Life is full of contradictions. Or, the way we view life is full of contradictions. We spend a lot of time labeling and deciding who we are and what we are going to achieve. However, the irony is that we rarely know exactly what those labels mean and what those achievements will require. When you set out to become a writer—you don’t actually know what it’s going to take to develop your work and grow your voice. You never know what marriage or raising a child, or becoming a force in business, or scaling a mountain will be like until you do it. And without fail, what it takes to complete an undertaking is never quite what we think it is.
Some of this is due the difference between an image, a moment, a product, and its reality. We are introduced to things in fragments. The child you interact with at a birthday party, the couple you meet at lunch, the book signing you attend and the subsequent novel you read—all those things are but one facet of the fullness of the thing. Parenting is made up of millions of moments—conversations, meltdowns, bath times, meal times, laundry, laughter and curses. The same for a couple—a relationship is made up of uncountable conversations and interactions and disappointments and surprises. You can never fathom the contours (and relentlessness) (and brutality) of a thing without actually experiencing it.
The conflict between what a thing seems like and what it really is can often leave us with a sensation of bewilderment and disappointment. You commit to a big undertaking and in the middle of it, you look up and ask, “Is this it?” And there are so many nuances to that question. “Is this really what this is about?” “Is this all there is?” “Is this really how it feels?” Maybe the undertaking is just as gratifying as you thought it would be, but it’s so much harder than you anticipated. Maybe you were ready for the hard work but it isn’t as gratifying as you thought it would be. Maybe it’s a mix of challenge and gratification, and the whiplash between sensations is hard to balance. Whatever the pursuit, rarely is reaching or living your goals exactly what you expected.
Over the course of two decades of wrestling with a novel, I have found myself in many “Is this it?” moments. At this point, I can unequivocally say the process of writing a novel is nothing like I expected it to be. It’s been a long journey (which I wrote about here, here, here, and here). Along the way I’ve had to make a lot of mental adjustments in how I think about myself and my writing. In the first few years, I told myself to keep going. After I had a draft written, I convinced myself to do the first rewrite and forced myself to do the second. After I sent the third draft out to agents and didn’t get a bite, I decided I needed an objective eye. After I had it reviewed by an editor, I had to accept that I had more work to do, longer to travel on the journey.
The funny thing about failure (or things not going to plan) is that it breaks down the reward—snatches your perceived glory out of your hands and forces you to look at yourself, empty-handed, in the mirror. Without that drive to make money, or become a famous author, or dazzle the world with your brilliance, what do you have left? If you never get the prize, is this pursuit still worth it? What is your internal motivation for doing what you do?
Over time, life’s biggest challenges stop being about the achievement. When draft after draft of the novel failed to be “the right draft” or “the final draft,” I had to let go of my aspirations. At that point, when your efforts get you nothing but disappointment, the work stops being about the outcome. At multiple points on this novel journey, I was forced to ask myself why. Why am I doing this? Am I doing this to get somewhere? Am I doing this to enjoy it? Is it gratifying? Is it aligned with my soul? Am I honoring it? Am I honoring me?
When a task comes easily, even if you don’t “win,” the success of completing the task can be a reward. But when you’re struggling, circling the drain and not meeting your goals, you have to uncover a deeper meaning if you want to keep going.
This is what I discovered: Although I want external validation for my writing, I don’t write for fame and fortune. If those things are never achieved, if the possibility of profit and accolades are stripped away, I still have a need to wrestle with words. Deep within me is an unshakeable soul contract to write. The way I am coded, I can only live an authentic life by honoring my impulse to flex my imagination by building characters and worlds. When I ignore that impulse, I become misaligned and off-kilter.
Trust me, I didn’t give up the vision of fame easily, but now that I have, my attitude about my novel has changed. The need to write no longer feels like a burden, it’s a path of discovery. Now, giving myself time to write feels like a sacred act. I no longer think about it as a means to an end. I’m not doing it for the editor who’s waiting on the manuscript or the agent I hope can get me a great advance. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it to live out the best version of me.
I have admitted to myself that this novel may never see the light of day. I may never succeed at making it publishable—but that’s no longer my goal. My goal is to make it whole and complete. Somehow, over the course of shifting my perspective, I’ve shifted my relationship to myself as a writer. I no longer see myself as someone who has failed to write a novel, I see myself as a hero for continuing to walk the path. When I sit down with my writing partners—procrastination and resistance—I don’t criticize or berate myself. I acknowledge that the aversion to the page is human, and I gently nudge myself along. I say to myself—let’s see what you can do. Open the file, honey, just give it a go. Here, I’ve given you plenty of time to procrastinate, let’s try to write something now, okay?
It sounds sappy, but at this stage of the game, I am honored to be able to be there for myself. I am grateful to have discovered the hardcore, unwavering writing coach inside me who can—without tearing my writer-self down—give me the gentle and consistent encouragement I need to stay in action. In a field where the big splashy successes are not promised anyone, it is a measure of sanity and a gift to myself to put process first. To take myself off the hamster wheel of searching for some mystical way “it” is supposed to feel, or look, or be, and embrace the nowness of writing. To give myself the gift of measuring success by the number of times I return to the page, develop a new draft, uncover a new angle, discover more of what this journey of writing is about. Onward.
Be well. Be love[d].