There are a lot of books out there telling people how to write. They are written by very famous, very successful people. There are workshops, seminars, YouTube videos, and blogs full of “how to” and “have to” for the aspiring author.
I got bit by the writing bug early. I was barely a teenager when I decided that I wanted to be an author when I grew up, or sooner if I could manage it. I actually got my first rejection when I was sixteen. It was from Young Miss magazine. This was back in the day when all submissions were handled by mail, so what I got was a form letter. But. In the margin of that form, someone had written Lovely story. Somebody, a stranger, an adult, had read my story and they liked it.
That was all it took. I never seriously considered doing anything else for my career. At the same time, after 35+ novels, I still struggle with a case of imposter syndrome that on a bad day can leave me near-paralyzed. Over and over my bad brain tells me that I’m not a “real writer.”
Impostor syndrome — that feeling that no matter how hard you’ve worked, or what you’re real credentials are that you don’t belong — is a complicated issue. It’s got a lot of roots, and it’s different for everybody. But I can say with confidence that one of my particular roots was the sheer mountain writing advice I got, especially when I was starting out. Most of it preceded by the words “you have to.”
You have to write every day. You have to write a set amount of words every day. You have to have a separate space to write. You have to write without revising. You have to…you have to…you have to…
I internalized all these “have tos,” and the fact that I couldn’t follow them contributed to my burgeoning suspicion I wasn’t a “real writer.” Especially because I didn’t write every single day no matter what (Note: as I got older, I began to suspect that the person who really can write every day no matter what has somebody else cleaning the house and raising the kids).
The truth is that the writing process is as individual as the writer. We come to this craft from separate directions, and we inhabit it as part of our separate lives. The differences can be as small as whether you prefer background music or silence when you write, or as large as whether you can write full time, or only once a week for an hour late at night because you’ve got a job and three kids to take care of (that’s not what I had to do, but I know people who did).
The deepest secret of The Successful Writing Process is this: The only “have to” is that you have to figure out for yourself what will work for you. If it works long term, fabulous. If it works just for today, also fabulous. Tomorrow’s a new day. The next book/story/blog article is a new world, and it might just play by new rules.
This, of course, means starting over a lot. It means digging deep and learning about your life, and yourself, with each project. That can be exhausting. It can be frightening. It gets extra fun in the middle of a pandemic when the situation for the world at large seems to be changing every other day.
But it can also be highly satisfying. Part of writing is solving the puzzle of the project, and part of that puzzle is how to get to the finish line. The process allows for failure, for starting over, for learning something fresh, and for looking at things from a different angle. That can call for as much creativity as the words on the screen (or page) do, and it can be just as meaningful.
So, if you’re struggling with your writing, experiment with taking a step back from the advice, including this advice. Look at what works best for you — just you — as a writer and as a person, and go that way.
You will cross that finish line.