Buy a Dictionary

My dad would be the first to admit he wasn’t great at spelling. You’d never know it to read anything he ever wrote. At home, we had a Webster’s dictionary and a full set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. But that wasn’t good enough—my dad carried a pocket dictionary with him wherever he went. If he had any doubt about a word’s spelling or meaning, he looked it up. He sat at his desk or at our dining room table, writing in long hand with an open dictionary beside him. It was tedious, and it meant everything was more difficult and took longer for him than it did for someone else. The fact that it mattered so much to him made an impression on me. He took pride in his work, and it made me proud of him.

Growing up, if my siblings and I didn’t know how to spell a word or didn’t know a word’s meaning, my dad insisted we look it up in the dictionary. It’s a tradition I carried on with my own children and now my grandchildren. When you have to make an effort to do the learning, it sticks.

Today, we have the luxury of spellchecking programs and all sorts of other writing tools. I suggest you familiarize yourself with them and make use of the ones that work for you. But I also suggest you don’t rely on them to the exclusion of your own judgment. It’s easy to become complacent these days and to think it doesn’t matter–we have computers to check our spelling and grammar and punctuation for us. But computers aren’t always accurate, and nothing beats the empowered feeling of finding the answers yourself. So buy a dictionary or subscribe to Merriam-Webster online. Become a student of words, and make sure the words in your manuscript are spelled and used correctly. If spelling or vocabulary don’t come easily, you can make a game or a project of it. Buy a word-a-day calendar or subscribe to Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. Pick up a cheap, old dictionary from a thrift shop and learn a new word every day. Consider brushing up on grammar and punctuation too. Dreyer’s English is a great place to start, also available in a day-to-day calendar and a game called Stet!

Why should I worry about it? you may ask. I’m a writer, an artist, a creative person. My editor will fix all that.

Yes, you are a creative person, and you shouldn’t worry about such things while you’re writing and rewriting and revising your first drafts. Your focus at that point should be on telling your story. Don’t let worries about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, or worries about any little details, distract you.

And yes, your editor will fix all that if need be. Any serious writer is going to work with one or more editors through the process of developmental edits, line edits, and copyedits. This especially holds true if you are a self-publishing author or don’t have an agent or publisher to vet your work. Your editorial team will help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible for your desired goal, whether that’s publication or querying agents, and that includes catching and correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

So take comfort in the fact your editor will have your back in the end. But take control of your own destiny too. After you’ve finished with your manuscript, and before you send it off, run spellcheck and make an editorial pass of your own. Read your manuscript out loud, word by word, to catch errors. Or have MS Word’s “Read Aloud” feature read it to you. Presenting your editor with a manuscript that’s in the best possible shape will often save you money on editing costs. Plus, the more work you put into your manuscript, the better each subsequent revision will be. How can this help but result in a better book in the end, whether you’re self-publishing your book or sending the manuscript to an agent or a traditional or hybrid publisher? You don’t want your readers distracted by mistakes—you want them caught up in your story, and errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation are a surefire way to pull them out of it.

WRITER TIP: No matter where you’re sending your work, whether it’s to an agent, a publisher, a direct publishing company, or an editor, send them your best work. Once your manuscript is ready to send out, get it even more ready. Sweat the small stuff: put a little time and effort into making sure words are spelled and used correctly, and make sure punctuation and grammar are up to snuff. It makes a big difference, and it will put you ahead of the game.

Believe in Yourself

I want to talk to you today about a Flavorwire article I read eight years ago. It’s an old article, yes, but (1) it’s still relevant today, and (2) it made such an impact on me that I’m still thinking about it eight years later. I also want to point out that, while the 2014 article spoke to gender disparity in publishing, the lessons I took from the article apply not only to women writers, but to any marginalized writer whose confidence in submitting to literary journals or querying agents has taken a hit.

The 2014 article is called “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count.” As its title suggests, the article is about two literary magazines included in the 2013 VIDA Count. But what I found shocking when I read the article eight years ago was not so much the VIDA Count itself, although that is fascinating too. What I found more surprising was something it unearthed about the ways marginalized writers internalize and respond to rejection.

The VIDA Count is a look at disparity in the makeup of contributors to magazines and literary journals. The Count is undertaken by the VIDA organization. In 2013, VIDA’s focus was on gender inequality, but today, VIDA’s mission is more inclusive and intersectional:

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (VIDA) is a non-profit intersectional feminist literary organization dedicated to creating transparency surrounding gender imbalances and the lack of diversity in the literary landscape. VIDA also aims to amplify historically-marginalized voices, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); writers with disabilities; and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming individuals.

The VIDA organization tallies the makeup of contributors to top literary magazines and journals. In 2013, it did so in terms of men and women, tallying their numbers in terms of bylines, reviewers of books, authors of books reviewed, interviewers of authors, and authors interviewed.

One of the journals featured in the 2013 Flavorwire article, Tin House, did well in the count. The other, The Believer, did not do so well. Tin House published its last issue in June 2019, and The Believer is set to publish its final issue early this year. Both of these journals are quality, well-respected literary journals. The contributions of these two journals have been life-altering to the literary world, and their presence will continue to be missed by readers and writers alike far into the future. The Believer‘s legitimacy and commitment to do good were never in question. Rather, the article points up how insidiously disparity can creep into the most well-intentioned of organizations.

In 2013, The Believer‘s overall count was more than 65% men, less than 35% women. A pretty even split between men and women in the interviews and interviewees category helped it out. Drilling down, 82% of its book reviews were written by men, 72% of the books it reviewed were written by men, and 72% of its bylines belonged to men. No one was more surprised by this than The Believer itself. Its editors said:

We were totally thrilled and honored to be included in the VIDA count because we read it every year, and every year we’ve wondered, ‘how would we fare?’ We always thought we’d fare pretty well. Our masthead is 40% women, and one of our driving editorial principles is to produce as diverse a magazine as we can every month. So we were surprised when we saw our VIDA numbers.

It’s important to note that, since 2013, The Believer has worked to steadily flip those numbers. In the latest VIDA Count (2019), The Believer‘s overall numbers were approximately 58% women, 40% men, and 2% non-binary. The Believer should be applauded for its efforts–it’s easy to talk the talk, but it takes dedication and unwavering commitment to undertake the real work of creating lasting change. The Believer will retire this year with an admirable and inspiring legacy.

