Every person’s most valuable asset is time. We only have a finite amount. We’re not even sure how much we get.
Don’t ask me why this post begins so bluntly. Maybe for the same reason my book on editing talks about death at the beginning. Maybe it’s the gray skies outside of the bookstore where I’m sitting right now. Maybe it’s lack of sleep over the last few days due to a lingering cough seemingly brought on by allergies.
Maybe it’s recently experiencing the rapidity of time that every new parent knows. (Where’s the sweet baby boy who’s suddenly been replaced by a two-year-old tantrum thrower?)
Maybe it’s the thoughts that couldn’t help but invade my mind as I struggled to fall asleep last week. Eventually, if you think long enough about what’s going on in your life, you come around to the brutal fact that you just don’t get much time.
It’s not that you don’t get enough time to write during the day, though that might be true.
And you just need to admit to yourself right now that you’re likely never going to finish your Netflix queue or your to-read shelf. (That last one is hard for me to reconcile.)
You don’t have enough time. Period.
Unless you’re one of the fortunate few, you likely won’t get to accomplish all you want to before your number is called.
I know. How’s that for encouraging?
Here’s my point: this is why your reader’s time is so valuable.
They can only make so many choices in life, and you’re hoping they choose to read you. Out of the millions of other options given to them today, you want them to invest their precious time in your words, your worlds, your mind, your book.
That’s why every writer’s deepest problem is self-doubt.
Ultimately, we doubt we’re worth someone else’s time.
We fear being cast aside for something, or someone, better.
And because our books are part of us, the babies we nurture with care before launching them into the world with no supervision whatsoever, we struggle mightily to separate our identities from our ISBNs.
We are our books, and if someone doesn’t like our books, they must not like us.
Maybe that’s hyperbole, but it’s probably closer to the truth than you’re willing to admit.
Just consider the results of this Twitter poll:
If you’re a #writer, how often do you fight self-doubt?
— Blake Atwood (@batwood) September 28, 2017
It almost seems that if you don’t doubt yourself as a writer, are you really a writer?
How presumptuous is it of me to think that anyone would want to read these words?
But I’ve learned a few things in the last three years of full-time freelance editing and writing. After writing what has to be more than a million words over my various jobs, I haven’t learned how to kill doubt.
But I have learned how to bury it.
Do the work every day without expectation.
Do the work: A writer writes. If you’re not writing on a consistent basis, you’re not a writer. You’re a wannabe.
Every day: A plumber doesn’t get a choice whether to show up to work every day. If your goal is to write full-time, you need to show up to your job every day. Maybe you can only invest ten minutes. If that’s it, don’t miss those ten minutes!
Without expectation: Those pie-in-the-sky dreams of NYT bestsellerdom? Banish them. That desire to quit your day job and live off your royalties? Forget it (and ask a mid-list author about their royalty checks.) That hope that Oprah will endorse your book or Ridley Scott will option your novel? Abandon all hope ye who enter into publishing.
In a recent interview, Elan Mastai, author of the excellent and fun read All Our Wrong Todays, said, “What you can control is the actual writing itself. . . . Each word, one at a time. That’s what you can control, and that became my mantra. Just focus on the writing, figure out what your strengths are, figure out what your weaknesses are, try to make your strengths better, try to make your weaknesses stronger, and just keep plugging away, basically, and not even worry so much about how it’s going to be received, what the reviews are going be like. Just worry about every single day, doing the best writing you can. ”
The only expectation you should set is for yourself to have daily done the work that grows you as a writer.
Because when you achieve that very achievable goal, everything else is icing.
You may very well write a New York Times best seller, quit your day job to write full-time, and have Oprah name your book in front of millions. But if you never expect that—or any other accolades, including adoring fans, five-star reviews, winning awards, or raking in the cash—you won’t doubt yourself as a writer. You won’t be working toward an external reward that may never come.
Rather, when you do the work for the sake of the work, your reward is the work.
Journal of a Novel is comprised of letters that John Steinbeck wrote to his editor while working on East of Eden, one of my top five favorite books. In Journal, Steinbeck wrote, “Even if I knew nothing would emerge from this book I would still write it.”
Go and be likewise.
Sources and influences
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