For the Artists Who Like to Remain Strictly Out of the Box
When was the last time you did what you really wanted to do? And when you tried, how often did you foul it up before you finally gave up on the idea? As you sat in the dark and sulked in your sorrow, trying to pacify your decision to quit, did you meticulously calculate the man-hours spent chasing your dream? The reality of it all is enough to send anyone into a deep depression. Maybe that’s why Lawrence Block once said “If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.”
Sometimes I think of Michael Jordan or Walt Disney when failures knock me to my knees. Neither of these men had the natural ability to be successful at what they did. Walt Disney threw hundreds of drawings in the trash before one was a success(1). At one point, he was told his idea for a cartoon character wouldn’t work because “a giant mouse on the screen would terrify women.” Michael Jordan(2) had one obstacle after another. He lost almost 300 games, missed over 9,000 shots, and 26 times he was given the ball to take the game winning shot and MISSED.
Michael’s and Walt’s early days are considered failed attempts at success. Who would sit back and watch a young Jordan miss shot after shot and suggest he might one day be one of the greatest players to ever play the game? How many of us would laugh at Walt Disney as he poured over his ideas to bring moveable cartoons to the big screen? Can you imagine the ridicule? Can you see the bankers cringe at the idea of extending him another loan? For a cartoon character? With something to prove, these men managed to rise above the mockery and stay focused, using their failures as motivation.
At times I wanted to throw in the towel and turn away from my dream to become a writer. I went through the motions of disconnecting my computer, cleaning my office, and placing every reference book I owned in the trash, only to put them back on the shelf–just in case.
All sorts of things got in my way-work, family issues, and the many voices convincing me I should pay someone to help me. I listened to suggestions to read one website after another so I could better learn the art of writing. I don’t condemn efforts to help me. Matter of fact, I learned a great deal. But somewhere along the way, I committed a horrible sin. I convinced myself others were far superior and there was no way I could measure up to their beautiful ability to create a literary work of art.
No one told me to take critiques in stride or to ignore those who just didn’t get it. No one told me that being a writer was a subjective craft. That one person would look at a scene and immerse themselves in it and feel exactly what was going on, while others would pick the scene apart and find a hundred and one things wrong with it–from the number of times I used “that” to the number of times I split a paragraph in the wrong place.
To keep myself humble, I took everyone’s opinion/critique as gospel and whittled away at my ability to be creative. Before I knew it, my self-confidence was gone. I later realized I didn’t know how to sift through the noise and keep my own voice. In short, I wanted to please everyone–never mind the fact I was the storyteller and could literally do whatever I pleased with my book. One day, amidst my confusion, I asked myself if I could possibly move forward and, if so, how.
There will be days when you can’t write a word. There will even be times when after a bad critique you can’t get out of the dugout and move past your hurt feelings to finish your edits or write fresh material. It’s assured, though, unless you plant butt-in-chair and keep it there, failure will tap you on the shoulder right before it blows a hole in your world.
Not long ago, someone did just that. A lady in my critique group sent me an e-mail and said she’d be happy to critique the first chapter of my family saga. She was kind, professional, and sent me her credentials as assurance of her qualifications. I felt honored this wonderful person would share her time with me. In fact, I was a little giddy about the whole idea and could hardly sleep that night. I wish I had.
The next day was unnerving. There wasn’t a sentence in the first paragraph that wasn’t ripped apart. Though most of her corrections were right on she pounded my self-esteem until it resembled sawdust, making me wonder why I had the audacity to think I could write. Needless to say, I decided, “That’s it. I quit.” Later my husband talked me out of it. Still, my drive was gone, my identity shattered.
To my surprise, within three or four days, I replaced the desire to quit with a need to weed through the painful remarks and validate her critique. I highlighted anything meaningful and I ditched the rest. The lesson here? If you think for one minute you can withstand an honest critique, think again. My advice: before you read a critique, think of the worst day in your life then the critique won’t seem so bad. If you still can’t handle it, treat yourself to a day spa, go see a romantic movie, then go home and prop your feet up, ’cause you’re done.
