Get Your Priorities Straight, Mate

This short essay is a response to the recent article by the Peevish Penman entitled, “NanoWriMo: A Cautionary Tale”, which you can find posted in full here.

In her article, Peevish Penman (hereafter shortened to PP) provides us with a heartful recounting, though short on exact details, of his own successful attempt at NaNoWriMo and in particular, the cost that winning had on her life. Whilst he doesn’t specifically say so during the article the tone of the piece implies that she regrets this cost, and her article is an attempt to counsel caution to those wishing to attempt the challenge, warning them of the hardships sure to follow.

It is laudable to see past winners of NaNoWriMo, and writers in general, willing to share their stories and this work contains at its heart an obvious desire to help others avoid what she feels was a costly decision on her part. I applaud her decision to do so, and if that was all this article provided it would hardly require a response.

However, the tone of the article itself is quite down; not as down as some other well known articles on the subject recently, but on the whole not hopeful. It is unclear as to whether this is the author’s intention or if the work is simply being filtered through the colours of her own experience, which were obviously difficult. In any case, I feel that advice in a similar vein from a different point of view might shed a bit more light on the gloom.

If You Want to Write, Write

This should go without saying but I’m not sure everyone realises just how easy it is to fit writing into your life.  You just sit down and do it, one day at a time, one page at a time, and you continue until the end.

There are a million pieces of advice floating around to help you get into what have become popularly called “good writing habits.” Some people advocate a separate space in the house just for your writing to help you get in the mood, or writing at exactly the same time each day, or simply ensuring you do write each day. One famous author, though unfortunately I cannot remember his name, just the anecdote, and a quick search did not turn up any references, once told his friends that he dedicated a certain period of time each day, several hours, to writing. It didn’t matter if all he did was sit at his typewriter and stare at the wall, he didn’t stand up until the time was done. John Scalzi wrote a book about the writing life called “You’re not fooling anyone when you take your laptop to a coffee shop”, which shows quite explicitly what he thinks of that particular fad.

In the end though, what it boils down to is do you wish to write, or not? Some people are in love with the idea of being a writer, a mythical state, but not with the writing itself. There are, and likely always have been, two types of writer in the world. Those who talk about what they will write, and those who talk about what they have written.  If you want to create, sit down and do so, and join that second group.

Have No Shame and a Skin of Steel

The single biggest obstacle to being a writer, and the one that hobbled me for many years, is fear. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of putting yourself on display. The only way to conquer this fear is to conquer it head on. Writing requires a healthy ego, you need to believe that what you write is worth reading and be willing to send it out to be rejected over and over and over.  Rejection is part of the writing life, make no mistake, and it is no reflection on you or your work. Pieces get rejected for many reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of work but instead have to do with work already purchased, publishing schedules, budgets, market pressures and other things that are out of your control. Getting rejected will hurt, but be pragmatic about it and send it out again until you run out of markets. You chance of being successful might be small, there is a lot of competition, but it’s far greater than the chance if you leave it sitting in a drawer. Remember, Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected by no less than twenty publishers before someone saw the value in it. Bet they are kicking themselves now.

Maybe it’s Crap

It is quite possible that your baby, the story or book that you laboured on for days, weeks, months or even years, is just rubbish. Unfortunately you wont know that, particular as (as mentioned earlier) even rejection is not necessarily a comment on the worth of a piece. The greatest asset you can have as a writer is an honest critic who can look at your work with unbiased eyes and help you see where it falls flat, where it could be better, and if it’s worth saving at all.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have such a person, or even people plural, in your circle than you might consider a critique group, either a locally meeting circle or an online community such as Critters. This is another case where thick skin is important as you wont like everything you hear.  Think long and hard about each comment, they wont all be right and none of them might be, but it is always worth having honest opinion no matter how painful it might be.

Back on Topic

I have meandered somewhat from the intended topic of focusing entirely on NaNoWriMo, so let us return. One of the primary problems PP found during her efforts was the lack of time. As she reports, “I had only an hour a day, without staying up into the late night.” This is a problem I am well familiar with. Over the last few years I have gotten married, earned my Masters degree in Systems Development, bought a house and had my first child. All of this I did whilst holding down a full time job that has been steadily requiring more and more time over the standard eight hours.  During that time I also wrote on occasion. It’s difficult and I find myself often exhausted by the efforts, as I am sure that PP was.

However, I also know my capabilities. That is an important thing to understand about yourself, I quite often only have an hour or two myself each day and have several times found myself writing late. When that happens though, it is often my own fault – If I rid myself of distractions I know I can write 1700 words in an hour without over straining myself, so I know that NaNoWriMo is not impossible given my current schedule. Personally, I think this is likely the mistake that PP made and is trying to warn others not to. How much can you write in the time you have available? Not everyone can write 1700 words in an hour, and many people can write a lot more. If the time required at your pace to make the goal is more than you have available, is there anything in your life that can take a backseat for the length of the month? Preferably something that is non-essential, rather than giving up sleeping, eating or washing. Not looking after your body is the road to ill-health that PP talks of, and wont help your writing much either.

If the answer is no, then you probably wont make the 50,000 goal. Don’t feel that you can’t try anyway; remember what I said above and conquer your fear of failure. What’s the worst that happens if you finish the month with only 20,000 words instead of 50? Your ego is a little bruised.  Of course, you also have 20,000 words that you probably wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t tried, so on the whole you can come out ahead.

Priorities, Priorities, Priorities

As you may have guessed from the title of this short essay, this is the essential point I have been trying to make, the point that I think PP missed in her work. If you want to Write (not the capital), and want to take it seriously rather than as a lark, you need to be sure that you’ve considered your priorities.

Writing is full of stories of despondent authors, tragic figures who sacrificed their entire lives for art. It’s almost becoming a cliché and many would-be writers worship at this altar of “Sacrifice the All”.

When you are thinking about whether you have time to write, whether you want to commit to a regular writing schedule or whether you have what it takes to be a Writer, sit down and consider this.  What are you willing to give up to be a writer?

Please note that I am not saying you have to give anything up, that you have to sacrifice anything at all. That, I think, is the single most harmful yet prevalent myth about writing that has ever existed. Even the ancients loved a tragic figure, and holding these tragic authors up on the pedestal has given many people the false expectation of what is expected of them as an author.

So just have a think about it, a simple thought experiment, nothing more.  What would you give up?

Watching your favourite TV show? Surfing the net of an evening? Twitter? Reading? How about time with your children? How about your house? Your wife/husband? Would you give them up? Your job? Health? Sanity?

We’re going a bit far there and hopefully you stopped long before we got on to losing our spouses, if you got started at all. However, in the past, just about all of these things have been given up by writers lost in their desire to write.

If you think, even for a moment, that PP’s cautionary tale applies to you, if you are honestly worried that perhaps it will cost you more than you want to pay to participate in NaNoWriMo, or to write at all, then this is all you need to do.  Make that list in your head, include all the things that are important to you, and work out where writing stands in relation to them. 

Perhaps you’re willing to give up some of the time you spend rock-climbing to work on your writing? Perhaps you really are willing to give up your significant other if they get in the way of your Great Work? If so, I admire your dedication, it is certainly at a level that I will never (nor want to) achieve.

Or perhaps you’re not willing to give up anything in your life to accommodate a writing habit. That’s fine too, so long as you know.

PP offers this advice very similar advice and she is wholly correct here.  The only thing you have to do, once you have determined your priorities, is pay attention to your surroundings and the affect it has on your other priorities.  The second one of those parts of your life that is higher up the list than writing starts to seriously suffer because of it, cut back, or walk away altogether. Don’t feel any shame or regret, know that you did exactly what you set out to do and you walked away when you said you would. A man (or woman) of his (or her) word has nothing to be ashamed of.

One final note; don’t be cautious. Caution can be prudent, but often people restrain themselves because of fear and call it caution to excuse what it really is. Be BOLD! Cape Diem! If you have the urge to write, then write damn you and show them all what it looks like inside your head.

All you need to do, is remember the motto inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Gnothi Seauton.

Know Thyself.


About frater

Author, Software Architect, Husband and Father.
This entry was posted in Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Get Your Priorities Straight, Mate

  1. Dr8k says:

    You leave my rock-climbing out of it 😛

    Having said that, good advice. Also, I could spend less time surfing the internet. However, I am seriously afraid that if I did so all the gossip would back up in the tubes and burst out devouring the world and causing the end of days!

    Maybe I will spend a little less time online after all….

    • frater says:

      I’m always reminded of an author giving advice some time ago (I suspect it may have been Scalzi again), whenever someone tells him they have no time to read, he asks them how much TV they watch each night. Even I, who don’t care much for TV, watch a fair bit each week (generally the Daily Show and the Colbert Report ;)). If all you do is carve an hour out of that each day, or even just an hour or two a week, then you’ll read a few books more each year than you currently do.

      Same stands for writing. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time to be significant, just time.

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