. He was miserable. His life was passing him by. He constantly talked about what he would do when he retired (he was only in his mid-40s). One day, frustrated by his constant whining, I asked him why he didn’t do something about it. Look for a different job, go back to school. Something. Anything. “Oh, I can’t do that,” he said. “I’d lose my pension.”

My co-workers weren’t oppressed laborers with no marketable skills; they were educated professionals. If they had really wanted to change jobs or even careers, they could have. But of course, they were never serious about making a change. They were dreamers, and pessimistic ones at that: the kind of people who claim that they want to do this or that but at the same time have umpteen excuses why this or that is not, and never will be, possible. If somehow they had been magically transported to the place that they claimed they wanted to be, they would have found something new to complain about. That’s the thing about dreamers: they’re never satisfied.

Well, they might not have been going anywhere, but I sure was. I moved on, but took with me a valuable lesson: I have no right to complain about things that are within my power to change unless I am actually doing something to address the situation. Not going to do anything about it? Shut up about it, then.

Shortly thereafter, I joined an online writing community and the rest, as they say, is history. Since that time, both at the site where I started out and here at Toasted Cheese, I’ve witnessed many people—who started out just like anyone else, posting and critiquing on forums—achieve various successes as writers—publishing short stories, embarking on MFA programs, writing books, etc. Some have had novels published. I’ve also seen many people who never seem to make it past the newbie phase, who remain perpetually stuck at “I want to write” or seem to have only ever written one piece that they re-hash repeatedly. The difference between those who can confidently call themselves writers and the wannabes is no big secret: the writers write. Wannabes are dreamers. Writers are doers.

Now, I’m not going to tell that you should be writing. Maybe you shouldn’t be. Unless you actually have a deadline to meet (do you?), no one cares whether you write or not besides you. There’s no “should” about it. However, if you talk about writing more often than you actually write and perhaps continually feel guilty about that or if you’ve come to view writing as a necessary evil to be endured because somewhere along the line you put “write a novel” on your life goals list or if your writing is so stagnant that your plan for the year consists of buying lottery tickets (when you win, you will rent a house in Tuscany, be inspired by the food, and write a book about it—oh, wait, that’s been done…), I encourage you to stop, take some time to reflect, and think about why this is so.

Background Image: Sara|photosara/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason.

An excuse is an obstacle that you put in your path so that you don’t have to do something you claim you want to do. Switching jobs might have set my complaining colleague back a little, but no one was going to take away the contributions he’d already made to his pension. That was an excuse, not a reason, for his inertia.

The major difference between reasons and excuses is that reasons are temporary, while excuses are forever. Let’s say you fully intend to do NaNoWriMo this year, but while taking your kids trick-or-treating, you slip on some ice and break your arm. That’s a legitimate reason why you might not meet your goal as planned. But that broken arm only postpones your conquering of NaNo; it doesn’t prevent you from ever winning.

“I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” are not reasons; they’re excuses. This isn’t to say that you’re not tired or busy. You probably are. But unless there has been a recent, unexpected change in your life, you knew how tired and busy you’d be when you set your goal. And you also probably know that tired and busy aren’t going to go away any time soon. If you really wanted to accomplish what you say you want to, you’d figure out a way to make progress despite being tired and busy.

Unlimited time to write is not all it’s cracked up to be.

One thing I realized when I did NaNoWriMo for the first time is that having only a little free time to work with is a blessing, not a curse. For one thing, it forces you to organize your time. If you want to write, you have to put it into your schedule and do it at the appointed time, otherwise it’s not going to get done. If your entire day is free, it’s too easy to say, “I’ll write later.” For another thing, when that time’s up, if you’ve kept your appointment, you can cross “write!” off your To Do list and forget about it for the rest of the day. No guilt and a sense of accomplishment. What could be better?

A lack of time is rarely a valid reason for not writing. What we really mean when we say that we have “no time” is that we’re brain dead, we can’t think straight, we would rather just veg out in front of the TV or the computer or read a book or go to bed. Which is fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s your life; do what you like.

But be honest with yourself: if a vast swath of uninterrupted writing time dropped into your lap, would you use it in the way you dream you would? How many times have you taken a writing project with you on vacation only to bring it back in the exact same state it left, justifying your lack of progress with: “I deserve a real break.” Again, you probably do. But if writing is something you truly want to do, think about why—given unlimited free time—you’d still rather be doing something else.

Passion for the journey is more satisfying than passion for the destination.

Often people who express dissatisfaction with writing seem more enamored with remote possibilities (acclaim, wealth, fame) and perhaps the mystique and accoutrements (pens! notebooks! black turtleneck sweaters and geek glasses!) of being a writer than they are with the actual writing process. It’s fine to want to emulate your favorite writers (or their cinematic counterparts), but when you nestle into that comfy chair at your favorite coffeeshop and pull out your laptop, is it to open your work-in-progress or check your email? Do all your daydreams segue from first lines to book signings? If that’s the case, then perhaps you find the image of The Writer more appealing than the reality of being a writer.

To become skilled at anything, you have to practice. Putting words down on paper is a writer’s practice. Yes, it can be arduous at times, but we do it anyway—even when we know the entire day’s work will end up in the recycle bin. Sometimes you have to write 500 words of crap to get 50 good words; that’s just how writing goes. And on some level, you have to enjoy this, even as you’re tearing out your hair or pacing away from your keyboard in frustration.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ideas are or how much you want to hold a finished copy of your work-in-progress in your hands, if you don’t enjoy the process of writing, you’re going to eventually burn out and do whatever you can to avoid it. If this sounds like you, ask yourself: Why do I want to write? When you “should be” writing, what are you doing instead? If you enjoy whatever that is more than writing, it’s quite possible that your passion lies elsewhere. It’s also possible that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for writing because you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Fiction is not the holy grail of writing.

Not every writer’s talents lie in fiction, yet nobody puts “write a feature-length article for The New Yorker,” much less “write a weekly gardening column for my hometown newspaper” on their life list, they put “write a novel.” The pervasive sentiment is that novelists are the real writers and everyone else wants to write a novel but just hasn’t got around to it yet.

This is silly. There are plenty of talented writers who have never written a word of fiction and have no intention of ever doing so. This doesn’t make them lesser writers. Have you been trying to write in a particular genre—be it fiction or poetry or something else—and it’s just not working? Instead of beating yourself up about it, try writing something completely different. Keep trying new things until you find something that clicks.

If you are a writer, something will click. The words will flow better; the sentences and paragraphs will be easier to arrange. Sure, you’ll still have moments of frustration, but writing time will become something you look forward to rather than dread. If, on the other hand, you still find yourself spending more time doodling pictures in the margins of your spiral notebooks than writing, consider the possibility that you’re really an artist at heart.

Writing is work, but it’s not scrubbing toilets. You should get some pleasure out of it. If the thought of writing makes you miserable and all you ever do is complain about it, then something’s not right. Stop and take the time to figure out why you are dissatisfied. You’re not a prisoner chained to your laptop. Take charge of your writing life and change what isn’t working. Finding happiness as a writer is within your power.

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