Protecting Your Creative Self
Before a writer gets published, they always think that the biggest obstacles they
will face are outward ones. Rejection, finding the right editor, finding the right
agent, getting marketing dollars, starred reviews, or blurbs from famous authors to
promote the book. What most beginning writers don't consider is the truth that
being a writer actually becomes more difficult in many, many ways after the first
Maybe that isn't what they want to hear, and maybe it sounds like, as my brother-in-law puts it, "crying on the yacht." But I don't think I have forgotten the anxiety
of waiting to hear if the latest book I put my heart and soul into would be rejected.
I haven't forgotten the sense of all my work being for naught because I wasn't a
"real writer." I haven't forgotten the many times I uttered these words, "If I just
get one book published, I'll never complain again."
But the truth is that rejection never ends. My ratio of books accepted for
publication has improved since my early days (when it was 20 full books rejected
versus one accepted and is now more like five books rejected for one published).
But I get rejected all the time. These days, it's mostly my agent who rejects my
books, and mostly, he is right. Sometimes editors reject my books, too. Sometimes
they are kind, but I still remember the old days when I moved from getting form
rejections to getting detailed explanations of why my book wasn't working,
sometimes pages long. It was very painful, even though I had people around me
telling me that it was a good sign that someone cared enough to give me feedback.
The fear that I'm not a real writer continues, and I'm not sure I know very many
writers who don't feel like they are posing, who don't believe that the last book
they sold is probably the sign that their luck is ending. And I still find myself
saying, "If I get this next book published, then I'm out of the game forever." It's
just too hard. Sometimes the only way to keep going is to tell myself what I often
do when I am running a long race. You lie to yourself and just think about the next
mile marker. If you make it there, you give yourself a chance to reassess and
decided if you're going to make it any farther.
If you're going to be a writer long-term, you need to learn to actively protect your
creative self. Many people have no idea what a creative self is because they don't
cultivate it. I sometimes envy these people, because they also have no idea how
vulnerable that creative self is, and how difficult it is sometimes to take it out
again and let it take chances when it got hurt so badly just yesterday. If you think
about writers who wrote only one book, do you imagine that these writers only had
one idea in them? I don't. They are writers who gained so much fame so quickly
with their first book that they didn't have a chance to realize how much they
needed to protect their creative self. I'm lucky in that I've had a pretty low profile
during my whole career and only recently have garnered enough attention that I've
been sent on book tours and have had really nasty reviews on Amazon and
Goodreads and even one national newspaper.
So, how do you do it? How do you figure out a way to deal with people talking
about your deepest thoughts and feelings expressed in print without shaking your
head and refusing to ever do it again? How do you find a way to open yourself to
criticism of who you are, and actually learn something from it and not lock
yourself in a room for the rest of your life? How do you face the fear of the blank
page day after day? How do you reinvent yourself in literature and take new risks,
when you already know that even if you succeed, you will be mocked and
sometimes castigated for being your truest self?
Eat. A lot.
No, seriously, I find that I reward myself for doing hard things in terms of my
career with small food treats on a regular basis. Sometimes I take my family out
for dinner to celebrate something really important. Other times, I go and get
myself an obscenely decadent dessert. I don't always eat all of it, but that isn't the
point. The point is that I give myself permission to eat it. It's mine, along with the
sense of pride that I deserved that.
Another important thing for me has been finding a community of artists who
understand what it is like to have a vulnerable creative self that needs to be
protected. I live with a robotics engineer who sometimes rolls his eyes at me when
I complain about being a special snowflake writer with delicate sensibilities. And
there are certainly times when I need to have eyes rolled. There are times when it's
better to think about writing as a job that just has to be done, that each day a
certain number of words simply have to be written and I might as well sit down
and get it done. But there are also times when you need all the special snowflakes
to be together so that we can help each other not melt. So I go to regular
conferences where I go out to dinners with writer friends or retreats where for me
the main point is socialization, not writing. And I hang out on twitter with my
writer friends, too.
Some other ideas of how to protect your creative self:
- Turn off the internet. (By this I mean, find a space in your mind and
possibly in your house where you aren't writing with someone looking over
your shoulder, so to speak.)
- Have a day job, or a really intense hobby so that you can take off your
creative hat and retreat to another world. For me, this is triathlon. It helps
that if I'm struggling with my writer life, I can feel successful as a triathlete.
