Some unsolicited advice about writing and happiness

Experienced runners will often give this advice on goal-making to new runners (yes, it’s another running/writing metaphor. Bear with me). When training for a race, runners should make three goals. One is a shoot-for-the-moon, best of all possible worlds goal: for example, I’m going to qualify for Boston. Or, I’m going to PR (personal record, or in other words, I’m going to run the fastest I ever have for this distance). One is a more realistic goal based on how your training is going: I’m going to shave 5 minutes off my time. The last goal is minimalist: I am going to finish this race.

The last goal is kept in reserve for what happens if the race goes terribly wrong. GI distress, you trip and fall (I’ve seen it happen), it’s raining, or even worse, it’s 85 degrees and 90% humidity. I ran a half with a woman whose boyfriend had broken up with her only a few weeks before the race. She was an ultra runner; the type who runs 50 miles in the mountains of Colorado without batting an eyelash. She was running the Austin half as a break between more serious, challenging races. I was running it because that’s all I could run.

We met at the start of the race, and by the end, we became best friends. It’s a wonderful thing that happens in the magic of the race.

On a good day, she would have run me into the ground. On that day, she finished within 5 minutes of me and came up to me crying afterwards because she was so happy. You see, she ran (literally, it was a race) into her boyfriend midway through the south Austin hills and couldn’t stop crying. The race no longer mattered; it was all she could do to finish. And when she crossed the finish line, all 5’3″, 115 pounds of her, she looked happier than an Olympic marathon champion. I’m sure the adrenalin and endorphins helped. But she was an experienced runner; she was able to change her goals midway through the race and end strong. And I think that’s why she was able to overcome any doubts or disappointments that might have ruined her day and instead turn them into a positive experience.

I think a lot of the times we writers only set the shoot-for-the-moon, best of all possible worlds goal: I’m going to get published, make zillions of dollars, and build a mansion like that kid in the movie “Blank Check”:

But what happens if our goal is too much for us? What happens when we start getting rejections letters, when our top agent rejects us with a form letter, when the big editing house turns us down? Or for the indie writers, what happens if our e-book doesn’t sell? If people leave us bad reviews? What if we’re ignored?
If our only goal is to get published, we will inevitably be disappointed. It’s just the way things go. I mean, yes, hopefully our books and our stories and our articles will be published eventually. But what about all that time in between?
And I have a sad truth that is echoed by bloggers such as Natalie Whipple and Michelle Davidson Argyle: publishing won’t make you happy. If you’re not happy before you are published, you won’t be happy afterwards. It’s just too much pressure for one life event to carry.
Sure, the event itself is exciting. When I saw my first book review posted, I was giddy, and it was cool to show Husband my printed book review in a Real Live Journal (partly because it gave me a bit of justification for not having a 9–5 job). But when I’m sad, I don’t think of these accomplishments and instantly feel better about myself. They’re just part of life, not the whole thing. We need to find our bliss  in other places, because the publishing industry is way too volatile and impersonal to carry the weight of our insecurities, hopes, fears, and dreams.
Rather than pursue one, big goal, we should set other, smaller goals too. You can’t PR on every race, just like you can’t publish everything that you write (that would be awesome, but even Stephen King in On Writing admitted there are some short stories he wrote that no one will buy). We need to set smaller goals: I’m going to make this story stronger than the last one. I’m going to write a designated amount of words each week. I’m going to blog x times per week. 
And then we should set a minimalist goal: I’m going to write. In a journal, a blog entry, a letter to your aunt, whatever. Because writers, much like runners, sometimes find that halfway through the race, life throws an obstacle in our path. And we have to find a way to make it a positive challenge, rather than one that brings us down.

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6 thoughts on “Some unsolicited advice about writing and happiness

  1. Teddi says:

    This was a great entry. Thank you for writing it. I really liked the last few paragraphs. I often set myself up to fail when I write, because I psyche myself into thinking I have to write these 10 beautiful solid pages. It's so much important that we just write SOMETHING and that writing becomes a habit/lifestyle. Have you ever read Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"? She recommends a similar technique.I also wanted to thank you for the advice you have given me about grad school over the last year. Quite a few times you have answered my questions. I recently found out I was accepted into a pretty good MA program, which is certainly a step in the right direction!

  2. Laura M. Campbell says:

    A great post! Making smaller, less rigorous goals can help you stay on the path moving forwards with anything you do. I always get down on myself when I don't reach the one goal. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Sarah Allen says:

    Oh heavens, I can't begin to tell you how badly I needed this right now. I feel so in limbo with writing, between projects, not yet started submitting the first or began writing the second. Still working on getting to that point on both of them, but still…limbo. So the idea of having more manageable goals in my mind, both with this and other life things, somehow takes a huge load off my shoulders. Thank you 🙂Sarah Allen(my creative writing blog)

  4. Gia says:

    Interesting. I think you're right in that we shouldn't put all of our happiness eggs in one basket, so to speak. But I think trying to pursue happiness through that kind of achievement (writing) is a heck of a lot better than some other people's goals – like finding a significant other or money. And when I said the significant other thing, I mean it in a shallow "I need a BF!" kind of way. I don't think there's anything wrong with people who find happiness in having a family or being a mother (or a SAHM, for that matter.)

  5. Anna says:

    Yay Teddi!!!! That is such great news!!!! There are not enough exclamation points in the world for how happy I am for you :)And thanks for your awesome comments. I read them, I truly do, even if I am terrible at replying to them.

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