But what I found most shocking about the 2014 Flavorwire article were the statements provided by Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House. While Tin House did very well in the VIDA Count, Spillman pointed out some interesting challenges the journal faced in achieving its good numbers:

At Tin House we take a conscious, systemic approach to gender balance. In the past we had relied on ‘we’re all feminists, so the numbers will work out.’ But the numbers were slightly skewed in favor of men. There were many factors contributing to this, including that males submit 100% of the time after being solicited, versus 50% of females, men are four times more likely to resubmit after an encouraging rejection, female agents send more male submissions than females (go figure), when given the option both men and women writers chose to write about male writers 80% of the time, etc.

To its credit, Tin House had done its homework and had then gone out of its way to achieve gender equality, which is absolutely necessary when disparity is so deeply ingrained.

Spillman explained the steps Tin House took to reverse the trend:

[W]e made some systemic changes–soliciting more women, re-affirming our desire to see work by women, assigning more interviews and reviews of female writers, and generally paying attention throughout our organization.

Reading that article in 2014, I realized that, yes, the changes in the publishing industry must come from within. Change doesn’t just happen. The steps Tin House took to solicit and encourage women writers and the steps The Believer took to turn its numbers around had to be taken in order to break the cycle. Those steps need to be taken with writers of color and other marginalized writers as well. It feels hopeful that, today, publishers are beginning to take them.

The thing is, extra effort must be made to encourage marginalized writers to continue to query agents in the face of rejection and to keep submitting to literary journals and magazines because, all too often, these writers rarely see themselves in such publications, so why would they submit to them? It can feel like an exercise in futility. It’s encouraging to now see literary journals offer free submission portals or free submission periods for writers of color or to offer submission periods during which they only accept submissions from writers of color. They are showing their commitment to publishing writers of color.

At a recent seminar I attended, an older, white, male writer bemoaned the fact he’d received a rejection from a well-known journal with a note indicating the journal was currently focusing on amplifying the voices of writers of color. He felt it was unfair. Shouldn’t my piece be judged on its own merit? he wondered. Not by the color of my skin? Ironic questions, really, considering the state of the world. But the fact is, white writers, like me, have had the advantage for a long, long time. So yes, as we work to level the playing field, we are going to (hopefully) lose that advantage. Tomorrow, as the publishing industry makes room for others, it will be a little more difficult for a white author to get something published than it is today, and the day after tomorrow, it will be a little harder still, until someday, it’s equally as difficult for all of us, and we can all bemoan our rejections together. We have to be so much more than okay with that because it’s so much more than fair and so long overdue.

But I digress, and here’s the biggest point I want to make for any marginalized writer out there who is struggling with rejection: Spillman’s comments reminded me that no one needs to break free of systemic constraints more than we do ourselves. Generations of conditioning have taught marginalized groups not to enter the race. I can easily imagine the paralyzing doubt or fear that may play into, for example, a woman’s failure to resubmit to a journal after receiving an encouraging rejection. I’ve felt it. Did they really mean it when they asked me to try again? Are they just being nice? Can I write anything better or more suitable than the piece they already rejected? Can I rise to the occasion?

I have no doubt that centuries of being collectively told we are less than is deeply ingrained in our psyches and plays no small part in our reactions to rejection or our inability to fully believe or accept any encouragement that accompanies that rejection. I am reminded that, while we absolutely can’t do this without the commitment of publications like Tin House and The Believer, we have to continue to step up in the face of fear and self-doubt and rejection because all of us belong. We must enter the race.

WRITER TIP: Make a commitment to yourself to believe all the good things people say about you, to accept praise and encouragement, and to say yes to opportunities. If an agent declines to represent your novel or memoir, send it out to another. Just like in any true love story, your perfect agent is out there waiting for you and your book. If a journal sends you an encouraging rejection, send them something else during the journal’s next submission period, and keep writing and sending them something each submission period until you get that yes. Don’t bombard them, but don’t convince yourself you’re not worthy and ghost them either.

Reading Journals

During the month of December, I saw a great many social media posts about the number of books people read during 2021, as well as posts about how many books people planned to read in 2022. Last week, as 2021 wound to a close, I watched a video of a woman setting up a beautiful reading journal. It was gorgeous, really—she got creative and decorated the pages and different “spreads,” a scrapbooking or bullet journaling term for sets of pages intended for specific purposes. I was enthralled. She started with decorating the inside cover—it was lovely, and I considered whether I might do something like that myself for 2022. She then created a cover page and a quote page–okay, very nice. Next, she created spreads for an index, a 2022 reading tracker with a goal of reading 115 books, a spread of books she especially wants to read in 2022 with space to rate them–I found anxiety begin to creep in. Finally, she created a “book bracket” to help her pick her favorite book of the year–whew!

“Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” —David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time

At this point, I was on the verge of a panic attack. First, I have to admit, part of my reaction was due to the fact that, outside of writing, I am in no way artistic or crafty. But the biggest part of my reaction was due to where I am at in my life right now. To be fair to this woman and her absolutely delightful reading journal, I just came out of five straight years of college filled with reading lists where much of my reading material was decided for me. Even the books I chose for myself the past five years were selected with a purpose in mind–to help me learn to write a closer point-of-view or how to begin a story or how to add subtext. I kept reading journals the whole five years—as I read, I filled the journals with my thoughts, favorite quotes, notes on the way an author did a particular thing, or passages that would support what I intended to write about for the critical papers I was required to write. I read so many great books for school, and I was thrilled to read them, but still, it wasn’t quite the same as grabbing a promising-looking book from a shelf and diving into the unknown.

Reading has always been a big part of my life, but it was a major part of my life while I finished college, and it’s nice having a record of my reading experiences. But right now, racing through books to try to reach a number goal doesn’t feel the least bit enjoyable. I have a lot going on, and I tend to make everything in my life a big project with detailed lists and goals. So, for me, the thought of tracking my reading in this particular way at this particular time in my life feels overwhelming. For the record, I actually love the reading-journal-making video, and when I step back and look at it from the point of view of not having to do it myself, it is not overwhelming at all.

My 2022 reading journal: isn’t she lovely?

During school, I kept my reading journals in plain notebooks. This year, I did treat myself to a fancy reading journal in which I likely will not create any spreads. I’m just planning to note the titles and authors of the books I read throughout the year. I just want a space to note anything that comes to mind while I’m reading the book. I especially love writing down favorite passages. So it will be similar to the journals I’ve been keeping, but only with a fancy cover to celebrate beginning a new journey–reading not as a student, but as a working writer who will always be a student of the work I am reading.

