Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a world-famous storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.
Everyone needs a pep talk now and then. I could use one at least once a week. I know a lot of damn fine writers who’re having challenging times right now. Maybe it’s just the year 2017, a surge of new energy which has left us feeling stifled and worn down. I think drive comes in waves. Easy to manifest when you’re young and hungry, also easy when you’re working for paychecks. An unexamined life is not worth living. What makes you tick, my friends? Why do you feel the need to work hard for your dream?
For me, a famous song lyric says it all: “Time inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.”
There’s a certain creative disposition that fuels productivity by way of dread for the brevity of life. I am of that disposition. When I get into a writing slump, I wake up in the middle of the night feeling unfulfilled and guilty. I’ve got so much to say, so many stories to tell. Maybe it’s more important to create as if nothing can harm us, as if the whole universe is waiting for our next works of art. It can feel like that sometimes, can’t it? Thank God.
Do you have big dreams for your writing career? I certainly do. There’s kind of a junction between what we want and what reality is willing to give us. What keeps us writing even when no publishers are interested in our work and readers are few and far between?
I think the answer is more universal than people realize. If you’ve been doing this long enough, no doubt you know a few people who’ve climbed further faster than you. Now this can be a really painful experience, and I think it’s okay to admit it. Is it petty to resent those who’ve accumulated more success than us? It is, but to a large extent it’s also unavoidable.
It’d take a very balanced personality indeed to shrug off adversity 100% of the time. There’s something within us, perhaps culled from our hunter-gatherer days, that endows us with an astonishing capacity for jealousy.
“How’d he publish that book? Mine is so much better!”
“And she won an award for it? Meanwhile I’m sitting here in obscurity, twiddling my thumbs.”
Comments like these are a sure sign of a bad attitude, but tell me you’ve never thought something similar. It’s normal, right? Even if we don’t want it to be. But I’d also like to remind you it’s corrosive to the mind and spirit.
Publishing is a tricky business because we’re all vying for limited resources. Only so many pub spots, book deals, and readers worldwide. Add to it the fact readership across the globe is on the decline, and holy cow! The competition is on. Some people are fueled by competition. In a perfect world we’d all hold hands and celebrate each other’s work and tell ourselves we can be happy, healthy and sane no matter how many copies of our latest masterworks we sell (or fail to sell).
In the end, jealousy tends to destroy people who cling to it. I do believe jealousy also serves a higher function. You can watch everyone around you meet with success and learn a great deal from it. Watch the successful ones, pay attention to their habits and practices. Are they better writers than you? Doubtful. Perhaps they’re just more keyed in to what sells. I have to admit I’m not very good at this. I have to do everything the hard way. Don’t be like me. Many people will tell you success is a game of luck. I’m not so sure I believe in luck anymore.…
That which we define as luck, I think, can be greatly enhanced by focus and productivity. You can beat the odds by maintaining a steady workflow and making sure you’re constantly revising, submitting, rewriting, doing the dance. Belief is more important than luck. I think you’ve got to take charge of who you perceive yourself to be.
Quit telling yourself you’re a failure nobody wants to read. Stop it! Do your best to boost your ego. Nothing flawed or vain about it. Isn’t there enough in this world that tears us down? So build yourself up. Focus on the end goal, the dream day, a fresh contract, your pen set to the signature line. A few months later, another dream day, signing fresh copies of your latest best seller, a huge line piled up at your table, running out the bookstore (I always imagine a nice cozy Barns & Noble).
Everyone needs friends and allies, too. People who appreciate what you do. Now I’ve got to admit that if you’re just starting out or are not yet as successful as you’d like to be, finding individuals to believe in you might be a challenge. Who knows why people behave this way, but there’s something about a nascent writing dream that drives the skeptics crazy. I’ve met a million of them, and I know you have, too. Just keep working, focus on where you want to be rather than where you are in this present moment.
I’ll just go ahead and say it. I think it pays to be delusional. You’ve got to be the emperor with no clothes on. When people tell you, “Yeah but you aren’t this. I’ve known you for years. What you really are is this.” You’ve got to show them your fine purple robes, assure them they’re more than thin air, and then parade around like you aren’t naked.
Someone someday will clothe you in something more real. Better yet, you’ll manage to get hold of some nice clothes yourself. But you can’t be a victim of other people’s circumstances. You’ll feel what you’ll feel, but don’t let envy control your world. Because it will try, again and again. We’re not monks on high mountains practicing infinite patience and unbridled universal centeredness. We are at best creative people willing to bleed for our work. And what are you going to do as a result? Quit? Ha! You’re no quitter. You are everything literature and great minds have praised for eons. To write and succeed is a blessing. To endure even as we struggle, that is divine. See you next time, everyone!