Writing is a very personal experience. Yet, it becomes everyone’s business if you plan to deliver your writing to the masses. It’s not okay to waste people’s time with writing you’ve hammered out in an hour without spending twice as much time proofing it. Neither is it fair to ask a consumer to spend $7.99 to $19.99 for a book that your friends approved. Your readers deserve the best product you can produce. That means you’ll have to go the extra mile to have it proofread and edited. More importantly, you are not being fair to you if you don’t develop a passion for writing (or for anything you decide to do).
Writing should keep you up at night. It’s a common occurrence for me to tiptoe in the dark to my computer and finish an idea swirling around in my head. I’m amazed when I look up three hours later and notice so much time has passed. I can’t tell you the number of times I have tossed and turned in my bed, tiring myself out, before finally getting up to write.
To be honest, I’d rather write than eat. I absolutely hate having to stop in the middle of a scene and go to the bathroom or pause to eat lunch. I’ve skipped more meals than I can count (and still haven’t lost a pound of cellulite) and have gnawed on stale, crusted bread just so I can keep writing and not break my concentration.
For me, there’s something fascinating about the English language that dares me to rearrange every sentence I lay my eyes on. I can’t sit through a scrabble game without making a mental note of an unfamiliar word so I can later look it up in the dictionary. I crave to create words that seem to leap off the page, pound with rhythm, whip through the air, lull you to sleep or sing as soft as the sound of hummingbird’s wings. It’s nice when I dare my readers to love villains, hate heroes, and feel the fire between two lovers.
To accomplish this, I must first believe in myself. I must endeavor to believe that beyond all the dangling modifiers, misused words, run-on sentences, needless adjectives, and wordy sentences (like this one), there’s a story brewing. The healing for poorly written manuscripts are reading and writing, and more writing and reading. Sure, I can spend $199 for an online class. Not a thing wrong with it if you have the cash. Nothing wrong with taking a creative writing course at your community college either. But I assure you, nothing will cure what ails a writer, but writing and reading, and reading and writing.
Maybe you don’t want to be a writer. Maybe you want to be something else. Go for it! But beware. You will have all types of cheerleaders: those who will say you can’t and those who will say you can; those who will say it’s impossible and those who will say reach for the stars. You can be certain none of those voices really matter except your own. What good is it if someone says you can, but buzzing inside your head is: “I really can’t do this. I don’t have the skills. It will take too long. I don’t have the education.” Those excuses merely explain who you are-a dear soul with a low self-esteem. Are you willing to allow these excuses to lock you in?
Writing is one of the hardest professions in the world, yet, millions have become successful at it. And here are two concrete truths: no two people have the same writing ability, and not all published writers write well. Still, you must do as good writers do. It is imperative your old ideas have a new spin on it, or you come up with a fresh idea (good luck with this one). Then it’s necessary for you to plant butt-in-chair, fail half a dozen times, throw things, lose sleep, and if necessary, go broke, and keep fantasizing your dreams to reality. Unless you have a physical handicap keeping you from implementing these things, there is absolutely nothing standing in your way to become a writer.
So, plant your butt-in-chair and join me on this stressful journey to success. Take whatever idea you have and hammer away at it until you have accomplished every single thing imaginable. There will be roadblocks, so, don’t pretend they aren’t coming. Rather, be prepared for them. Think of yourself as abnormal if roadblocks don’t emerge. Nevertheless, determine to move forward. At age 64, if Diana Nyad can successfully swim from Cuba to Florida, you and I can become better writers. This document proves my success. Show the world yours.
(1) The Life and Times of Walt Disney.
(2) Business Insider: Thomas Edison and Michael Jordan were Failures.
About Donna B. Comeaux
Donna B. Comeaux was a legal assistant for over 15 years before she decided to follow her dream several years ago to become a writer. She is working on several novels, writing poetry, and thoroughly enjoying freelance writing. To be inspired and encouraged by her spiritual poetry, see three chapters of her novel, and read her blogs, go to awriterfirst.wordpress.com.