But I will not be setting a number goal of books to be read by the end of the year. Instead, my reading goals this year are both more abstract and more focused. I plan to make space in my life for reading in a way that adds more to my life as a human being and as a writer, for example, reading before bed rather than watching television. (Too much screen time for work and social media has been a killer lately.) I also plan to read more books by Latinx writers and other BIPOC writers. I plan to buy my books from brick-and-mortar stores this year, but I also plan to make use of our local lending library and to read books that are already waiting for me on my shelves or in my TBR stacks. Finally, I plan to be especially choosy about the books I write reviews for this year and to give those books my best–I want my book reviews to matter.

I started the year off with a palate cleanser, a book designed to clear my head and reaffirm my intentions for reading books. It’s a book that’s helping me find my way back into reading for myself and myself alone: The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time by David L. Ulin. As I write this, I’m finding that the book is already helping me re-decide for myself what reading means to me, what it gives me, and how it makes me better in ways that count. If you’re interested, you can get a taste by reading “The Lost Art of Reading,” Ulin’s Los Angeles Times essay that inspired the book.

The next book I’m going to read this year is …. Actually, I have no clue which book I’m going to read next, and that’s part of the fun. I’ll make that decision when the time comes. Whether I read a dozen books or fifty books or one hundred books this year, my biggest goal is to enjoy reading.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not averse to more complex and goal-oriented reading journals. They’re just not for me right now, coming off several years of goal-oriented reading. It’s something I may try in the future, when my life is a little less complex.

If you’re into creating a reading journal, here are a few articles with creative and beautiful ideas for spreads:

My Bullet Journal Makes Me a Better Reader

8 Creative Ways to Track Books in Your Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal Spreads and Ideas for Book Readers and Bloggers

You can also find lots of ideas on Pinterest, as well as reading journal tutorials on YouTube. Here’s the lovely video I watched last month and again, in a less-panicked mode, this morning, before I wrote this post:

What are your reading goals for 2022? I’d love to hear about them–please chime in on Twitter or Instagram.

READER TIP: Whether it’s simple or complex, I really do recommend that all writers keep a reading journal. I started doing so five years ago, and it’s been life-changing. Overall, it’s added to my love of reading, and it’s nice to be able to go back and find things like a particular quote you loved, a thought the reading inspired, or an idea that informs your work-in-progress.
2022 goals, New year resolution. Woman in white sweater writing Text 2022 goals in open notepad on the table. Start new year, planning and setting goals for the next year.

The Power of Persistence

Over the past month, I’ve been setting out the steps for turning your writing dreams into attainable goals:

1.  Set your dreams down in writing (The Power of Words);

2.  Create specific goals (The Power of Goals);

3.  Create a plan to reach your goals (The Power of a Plan);

4.  Focus on one goal at a time (The Power of Focus).

And now:

5.  Reaffirm your goals on a daily basis and never give up. This is the power of persistence, and it’s the final and best step in any successful plan to reach a goal.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff. And then gradually, you get better at it. That’s why I say the most valuable trait is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler

Once you’ve set a goal for yourself and designed a plan for reaching it, the secret to getting there is to keep going and never give up. Take steps toward that goal each and every day. In football terms, keep moving the ball forward. You might periodically re-evaluate your goals and re-work them or revise them, but never forsake them. As long as you keep moving toward your goals at a steady pace, you will eventually reach them.

I firmly believe persistence is the most powerful element in turning a vague dream for the future into a tangible goal. Some people in my family might call it stubbornness, but when I have a setback, I generally (after the appropriate amount of whining) try and try again.

To be persistent, you have to be ready to weather periods of discouragement. I assure you there will be days when you return to your previous, negative patterns of thinking and convince yourself you will never achieve your dreams. The key is to be tenacious, to ride out those bad days, and to wake up the next morning with renewed resolve.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” –Calvin Coolidge

Let’s take quitting smoking as an example. Some smokers joke, “I can quit smoking whenever I want. I’ve quit 236 times!” It’s kinda funny and sorta sad because it plays on how addictive tobacco is. But actually, quitting smoking over and over again is the key to eventually kicking the cigarette habit for good. Quitting smoking is an area where persistence really pays off. Studies show that the more times a smoker tries to quit smoking, the more likely it is they will eventually quit for good.

So, if quitting smoking is your goal, it’s possible you may quit smoking for a couple of weeks and then relapse and smoke a cigarette, or two cigarettes, or even binge on a full pack of cigarettes. The key to eventually kicking the habit for good is persistence. This means not using relapse as an excuse—give it your best effort without keeping relapse in mind as a possibility. But if you do relapse and smoke again, don’t give up. Wake up the next morning resolved to quit again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. You resolve to quit smoking every single day, however many times it takes, until it sticks.

It’s the same with any goal. For example, if you dream of becoming debt free, your first goal might be to freeze your level of debt by developing the habit of not incurring new debt. Your second goal might be to reduce spending to free up more cash to repay your debts. Your third goal might be to start an emergency savings account so that you aren’t forced to borrow when life’s emergencies come along. A fourth goal might be to earn a little extra income so you can pay off your debts more quickly.

You will likely face some setbacks, especially in the beginning. You might have to charge a necessary auto repair to a credit card because you don’t yet have enough in savings to cover it. You may spend unbudgeted money on dinner out because you haven’t yet developed a strong habit of planning ahead for meals at home. You might skip a deposit to your new savings account in favor of buying those fabulous new shoes with the kitten heels you saw in the Avanti store window. The key is not to be perfect. The key is to keep trying in the face of obstacles and to forgive yourself for mistakes. The fastest path to giving up is to dwell on past mistakes until you are too discouraged to keep trying.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” –Octavia E. Butler

Persistence is a secret weapon. Persistence will turn any dream into reality. This is especially true of writing dreams, because writing can be one hell of a rollercoaster and often consists of a whole lot of rejection. Artists often suffer from imposter syndrome–when you convince yourself you aren’t good enough or you don’t belong, it’s easy to convince yourself to abandon your dreams.

If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to slough it off when you’re rebuffed. In the writing business, rejection is not personal. It’s just that—business. And it means nothing more than this: you haven’t yet found your perfect fit in terms of a market, agent, or publisher. Remember that your very best writing is perfect, just as it is, for someone.

Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Even more importantly, don’t listen to negative talk from others–it’s amazing to me that the most supportive friends and family members in a writer’s life often have no problem discouraging that writer’s dreams. Be determined, keep at it, never give up. If you do, you will eventually reach your goals. That’s a promise.