Interested in Jeff’s writing? Check out his latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces: https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F
YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6uMxedp3VxxUCS4zn3ulgQ
Writer’s Block vs. The God Complex
by Jeff Bowles
Traditionally, I’ve never been a fan of taking breaks from my writing. I’ve advocated others not break from theirs either, telling myself and the entire writing world to keep pushing no matter what the circumstances. I’m having to alter that perception somewhat. You see, life can and does get in the way at times, and I don’t think there’s any use denying it. Staying driven and defiant in the face of adversity is all well and good. But what about personal tragedy, financial setbacks, lingering doubts, bouts of depression?
In my life as a writer I’ve received well over 600 rejection slips. Trust me, I’ve counted them recently. That’s never been enough to put the nail in the coffin of my work ethic, but somehow when it comes to my life in disarray, a hard fight is just about the only kind I know. Sometimes existence is smooth and sometimes it’s bumpy, and after all, that which you leave behind is paramount. So working your butt off no matter what, creating stories, filling your hard drive with new material, it’s got to be a saving grace of some sort, hasn’t it?
Only I’m not a machine, and neither are you. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Here on Writing to be Read, we hand out a lot of pro tips and offer words of wisdom for writers just starting out. I’d like to give you your concept of the morning: forgiveness. As in self-forgiveness, the only kind no one ever wants to grant. It’s so very easy to pretend your problems don’t exist. Sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter, and when life catches up to us, there can be a letdown in creativity.
Writing is a hard business to pursue day in and day out. Rather than being purely creative, it’s startlingly cerebral, which means those lovely brains of ours need to be in tip top shape if we’re going to create brilliant prose (which is always the goal, right?). The mind gets tired sometimes. What’s more, it’s far easier to produce another story when a deadline or paycheck is in play. But how do we put up with the work load when all guarantees of future success are null and void?
The answer is passion, I suppose, and a healthy dose of resolve. Discipline will get you to the finish line with startling regularity, but everyone gets burned-out sometimes, right? I would submit that what most people refer to as burnout is more attributable to depression. You’ve got to take care of yourself. Don’t ignore what your mind and body are screaming at you to acknowledge.
How do we refresh ourselves when we’re not in the mood to write? Creatively speaking—and this is just an example from my own experience—it’s always a good idea to have some kind of hobby or art project on the side. For instance, let’s say that 120,000 novel is really starting to drag you down ‘round about the 90,000 word mark. Why not go outside with a camera and begin a fun photography project? Or maybe pick up some paints and toss them at a canvas? Reading is also good, the kinds of stories you’ve always enjoyed most. Take a breather if you have to, though if I were you I’d narrow your daily word limits rather than abandoning your manuscript completely.
To be perfectly fair, I have never been great at refreshing myself in the middle of a long-haul project. The one thing that usually seems to work is finding escape in my words. Instead of viewing my writing as a crucible, I try to envision it as a form of therapy that allows me to escape my troubles and heal that which is damaged or broken. I don’t think this is easy for everyone to do, because the longer you’re at this thing, and the more life is stressing you out, the harder it is to view your writing in a positive light.
I know there will be plenty of writers out there who do not share my experience. After all, talent and depression don’t always go hand in hand, nor do they need to. But sometimes people go through bad months, bad years, and unless I miss my guess, during those times even the most productive writers find the work difficult. On social media the other day, a fellow author asserted writer’s block is just an excuse. I actually agree with the sentiment, though not by his same reasoning.
You see, calling a slump writer’s block allows us to focus on the results of our output rather than the cause. It’s like 17th century Salem assaulted by tragic events, blaming the whole thing on witchcraft. Writer’s block is a nothing phrase, a catch-all that doesn’t describe anything pertinent. Does it exist? Certainly, but not as an end itself. To me, writer’s block is and always will be a symptom of some form of depressed thinking.
When writers slow down, it’s important to consider life circumstances. Maybe the bills aren’t getting paid. Or perhaps there’s too much to do at the office. We humans are extraordinarily skilled at ignoring our troubles. Remember, everyone has bad days, months, years. It does no good to pretend we don’t. In fact, it only serves to make our writing woes that much harder to overcome.
Are you a writer who’s having trouble maintaining a steady workflow? Don’t get angry and do not criticize yourself. Call it writer’s block if you have to, but realize there’s a genuine cause that you can in fact address. Do a little soul searching, reacquaint yourself with your situation and get honest about what’s causing you difficulty. You understand best how talented you are. You are irreplaceable as a voice and as an individual, so get introspective and really try to parse out this downturn.
Consider a little self-nurturing. It’s not a sin to pause your work. It’s just not. Besides which, many of us consider writing a calling and a passion, no matter how successful or productive we are. You’ve come this far. If we can purge the negativity and bad emotion, the self-destructive tendencies and malaise, writer’s block is no longer such an issue. I’d rather work in a mind space free from all that crap. Wouldn’t you?
Most of the time writing is a damn thankless job. Let’s all be honest about that. It isolates us even at the best of times, so why’s it so hard to believe we sometimes need a little mental and emotional care? Be kind to yourself and respect your ability to produce. If you’re not feeling this right now, no worries, take a breather and work on yourself a bit. Until next time, everybody!
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces: Short Stories — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F