Creative resilience in writing : positive, realistic values and aims

Be open to opportunity: Submit widely to competitions and journals

In the last post we looked at how you can build a better attitude towards the substance and quality of your own work. Some of the approaches we looked at such as progress recording and taking a class were very practical. Others were more psychological and value driven such as honouring your background and identifying your personal reason for writing.

Today I want to look further at the area of values but once again link this to practical steps you can take to improve your chances of fulfilling your aims. In particular I’d like you to take out that personal notebook/phone notes/document again and ask yourself some further questions.

What is the range and scope of my artistic endeavour?

We’ve looked at ‘why I write’ (or why I make art). Now its time to ask yourself how far you’d ideally like to go.

What place does my writing have in my life? Is it the major or minor key? Hobby or vocation?

List all the things you love to do in life in order, where does writing come?

What do you want to come out of your writing? Money? Fame? Recognition? Camaraderie? Connection? (This question is closely aligned with last week’s Why I write?)

What is the range of your writing endeavour? Self-expression? Friends and family? A quiet following? Mass appeal?

If published do I want a small print run or to have a shot at a big publishing house?

What sacrifices am I willing or able to make?

What time am I willing or able to give to learning and producing?

Mission statement

Using your answers from above decide how far you want to take your writing and the range you would be happy with. You may ideally be a bestseller but be happy enough with ‘quietly published.’  You may choose self-publishing either as a small scale friends and family project or with a fully-fledged business plan in mind to promote and develop a full marketing and production strategy for your self-published trilogy.

(By the way by incorporating some of your value responses from last week with today’s task you’ll come up with an artistic statement that will be useful if you wish to apply for arts council or other funding. )

One mission statement might be: I want my writing to reach a discerning but reasonable-sized audience through publication with a reputable small press.

Another might be: I want to write in order to join a local writing group and make friends.

Look at what you’ve got

 You might interrogate this area with the SWOT analysis businesses use. (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). In the writing context you will be looking the elements of your own craft/product but also looking at the condition of the publishing industry and your place in it. Here are some possible questions you can jot down answers to.

What are strengths /weaknesses

Eg: Research skills, language, character/world building, unique style, humourous outlook etc etc?

Publishing: Social media presence, friend already in writing group, great synopsis, referral from agented friend,

What are threats/opportunities

Global pandemic, recession, vampires are now out, book hard to pin down, too many writers!, publishing industry in uncertainty, ticket for publishing day, writing retreat, extra time due to retirement or less time due to illness/family commitments.

Aims

I’ve written before about aims (and what to do if you can’t achieve them). The advice is always to have realistic, measurable and specific goals that you can use to gauge how you are doing and mark off progress. About a year ago I did the couch to 5k challenge. The early aims were tiny – running for just two minutes – but I found it almost addictive being able to tick off each week’s accomplishments and it really contributing to a fantastic sense of pride. The bite-sized incremental goals worked brilliantly to make me feel happy with what I had also achieved and also – this is so important – they gave me the confidence that I could achieve the next goal. While this sort of aim works perfectly for wordcount or projects completed, longer term aims such as ‘get published by this time next year’ might not always have a definitive path or a certain outcome even if you complete a set of steps. It’s probably best to include the more quantitative goals alongside the less quantifiable ones.

Be realistically positive

While we’ve all heard of books like The Power of Positive Thinking purely positive thinking would be something close to delusional. No matter how positive you are “I can fly without wings from the top of this cliff” would not end well most circumstances! But there are several things we can do to that can help us achieve our goals or, at the very least, make it more pleasurable trying. This, in turn, will make it more likely we will have the energy to keep going. Some of these things are:

Think of what you can do in a particular moment rather than what you can’t

If I don’t have time to finish this chapter then aim to solve a knotty problem in paragraph two. In fact, it helps to list everything you can do right now, in your head or on paper. Earlier today I was despondent when I could not recall a great idea I had for my novel. For a while I focussed on how I could not remember and what a loss that was but then I began to focus on all the ideas I already had written down and the possibilities I could follow with those. Incidentally, this approach works so well for ordinary life. A feeling of helplessness can be so detrimental to our mental health, but feelings of agency and autonomy – even in small ways can be transformative.

Be versatile

Linked to the point above, if we think of different ways that we may succeed, if we try different alternatives, if we at least explore alternatives (eg. Self-publishing vs traditional), a class in poetry where we’d normally do novel writing, writing a story instead of something longer, trying flash fiction, entering a competition that we don’t normally enter, researching, reading or writing outside our own genre. Writing for half an hour and then stopping, writing at night, writing outside, writing with a prompt or using an object for inspiration, writing in a group setting. Every time we do things differently or come up with other ideas we are wiring the brain anew, we are becoming more creative and interesting people with a lot more going on, a lot more to say.

Relax and widen the odds

Who said ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself?’ I’ve become very interested in positive psychology recently. I’ve discovered the benefits of the ‘half-smile’. Even when a low mood begins to descend you can coax your body into thinking that you are happy and up for the challenge. At the library where I work, walking out onto the floor with an energetic gait and a smile makes me more approachable to my colleagues and library patrons. When pursuing your goals we don’t want arrogance but a quiet confidence and self-belief, an enthusiasm about your work, a submission cover letter that shows you care and believe – this pushes your work -and you- forward in the mind of the agent or publisher.

In terms of increasing the odds for publication if that’s your thing, do what every successful writer has done, submit widely, increase your odds by entering competitions, attend events and launches, post your work online or do readings if you are comfortable. Even if you don’t get a mention you will be learning and developing as you go.

Conclusion

Building creative resilience in writing is both about getting in touch with values & the range of your ambition and taking very practical steps to create opportunity and affirmation.

You have nothing to lose – as long as you balance your ambition with the values for the whole of your life. Become clear about the shape of your endeavour within the wider framework, be cognisant of the realities of your situation and the industry but look at ways to maximise your chances and solve problems rather than reside in a general fug that cannot be tackled. In the comments you can let us know what has worked for you in providing focus and energy  in an endeavour full of uncertainty. Wishing you all well.

Creative resilience in the face of self-doubt

I’ve wanted to restart this blog with a specific focus on creative resilience. There are so many things that can stop us – a world pandemic, climate crisis, tiredness, overwork, confusion, conflicting demands and that old perennial self-doubt.

To endeavour in the face of all those mega obstacles you need to have a reason. Once you have a reason you need to believe 1) that your work will fulfil that reason and 2) you can actually produce something half-decent that other people will want to read.

In a cruel twist of self-fulfilling prophecy if you falter at any of the above steps and succumb to self-doubt you begin to lose impetus to begin, if you begin your productivity disappears, nothing you write seems good enough and voila! Your greatest fears have been realised.

So let’s start with a reason.

Perhaps you’d like to take out your phone and open up the notes function, perhaps you’d like to tab to a blank page or open up that very special notebook someone gave your for your birthday and you’ve been saving up to now.

Now write down your reason. Why do you want to create? What drives you to write? What difference do you want your writing/artwork to make? What would be the best thing that someone could say about your work? Write all the answers down.

Next: What fascinates you? What gives you most satisfaction about a piece of work you are creating? What are the little highs along the way? What would you miss most if you could not do it again?

When you look over those answers you have your reason. Next week I will talk about looking at your range, what scope and reach is enough to satisfy you, what you can do to fulfill these aims.

You have a reason. Try to distil it in one or two sentences. Write it down and pin it up where you right or commit it to memory but every so often change the phrasing so that it doesn’t wear out.

Right now my reason might be: I want to write to make the ordinary glorious, to reach and console others in our common human experience.

You have your reason, it’s wonderful, it probably makes sense, now you know why you spend hours wrestling with words (or paint or whatever your medium) behind closed doors, for years and years with no recognition maybe in an endless groundhog pursuit that may possibly qualify as mad.

Then you sit down to write. You do your best to try to convey an idea, a setting, a character, a pure feeling adequately and I say adequately as it often does not feel more successful than that. We begin to question our subject matter or our ability in comparison to other writers whose work we enjoy and who are successfully published. Why can’t we be as (insert adjective) as they are?

First we must accept who we are and where we came from   

Each person is a conglomeration of circumstance, particular genetic and developed competencies and intelligences, particular ways of looking at the world. A person’s background and experience leads to a particular linguistic range and ideology, particular preferences, favoured words and themes. Some of these words or ways of seeing may seem inspired or some sort of genius or out of reach by dint of our different experiences. Take the rich Indian landscape of colour and spice versus the equally apt Scandinavian noir. Take the World War Novel or family drama. Each has its riches. What do you know inside out? Or what does your fascination drive you to know well? We might look at books on a grand scale -so ambitious and successful that we stand haggard in the face of them and believe we can never achieve such brilliance. There are moments when we see others render the seemingly normal and mundane in a searing and luminescent manner that takes our breath away. Getting the mundane right seems an even greater accomplishment.

Take time to recognise where you came from, what your memories are, how you grew up, the language you know. Accept that as your legacy and lexicon. What you see as your limitation can be a rich store from which you draw. Go deeper, mine your memories, recall local stories, interrogate your everyday and your past for the fine details. These may be details that others can identify with and love or specific moments that will give your work its originality and colour.

Believe in the jewels and record them

As you write you will churn up mud, you will make mistakes, you will write a hundred ordinary words and then, suddenly something will come up. Bursting out into the light, beyond our conscious plan or knowledge something appears like a cave strewn jewel or a spring bulb out of dark and cold soil. In that moment a true union of intention and completion occurs. We are delighted, we read the phrase over and over. In the longer term we struggle to pull an entire novel together and eventually succeed. Yet we forget, time and time over what we have achieved. In psychology terms it is the cruelty of the recency effect (when writing we are more often closest to frustration than to celebration) and how we are wired neurologically for evolutionary advantage to see what is wrong. Take time to note the lovely phrases, the commendations, the compliments, publications or shortlists or just the internal satisfaction of having a phrase or a character do what it, he, she, they was supposed to do. Yes, write these successes down and allow yourself to enjoy the intrinsic motivation of doing a good job at something you (yes, see Reason) love. Have a long list on your noticeboard or at the back of a notebook noting every success. Revel in it every once in a while.

Business-like ways to eliminate self-doubt

Daily aims

After the poetic be practical. Beyond meaning and reason and lovely words you can also mechanically and practically work to eliminate self-doubt. Make a plan, create daily aims, put them in a table or spreadsheet and tick them off, include mitigating factors – a sick child, an unexpected errand.

Record and reward increasing wordcount or the solving of difficult problems

Wordcount isn’t always a true indicator of the worth of your work but its an easy way to feel that you’re succeeding. If you’re wrestling with a problem again get out your work notebook and note what you’ve been working on and how you’ve moved it on. At the very least logging progress on a daily basis will help you see that you are getting somewhere.

Share and submit

This is a tricky one. If you submit and are constantly rejected you may feel worse than ever but even sharing and getting encouraging feedback from your writing group is a way of feeling that you are truly a writer and that you can develop and improve. If you widely submit (but choose your appropriate level – a local competition as a beginner or something more prestigious later on) then you can gain feedback and – sometimes – validation and success.

Classes and Mentorship

It can be daunting to take a class to improve your skills. You may have so much self-doubt that you won’t even apply for a mentorship scheme but classes and mentorships are ways you have to develop and improve your skills to improve your self-confidence. Be realistic about skills you may lack and take steps to address these. A proactive and problem-solving approach engenders an energetic feeling of efficacy and competence. Classes and mentorship will also identify your particular strengths at this point in time. This brings us full circle. Make the most of what you’ve got, shine within your own sphere, if your background and interests are confined it means they can be highly specialised but if you want to broaden your scope, take steps to do so. Instead of self-doubt, revel in the self’s unique perspective.

In summary, don’t let self-doubt become a miasma that clouds your thinking and impedes your progress. Make a clear path through identifying your reason, passions. Inform yourself by noting what you have in your backpack (or baggage!). Plan your route, set your goals, review your progress and get help and fuel along the way in the form of mentors or other inspiration (more on that in future). These practical and value-driven methods will align your purpose and progression and help you put your self-doubt to one side.