I return to this video time and again when I’m feeling discouraged. If nothing else, it puts a smile on my face:

WRITER TIP: Keep trying. Persistence is nothing more than trying over and over and over again. How do you become persistent? You get up every morning and do it again. The more days you do that, the more proud of yourself you’ll be, and the easier it will be to do it again the next day. Another good idea which I’ll blog about soon is to develop a plan for those days when you’re not feeling very tenacious or motivated. What can you do today toward your goal, even if you don’t feel like doing anything?

The Power of Focus

I’m a big fan of dreaming without limits. But something I’ve learned the hard way is that, if you ever want to reach your dream life, it’s important to focus your efforts.

Focus, visualization, and determination are powerful tools that will help you to reach even the most seemingly impossible goals. Rather than spreading yourself too thin and going after many goals at once, prioritize; focus on one or two of your most important goals, and put your time, energy, and effort into achieving those goals.

The power of focus is that, once you set your mind on a particular goal and keep that goal in your sights each and every day, you will suddenly find yourself moving toward that goal in leaps and bounds. It’s amazing! You will achieve your goal much more rapidly than you ever will if you go after your goals in a scattered way or give them only a fraction of your time and attention. I know it sounds simplistic, but all things being equal, it’s true.

Also, once you achieve the first goal, you’ll have a powerful affirmation of your abilities … and of future possibilities. Achieving one goal will set into motion a cycle of success after success, and you will soon be checking goals off your list right and left.

Here’s an example: I once dreamed of living near the beach in a place with an ocean view. At the time, I was living in a home I had purchased some years earlier in a hot, dry, mountainous area of the county, about thirty miles inland from the beach. I was unhappy for many reasons, but location and weather was one of them. I have always been happier when I can walk on the beach and am in a cooler climate. It improves my health, relieves stress, and puts me in a better frame of mind.

The house was badly in need of repairs before it could be put on the market, and there were lots of other obstacles standing in my way as well. I didn’t have the money or the necessary skills to make repairs. I was depressed and unmotivated. There was so much to do before I would ever be able to live my dream life. It seemed impossible and overwhelming at the time. I felt stuck.

But to be honest, the biggest obstacle was that I was doing nothing to move toward my goal, other than vaguely wishing each and every day of my life that things were different. I finally realized I had to start moving toward my goal in some small way or I would be stuck forever. My dream wasn’t going to happen all on its own—I had to do something to make it happen.

I made a list and decided that selling my house in the mountains was the first thing I needed to do in order to begin moving toward my bigger goal of living closer to the beach. So, I decided to focus on that goal, and that goal only, and to forget the rest for the time being. As the old saying goes, “How do you move a mountain? One rock at a time.”

One obstacle was the fact that I was a working single mom, with limited time to focus on much more than getting through each day. Also, it’s hard to get yourself moving when you’re depressed. I had to put some serious time management skills to work in order to reach my goals. Once I’d organized my time a little better, I reminded myself each morning on my drive to work that my only current goal was to get that home sold. I stopped thinking about all the rest and focused on that one goal. Every evening on my drive home from work, I thought about what I could do that evening to move toward my goal.

For the time being, I didn’t allow myself to get overwhelmed by thinking beyond selling that house. I reminded myself that I was wholeheartedly committed to reaching that goal and made a list of the things I needed to do to get there. During evenings and weekends, I began doing something, anything, no matter how small, toward the goal of selling my house. I began painting, doing yard work, and making whatever small repairs I could do on my own. I began investigating what was needed for the larger repairs and researching costs. I began familiarizing myself with the housing market in my area and making phone calls to realtors about putting the house up for sale. I started getting the word out.

The power of focus is amazing. Within one month after I began putting all of my time, energy, and effort into the single-minded goal of selling the house, my next-door neighbor called me. He told me he’d heard through the grapevine I was interested in selling. He offered to buy the house in its current condition. Escrow closed within a month after he first called. During escrow, I started looking for a new place to live.

Less than two months from the day I made my decision to focus on selling the house, I was living in a townhouse less than a block from the beach with views looking out over the ocean. Some people may think that this was mere luck, and they may be partly right. But, I strongly believe we have to help luck along with our own efforts. Had I not started moving toward the goal of repairing and selling the house, I have no doubt I’d still be sitting in that house feeling sorry for myself.

Once the original goal of selling the house was met, my other goals began to fall into place. Had I continued to look only at the big picture, had I continued to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of everything I wanted to accomplish, I would never have been able to accomplish anything. By focusing totally and completely on one goal at a time, I was able to achieve a number of big goals in a matter of a couple of months. This is the power of focus.

What does this have to do with writing? you may ask. Everything. I didn’t start making progress as a writer until I started pursuing my writing goals with the same focus I used to sell my house. Two and a half years ago, I hadn’t published a thing. I saw other writers I knew posting on social media about their publications, and I couldn’t imagine myself ever getting there. My dream of being a published writer was a hazy one. But when I started focusing on one goal at a time and taking small actions toward my writing goals each and every day, things started to happen. Before I knew it, one writing dream after another became a reality.

WRITER TIP: From your list of goals for 2022, pick one writing goal to focus on. Make it a habit to think about your goal for a few seconds every morning when you wake up and again every night before you go to sleep–remind yourself that this is your focus for now. Try to do something small each day to move toward your goal. Your dream life may seem far away, but you can change your entire life one goal at a time.

The Power of a Plan

Last week, I wrote about setting goals for your writing and mentioned a famous quote from Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

A man, a plan, a canal—Panama. This is much more than my daughter’s favorite palindrome. It’s a blueprint for success.

When Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of building a canal through Panama, he didn’t just pick up a shovel and start digging a ditch. He seized an opportunity and made a plan. French efforts to build the canal had failed miserably. After years of digging, the French had spent nearly $300 billion on the canal. 20,000 French lives had been lost in the work. After all of this, the French had only 11 miles of canal to show for their effort. When the French abandoned the canal effort in 1888, Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of building a canal across Panama.