Also, I think it's good if your day job is more straight forward in terms of
the connection between hours spent working and results.
- Take lots of walks in the middle of nowhere.
- Give yourself time. Sometimes if you get too much success too fast, you
will feel burned out and you might be tempted to declare that you're
finished. But you might change your mind in time. A year or two off to
rebuild your defenses might work wonders. Don't decide too quickly that
you're never coming back.
- Try something completely different. I was fascinated to discover that JK
Rowling started writing crime novels at about the same time I did, after her
career as a YA fantasy writer. It's hard to imagine a genre more different,
and that's precisely why I was drawn to it. I wanted to reinvent myself and I
wanted to feel fresh and new with every word.
- Meditate. I meditate on a regular basis, often before I sit down to write.
Sometimes I clear my mind completely. Sometimes I let my thoughts go
where they will. And sometimes I try to focus my thoughts on positive
- Earplugs. For me, the idea that I was allowed to use earplugs whenever I
wanted to has been revolutionary to me. I really can't have too much silence
or privacy and I wear them often in airports and always in hotel rooms to
give myself an extra measure of protection.
- Music. Many writers write to music and I think it has a similar effect as my
earplugs. Whatever makes you feel safe, secure, and happy to write. Or just
to be yourself.
- Try making a list of career goals you would like to have happen to you.
Don't expect them to happen. Don't look at them frequently. But go back
once every other year or so, and you may be surprised to discover that
writing them down has a power all its own.
- Focus and concentration. I've always been intensely focused, but over the
last few years, I've had to work on skills to maintain my concentration no
matter what the situation. I'm pretty proud of the way I can sleep no matter
how stressed I am. Well, mostly.
- Give yourself a bus man's holiday and read books that are your candy or
watch a movie and TV that has nothing to do with your career.
- Celebrate. Take yourself out to dinner for big things. Buy yourself a prize
for collecting a certain number of rejections. Make sure you tell yourself
that you're not always looking forward, but sometimes spending time
looking back and being satisfied, however briefly.
- Listen to podcasts about writing. Or about other things.
- Find a way to make friends with other creative types. When I got to know
some musicians and visual artists, I was surprised at how often we had
similar problems, and how their ways of talking about them were
revolutionary to me.
- Do nothing at all.
- Pay attention to your body's breathing, tension, or relaxation. Don't do
anything about it. Just spend some time getting to be aware of it.
Writers do work that is incredibly hard. I don't mean to exaggerate what we do. I
wouldn't say our work is the hardest work in the world. But it is hard work, and I
think sometimes we writers have unhealthy self-talk. Don't tell yourself that this
should be easy, that you're a wimp or anything like that. Tell yourself that you are
a warrior, that you're doing incredible work. It's true.
Sometimes we writers just have to imagine that the world is deserving of the trust
we offer when we offer up our deepest selves. Sometimes that is the greatest work
of the imagination that we do.
Also, remember that you are allowed to fail. And in allowing yourself to fail, you
allow yourself to succeed on a wildly different scale than ever before.
I can't guarantee that every time you face down failure, you will be a successful. I
can't guarantee that every book you write will turn out to be a bestseller. But don't
take risks because of the end game. Don't try out new things because you demand
a certain reward. Do it because you are giving a gift to that creative self that only
you can feed and protect.
I believe art matters. I believe that books can change the world. I watch people in
the political realm who are changing laws and I admire them truly. But I also think
that as a writer, I can change people's deepest hearts and souls by my characters'
journeys. I think I can end wars by showing people that the other is just another
mirror version of themselves. I believe this because I have been changed by books
and because I think that the history of our civilizations is not coincidentally linked
to the history of our arts.
Art is about transforming the world, but it is also about transforming yourself as a
person. You can't change the world until you first do the very hard work of
transforming yourself and taking risks. You write the book first and you remake
yourself. Then every person you change after that is a bonus.
I hear a lot of aspiring authors wanting to know what the new trend is, whether it
is vampires or dying teenagers or dystopians. It doesn't matter what the new trend
is because you are the one who should be making the trends. Until you give up the
idea that other people should tell you what to write, you can't value your creative
self in the way it needs. You need to feed it the special food of confidence and
when you do that, you will find out what you want to write, and that's what the
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison