Over the last two and a half years I’ve been working on my first novel, I’ve thought a lot about how to keep going. One thing that’s sustained me is the practice of writing for its own sake; that is, writing just because dreaming stuff up and writing it down is fun. I’ve saved myself a lot of anxiety that way, because I’m focused on enjoying the journey, not on reaching the destination. I know this works well because I recently screwed up and stopped doing it.
I fell victim to ambition.
A couple of things led to my fall. The first was finishing my first draft. That was exciting and made me eager to push on to the second draft and from there to completion. I might have coped with that well enough on its own, but…
…the second thing happened about the same time.
It was actually a very happy event. A friend from my writing group, Susan Crawford, got a two-book deal with a major publisher on the strength of her debut novel, The Pocket Wife. (Susan is a beautiful writer, the book is suspenseful, cleverly plotted and full of fascinating characters. You should order a copy at once. No, make that two copies, so you can give one to a friend.)
Fantasy Frickin’ Island
Along with my happiness for my writing buddy came visions of literary glory and along with those the counter-productive fantasies. Wow! I could do that too! All I have to do is finish, show the manuscript to one agent at a writing convention and, bingo, my ship comes in! It’s going to be awesome, but I’ve got to hurry!
The calm I usually bring to my writing quickly evaporated, along with a good bit of the fun and creativity. I felt cramped and frustrated by the ability to do only so much in a day. I couldn’t enjoy the other parts of my life because the writing part had gotten distorted. Writer’s block began to set in as I tried to work quickly but achieve perfection at the same time.
At some point, as I was rewriting the same sentence for the fifth time in the same sitting, I woke up and realized something was wrong. It didn’t take long to figure it out. I had abandoned the journey for the destination, which was, and still is, a land far, far away.
So I took a deep breath, shut down my PC and spent the weekend thinking about anything else besides writing. I needed to achieve some detachment. When I returned to the blank page the following Monday, my head was clear enough so that I could see the problem. So I relaxed and just started following my plan at my own pace, rather than the pace of some fantasy editor. The fun and creativity came back. So did the quality.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition in and of itself. All of us who write novels have our share. We are ambitious for good writing, for finishing the work, for giving our stories to the world. It’s when ambition gets blown out of proportion that your writing can suffer.
So keep ambition in its place.