In 1902, after becoming President of the United States, Roosevelt negotiated the purchase of the canal property from France. He then came up with a plan. Roosevelt first studied the reasons the French effort to build a canal had failed. He then used what he had learned to create a workable plan which included addressing the previous obstacles to building a canal across Panama. He negotiated a treaty with the country of Panama and obtained their permission to build the canal, as well as their cooperation. He enlisted the financial backing of some of America’s richest and most powerful citizens, including J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt then organized a building effort and hired qualified people to oversee various aspects of the construction. He hired Chief Engineer John Stevens, who designed a plan to clean up the canal zone. He hired Dr. William Gorgas to oversee sanitation, including the eradication of disease-carrying mosquitos. He provided workers with comfortable housing and good food. He later hired Stevens’s successor, Thomas Goethals, who carried on an organized and persistent building effort.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” –Yogi Berra

In 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, forever revolutionizing international travel and trade. But Roosevelt laid a lot of groundwork before he started work on the canal. He visualized where he wanted to be, then he figured out how to get there.

Coming up with a plan is the first step to building your dream writing life. Where do you want to end up? Visualize your desired end result and work backward, writing down a list of steps to help you reach your goal. Then, pick something from your list you can do right now. Today. Do you want to write your first novel? Write down what they call in the movie industry a logline or tagline: In one or two sentences, what is your novel going to be about? Or start an outline–a map within a map! Are you writing a historical novel or a novel that will require some research? Spend an hour doing some preliminary research that will make beginning the writing of your novel easier. Do you want to get a short story published? Research ten “markets” (literary journals or magazines) where your story would be a good fit. Are you struggling with writing consistently? Set up a dedicated writing space and a writing schedule—will you write three pages each morning? or write for an hour each evening? Whatever it is, start building the habit of consistency.

Do your homework, decide what it will take to achieve your dream, and then map out a plan that will lead you to your ultimate destination. If you follow your map, you can’t help but reach your destination.

WRITER TIP: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Goals can seem overwhelming when you only look at the big picture. “I want to publish a bestselling novel” is a daunting goal. But when you break it down into its tiny parts, you can get there, one step at a time. As novelist E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Glowing lightbulb above the word "goals" spelled out in wooden blocks against a light blue background.

The Power of Goals

This is a case history. I’m sharing my long, arduous, and disjointed writing journey with you in the hopes you can skip to the good part.

I started writing short stories in elementary school.

In my teens, I shifted to writing very bad, very schmaltzy, very angsty poetry.

In my twenties: As an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I applied to the creative writing program. Before I got a response, my life shifted drastically, and I dropped out of college. I’ll never know if I would have been accepted.

I kept writing.

In my thirties: I submitted a short story to Redbook magazine. I got back a tiny, form rejection slip printed in red ink. When I read the “story” now, I realize it’s not even a story. It’s 5,000 words of me grieving the end of my marriage. But I cherished that rejection slip. I still have it. It’s proof of me putting myself out there.

I kept writing.

In my forties: I had an opportunity through a local writers’ conference to have a published author critique one of my stories. Catherine Ryan Hyde, the author of Pay it Forward, told me she liked my story. She said I had a natural understanding of story arc and that she was sure she would see one of my stories in print someday. Much better feedback than I’d gotten from Redbook. I was elated.

I kept writing.

image of a young woman writer at the table with typewriter, wearing glasses, suspenders and a bow tie, and a straw hat, and imaging words coming out of her typewriter.

In my fifties: I went back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree in English. I chose an emphasis in creative writing.

I kept writing.

And writing.

And writing.

But I didn’t submit anything for publication. Nothing. NOT. A. THING.

In my sixties: I graduated from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. I know there’s a lot of debate about “to MFA or not to MFA,” but I think it depends a great deal on the program. At UCR Palm Desert, I not only learned to be a better writer, I learned how to focus my efforts. I began to approach my writing dreams the way I approached other things in my life. I set financial goals, health goals, career goals. Why wouldn’t I set writing goals, too?

In 2019, I submitted three pieces to various markets. One (a poem) was accepted and published in a fundraising anthology. One (an essay) was rejected. One (another essay) languished for a year—I withdrew it when it was accepted for publication elsewhere in 2020.

In 2020, I submitted to various literary journals and magazines eight times. Three times my pieces were rejected, three times my pieces were accepted, and twice my pieces were withdrawn when they were eventually accepted elsewhere. I fell far short of my goal, though. I’d gone into the year with a goal of racking up 100 rejections—a game strategy recommended by a peer who told me that, if I tried to rack up 100 rejections, I’d surely end up with at least a couple of acceptances. This made sense to me and appealed to my goal-oriented personality.

New Years Resolutions Goals motivational phrase in open notebook on the table. Outdoor still life with My Goals motivational text. Self-development and motivation.

In 2021, I decided to do things differently. Focusing on rejections wasn’t the right mindset for me, I realized. For one thing, it focused on the negative versus the positive. But for another, it was a goal I had little control over. I like being in control. Publishers take a long time to respond to submissions—I can’t control how many rejections come back to me in a year, so that goal isn’t giving me the kind of motivation I need. What I can control is how many things I send out into the world. So for 2021, I set a goal to reach 100 submissions. So far, I’m at 106 submissions for the year. Of those, I’ve had 49 rejections, two acceptances, and I withdrew one piece when it was accepted elsewhere. That leaves 54 submissions still out there as I head into the new year. This is what Catherine Ryan Hyde calls “keeping hope in the mail.”

If you’ve read this far, you’ll notice two things: (1) It’s never too late to pursue your writing dreams in earnest; and (2) things finally started to happen for me when I began setting specific, measured goals for my writing. In the years before now, I squeezed in writing when and where I could, but I wasn’t consistent about it, and I didn’t have any direction. I wasn’t disciplined. I read books, but I didn’t apply any of the things I was learning about writing from successful writers to my own writing. These things used to cause me a lot of remorse—I felt like I’d wasted so much time. But to be honest, nothing I wrote in my early years was anywhere close to ready. I needed all those years of practice. And I needed to learn to write.

But I also needed a sense of direction and to set goals. I never once considered where I was going with my writing—I just wrote and had vague dreams of publishing a book someday. I never stopped to think about how that was supposed to happen. I guess I figured a writing fairy godmother was going to drop in unannounced, find me scribbling away diligently, and reward me with a book deal. That’s not how it works.

My stats over the past three years don’t sound all that great. Out of 117 submissions, I’ve had six acceptances. Something like a five percent success rate. But let’s look at it this way: Out of the nineteen stories and essays I’ve been submitting, I’ve found homes for six of them. That’s the result of persistence, and that’s a thirty-two percent success rate. Plus I still have a whole lot of hope in the mail. And a whole new year ahead of me.

WRITER TIP: An exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is famously paraphrased as: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Major League Baseball catcher and manager Yogi Berra said it better, I think: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” While the writing itself is the most important thing, be sure to give some thought to where you want to go with your writing, and then set some goals to help you get there.
Table to with a notebook that says 2022 goals surrounded by an envelope on the left, a small holiday gift and sparkly ornament at the top, and a pen on the right.

The Power of Words

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago, but every December since the year 2000, I’ve made a list of goals for the coming year. I used to type them, but beginning in 2009, I started writing the lists down by hand in my “dream journal,” a separate journal that houses my dreams. In addition to my annual lists of goals, I keep other lists in my dream journal, like a list of places I want to visit and an extensive list of all the places I’ve lived since I was three years old. I also jot down little notes in my dream journal: observations, quotes, and things that move me, inspire me, or motivate me.

I’ve written down a list of anywhere from 10 to 25 goals each year for the past 20+ years. I’ve never once accomplished every goal on the list, but I’m okay with that. If I accomplish even half of them, I’ve still gotten somewhere. And over time, I’ve accomplished quite a lot. Some goals make the list for several years before I actually accomplish them. I first wrote “Earn Bachelor’s Degree” on my 2012 list. I didn’t go back to college until 2016, and I didn’t earn my bachelor’s degree until 2018. But I set that intention, and I kept writing it down and putting it into words until it came true. In 2016, I set a goal of submitting 12 short stories to literary journals. I didn’t accomplish that goal until this year. I’m still working on my goals to beat my best 5K time and to watch all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. I’ll get there someday. But the thing is, I’ve steadily made progress, and my life is considerably better than it was before I started writing my goals down.

As I begin to consider my goals for 2022, I find myself thinking about the power words have had in my life. The power of writing my goals down and setting my intentions for the future, yes. But also the power of the words others use to define me, and the power of the words I use to define myself. Like when I was in seventh grade, and I had to stand up in front of my English class and give an oral report on Virginia Dare. I was terrified. I wore a chocolate brown dress my mother made for me. My teacher wrote each of us a handwritten letter giving her feedback on our reports. At the end of mine, she wrote, “Brown is definitely your color!” As I write this nearly 50 years later, I still have that piece of paper tucked away somewhere, and I just realized I’m wearing my favorite chocolate brown sweater. The power of words.

Close up of notebook or journal with heading 2022 goals. A woman in a bulky oatmeal colored sweater and jeans is writing in the notebook.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sent me to the library to help with a kindergarten class. I sat cross-legged on the carpet with some of the children and read to them, then I helped them pick out library books. It wasn’t anything super memorable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t remember that afternoon at all except for two things: (1) It was the day I checked Island of the Blue Dolphins out of the library–I can still picture it displayed on a book easel on top of a shelf; and (2) when I left, the kindergarten teacher thanked me for my help and told me I showed a lot of “initiative.” I didn’t know what the word “initiative” meant. I had to go look it up in the dictionary. When I did, I felt a sense of pride. The kindergarten teacher had seen this awesome personality trait in me that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I possessed.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really showed any initiative in the library that day. I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I don’t remember doing anything other than what I was sent there to do. But between my own teacher choosing me for the job and the kindergarten teacher complimenting me, that day was a boost to my self-esteem and helped to develop my character. If I didn’t have initiative when I left the library that day, I sure do have it now, many years later. I believed I had initiative, and so I displayed it at every opportunity. Today, this is a quality I really do have. That kindergarten teacher gave me a word that changed my life.

As an adult, I worked as a music promoter for a few years. One night, after I insisted a sleazy venue manager give my band the slot he’d promised, a famous rock musician told me I was tenacious. To be honest, up until that night, I hadn’t seen my unwillingness to give up or give in as a positive trait. I often saw it as obstinacy, a dogged and sometimes reckless refusal to get it through my thick skull that something wasn’t meant to be. But that night, when the musician told me I was tenacious and said it in an admiring way, I began to see myself differently. Sure, that kind of stubbornness meant I eventually failed at a lot of things. But it sometimes meant I persisted long enough to succeed, too.

Persistence and thick skins are things writers need. To keep writing and rewriting, trying to spill the things in your head out onto paper in such a way that others can see you, in such a way that other human beings know that you see them, is hard on the soul. To continue submitting your stories, little pieces of you, to literary journals day after day, and to be told they’re not wanted the overwhelming majority of the time, is hard on the heart. Out of the 49 submissions I’ve received responses to so far this year, 47 of those responses were rejections. It would be so easy to get discouraged and give up. I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be a relief to give up and do something else. Just about anything else.

But in those moments, I remember that scene in The Notebook when Noah tells Allie she’s a pain in the ass, and I know I’m made of stronger stuff than that. “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings,” he says. “You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.” This is me. I am tenacious. Or stubborn. Either way, literary journals aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings, and sure, it hurts to be rejected—for like two seconds. Then I get over it. I roll up the sleeves of my chocolate brown sweater, and I send them another story. Surely they’ll love this one.

As I put my goals into words this month and set my intentions for 2022, I’m going to keep in mind the power that words have, not only to help me set my course for the coming year, but to encourage me and keep me pushing forward. When it comes to pursuing a writing career, being stubborn is a good thing.

WRITER TIP: Start a dream journal. There is power in setting your intentions for the future, putting your goals into words, and writing your dreams for yourself down in ink. Each year, write your goals for that year in your dream journal. Write down specific, measurable goals, and cross them off as you achieve them. If you don’t reach a goal one year, move it to the next year, and keep setting that intention until you reach the goal. As the years go by and you look back at your lists, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished.
Yosemite National Park Valley and Merced River, California, USA, in autumn. Low clouds at the mountain tops and trees behind the river in shades of green, yellow, and orange, with a gray stone wall in the foreground.

Writers Write About Gratitude

As we head into the winter holidays, I’ve gathered a collection of 31 quotes and passages about gratitude from well-known writers. I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you and your loved ones health and happiness.

“All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.”
—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

“Let all your thinks be thanks.” —W.H. Auden

“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Close-up of wild red poppies on the meadow in sunny day. Decorated with light spots.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me but I find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss.” —Rita Mae Brown

“Don’t let the sun go down without saying thank you to someone, and without admitting to yourself that absolutely no one gets this far alone.” —Stephen King

“Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” —Gertrude Stein

“Rest and be thankful.” —William Wordsworth

Close-up of a dandelion flower in a meadow with mostly brown tall grass and a few sprigs of green grass at its base.

“Thanks for this day, for all birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life.” —Barbara Kingsolver

“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, And thanks, and ever thanks.” —William Shakespeare

“‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme humility, gratitude, understanding.” —Alice Walker

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: It must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” —William Faulkner

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” —Maya AngelouCelebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer

Blooming Lupin wildflowers, close up, bright purple, some blurred, some in focus

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” —Voltaire

“’I am sure they will be very grateful.’ How would you know? I wanted to say. Often those men in most need hate most to be grateful, and will strike at you just to feel whole again.” —Madeline Miller, Circe

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” —Thornton Wilder

“I’m so thankful for friendship. It beautifies life so much.” —L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” —Marcel Proust

WWild California poppies, close up, in the Antelope Valley California poppy reserve.

“There is no better way to thank God for your sight than by giving a helping hand to someone in the dark.” —Helen Keller, Light in My Darkness

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“Here is the world, and you live in it, and are grateful. You try to be grateful.”
—Michael Cunningham, The Hours

“But once you accept the fact that you have always been alone, and will always be, then your perspective can begin to change. You can become aware of the small kindnesses, the little comforts. Be grateful for them.” —Linda Olsson, Astrid and Veronika

Close-up of pink or mauve tulips in a field.

“For a wise man, I have been told, once said, ‘Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate in empty phrases.’ But alas, my lady, I am but a mass of empty phrases, it would seem.”
Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire

“What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.” —Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

“Be grateful in your own hearts. That suffices. Thanksgiving has wings, and flies to its right destination.” —Victor Hugo

“It was gratitude; gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him, and all the unjust accusations accompanying her rejection.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“What an astonishment to breathe on this breathing planet. What a blessing to be Earth loving Earth.” John Green, The Anthropocene Reviewed

Close-up shot of bright orange tiger lilies growing in the wild or in a garden, with blurred background of greenery.

“For my part, I am almost contented just now, and very thankful. Gratitude is a divine emotion: it fills the heart, but not to bursting; it warms it, but not to fever.” —Charlotte Brontë

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” —Henry David Thoreau

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” —Maya Angelou

Burned out writer sleeping at her desk in front of open laptop.

Knowing When to Quit

Author Tyler Dilts recently made an observation on social media that helped me solve a mystery:

Tweet by author Tyler Dilts @tylerdilts on November 15, 2021, that reads: Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a guarantee that you'll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again.

Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a
guarantee that you’ll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again. @tylerdilts 11/15/21

 

Dilts was talking about the unrealistic, overly demanding, and unkind expectations we often impose upon ourselves as writers. Like the way I throw myself into National Novel Writing Month like I’m throwing myself in front of a steamroller–I approach it with ferocity, like I’m going into the ring up against The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and The Million Dollar Man, all at once.

This year, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the 5th time. I did so because I’ve been overwhelmed with work and other commitments, I’m trying to finish a novel, and I’m not getting as much writing done as I’d like. So right as my schedule began to clear up, I decided it would be a great idea to add something new to my plate and force myself to write more. I wrote over 27,000 words in the first 16 days of November. I wrote at least 1,667 words on each of those days because, in addition to other achievements, participants are awarded a virtual badge for meeting the average word count daily, without fail. Something in me won’t let me fall short of my daily word count. And something in me won’t let me not win that badge.

Something in me.

I’m not here to disrespect NaNoWriMo. It’s a fantastic idea and a great organization that does a lot of good. It can be quite beneficial for writers. I think it’s especially helpful for writers who are where I was eight years ago–writers who are trying to get into the habit of writing regularly or who want to prove to themselves they can write a book (reader, you can). For even established writers, it can help jump start a new book, and it can be a fun way to engage with your writing community. It’s a nice annual tradition as we head into the dark winter months. As a matter of fact, the book I’m polishing up now started as a NaNoWriMo half-novel in 2013. It was an empowering experience for me to actually finish writing that half a draft. It showed me I could write regularly during a time when I was telling myself I never had time to write, and it showed me I could write a book. It was a life-changing experience. But over the past few days, I’ve come to realize that NaNoWriMo, much like Farmville, is no longer good for me.

It came to me shortly after I posted this on Twitter on Tuesday morning:

Tweet by writer Leanne Phillips @leannebythesea on November 16, 2021, that reads: Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG & NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about it, but this year, they're replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH & I've had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH?

Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG &
NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about
it, but this year, they’re replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH &
I’ve had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH? @leannebythesea 11/16/21

 

And then I saw Tyler Dilts’s post come up in my timeline again and retweeted it. And then I began to put two and two together. Is it by coincidence that I’ve gotten seriously ill every time I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, when I don’t get so seriously ill other times of the year? And when I don’t get so seriously ill during other Novembers in which I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo? Maybe. I don’t know.

But I do know this: One of the reasons I’ve done NaNoWriMo in the past is because I know myself. I’m highly strung. I’m wound up tight. I can’t stand to fail. I hate not following through on something. Participating in NaNoWriMo weaponizes those traits. If I commit to writing 1,667 words every day for a month, I will do it even if it kills me. In 2013, it nearly did. Midway through November, I became so stubbornly ill my doctor wanted to hospitalize me. Twice. I don’t blame NaNoWriMo for my illness. I had an antibiotic-resistant infection, and I refused to slow down and listen to what my body was trying to tell me. I kept going until I no longer could. And what did I do as soon as I began to get well and was able to drag myself to my kitchen table again? I wrote between 5,000 and 10,000 words a day for three or four days to catch up and finish NaNoWriMo. Of course I did.

This year, I started feeling short of breath on Thursday, November 4th. The doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me. I’d gotten my COVID-19 booster the week before. I’d had my flu shot. I tested negative for COVID-19 twice. A chest x-ray was clear. My lungs sounded fine. My temperature, oxygen saturation, and respirations were all normal. “Have you been feeling anxious about anything?” the doctor asked.

“Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.”
–Chinese Proverb

I kept writing those 1,667 words a day. By the following Thursday, I was feeling much worse. I also felt exhausted. I didn’t want to do all of the things I normally enjoy doing, including going out for walks or writing. Of course, you don’t know me, so you’ll have to take my word for it: I am a human dynamo. I get things done. This wasn’t normal for me. Over the weekend, I didn’t think I could write another word. But I did. I wrote thousands of them. And then on Sunday evening, I slowed down. After a long, hot shower, and over a comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup, I began to relax. I began to consider quitting NaNoWriMo, and I began to feel better. Which meant, of course, that by Monday morning, I was feeling well enough to continue NaNoWriMo.

To be fair, there were other things causing me anxiety, too. I had a deeply personal essay come out on November 9th. The gas in my bungalow was shut off for three weeks, which was a nightmare. And I live in California–there’ve been controlled burns in my county the last couple of weekends in an effort to prevent wildfires, which has meant a great deal of smoke in the air. Then there’s work, school, volunteer commitments. A global pandemic going on two years.

Most of that, I can’t control. I can’t control how people respond to my essay. I can’t control how fast my landlord replaces the gas lines. (And neither can he, God bless him, he’s doing the best he can.) I can’t control the wildfires. I can’t control the pandemic–I can only do my part. But there was one thing causing me anxiety that I could control. I could decide not to force myself to write 1,667 words a day every day for a month, when my body clearly needed a break, for no good reason other than my aversion to “failing.” (And the badges.)

Woman from torso down walking barefoot on black sand beach wearing floral dress.

What I’m writing here may sound contrary to other things I’ve written. I wrote recently about some of the things I like and don’t like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words), and I also wrote about Structuring Your Writing Life. In both of those posts, I extolled the benefits of writing each and every day. I’ve written about Game Theory and Writing–I do believe gamifying writing goals can help writers achieve those goals, and NaNoWriMo is a great example of that. In another post, Time Is on My Side, I wrote that I have a daily writing practice–I keep a large calendar on my wall and mark an X through each day once I reach my daily writing goal.

But in those same posts, I also wrote that “long strolls and … periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential,” and I shared that my daily writing goal is this: to write for ten minutes each day. Only ten minutes. I’m easy on myself in my daily writing life. I wasn’t always, but I’ve learned to be. My writing mentors and role models have helped me to create a productive and enjoyable writing life. Mary Yukari Waters helped me see that I was sapping the joy out of my writing life by being overly rigid. Jill Alexander Essbaum was particularly instrumental in teaching me to take my creative days as they come and to revel in wherever those days may take me. She showed me what a productive and enjoyable writing life can look like, and she taught me that such a life should include things like getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. Deanne Stillman taught me that things take as long as they take and not to rush them. Tod Goldberg taught me that it’s okay to take a break, but it’s not okay to give up. They all taught me to enjoy being creative and to be more kind to myself.

This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.”

I do believe in building good habits and in working hard to reach your goals. But NaNoWriMo may not be the thing that works for everyone. And it may work at one point in life and not at another. My personality can be hardcore. I take things to extremes. Left to my own devices, I can turn just about anything into such demanding work that I take the fun out of it. I’m the Monica Geller of writing competitions. For me, NaNoWriMo brings out an unhealthy side of my personality.

These days, I choose to write at least ten minutes a day because that gets me sitting down at the keyboard. Once I start writing, I usually get into it and write for much longer than ten minutes, and I enjoy it. Most mornings, me and Walter Mosley can be found at our keyboards well before sunup and for several hours after. But if all I’ve got in me is the ten minutes, that’s okay. I stop and mark the X on my calendar. Beyond the ten minutes, my daily writing practice usually means continuing to work on my current WIP. But sometimes, my definition of writing is much more flexible. It might mean submitting a few stories to literary journals–I’ve done something toward my writing goals, so I mark the X on my calendar. It might mean taking a walk on the beach while working out a plot point in my head, getting to know a character, or brainstorming an idea for a new story. Counts as writing. I mark the X on my calendar. Today, writing this post counts as writing. On Sundays, taking a break from my computer to rejuvenate my soul counts as writing. As long as I do it deliberately and thoughtfully, it counts.

Tweet by Counts as Writing @CountsAsWriting on August 2, 2021, which reads: Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing.

Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing. @CountsAsWriting 08/02/21

 

I was already considering giving NaNoWriMo up by Sunday evening, because I was physically and emotionally wiped out and felt like dirt. But on Tuesday, Tyler Dilts’s tweet helped me connect the two things. I realized I was so caught up in word count that I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. I started out like gangbusters, but after about 10,000 words, the words I was writing weren’t substantially contributing to me finishing my book. They were, however, substantially contributing to my anxiety. I’d fallen back into my old habit of being an overly rigid killjoy, and I literally made myself sick.

I deleted my NaNoWriMo account Tuesday night and went back to the daily writing practice I love. And I am feeling much better. To be fair, there are other reasons I’m feeling better, too. The smoke has cleared out of the air in my neighborhood. I got a lovely, heartwarming message in response to my essay that made all the anxiety leading up to its publication worthwhile. My gas was reconnected Tuesday evening and my hot water heater was fixed last night. And I took up coffee again after a three-day break–I love coffee. But I have to be honest–I felt a weight lift from my chest when I deleted my NaNoWriMo account. This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.

I came out of this aborted NaNoWriMo attempt with 27,000+ words, including a new, 10,000-word draft of a story that takes place in the desert on the 20th anniversary of Gram Parson’s death. It’s a story I love. I can’t stop thinking about it. I am anxious to start revising it. It suddenly made no sense to me to keep writing new words I wasn’t enjoying writing in order to earn quite-colorful-and-nice-to-look-at-but-still-virtual badges, when what I really wanted to do was to begin rewriting this story I am excited about. (The other 17,000 words are mostly rubbish, to be honest.)

“Knowing when to quit is probably a very important thing, but I just am not ready.”
–James Taylor

So I quit NaNoWriMo, and I’m okay with that. I deleted my account because my personality is also such that, if I hadn’t, two days from now I’d have logged back in and decided I could still buckle down and make my word count in time. It was one of those decisions you tussle with, but once you’ve made up your mind, you know it was the right decision.

Please understand, when I say to know when to quit, I do not mean to quit writing or to give up on your dreams. I don’t mean to quit NaNoWriMo either–if it’s feeding you and empowering you, fantastic. Keep going! You’ve got this! It’s a personal choice. But know when something you’re doing is no longer working for you. Know when a project you’re working on is no longer bringing you joy. Know when a writing practice is bringing you down. Listen to your body, and know when you need a break or to set something aside for a day, or a week, or a couple of months. And whatever else you do, please be as kind to yourself as you would be to anyone else.

These are my words for today, Thursday, November 18th. They count as writing. They were a pleasure and a relief to write, and I hope you found something useful in them.

WRITER TIP: Speaking of knowing when to quit, here’s a great tip about ending a writing session from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”