The Midpoint and the Long Race

Alicia BessetteSelf-imposed deadlines can be tricky. Too lax, and you’ll wind up with Writer Who Doesn’t Write Syndrome. Too strict, and you’ll get what Dennis Lehane calls Ticking Clock Syndrome. For me, the key was finding a midpoint between these two extremes.

For many years, I had Writer Who Doesn’t Write Syndrome. Though I dreamed of publishing, countless issues all “prevented” me from writing. I was “too busy/naïve/tired/sick of the computer/bereft of anything worthy to say/shy/whatever” to write.

A singular moment changed my attitude. I was in yoga class during final relaxation pose (my favorite), and my instructor was talking softly about how hard it had been for her to decide she was “good enough” to teach yoga. A little voice in her head kept saying, Who do you think you are, believing you actually have something to offer other people? Eventually she was able to tell the voice, Well, who am I NOT to believe in myself?

A simple shift in self-perception — a flick of a switch, really — and she kicked self-doubt aside, and took the steps necessary to achieve her goal of becoming a yoga teacher.

I was so inspired, I sped home and wrote a poem. No longer would I be “too _____ (fill in the blank)” to write.

A few months later, after The New Yorker rejected that poem, I locked myself in my room and stewed for half a day. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d gone straight from one unhealthy extreme to another. From Writer Who Doesn’t Write Syndrome, to Ticking Clock Syndrome.

Lehane coined Ticking Clock Syndrome in his foreword for the book Your First Novel. Ticking Clock Syndrome afflicts many aspiring authors who wish the process of writing and publishing worked faster. They rush into things, elect shortcuts, and confuse wanting something with deserving it.

After that fateful yoga class, when I finally stopped making excuses and started writing in earnest, I gave myself a ridiculous deadline: publish my first novel before my 29th birthday. After all, I reasoned, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer were both 25 when they broke through. So logically ….

My 29th birthday came and went, and so did a few more birthdays, and I hadn’t published a word, let alone a whole book. I thought, What is wrong with me? I should have something published by now. People think I’m a loser! I AM a loser! I’m sorry to say I occupied this crippling, anguished psychological space for years. As Lehane puts it, “Tick tick tick …”

Truth is, the only ticking clock is the one you hear inside your own head. What’s real? The time you carve out for yourself, and the effort you fill it with.

To find the midway point between Writer Who Doesn’t Write and Ticking Clock syndromes, set reasonable deadlines that get you writing, and don’t totally freak out if you’re not a literary superstar. In other words, have enough urgency to write every day — even if it’s only for an hour — but not so much urgency that you contemplate giving up if you don’t experience the success you imagined by a certain random point.

And if you’re anything like me, you might have to question whether your ideas of “success,” and when should “get” it, are completely chimerical. If so, toss those misconceptions out the window, and focus on one thing: writing.

The following wise words are oft-quoted by Big H, my husband’s grandfather: “It’s a long race.” He says that about life in general, but I think you can apply the “long race” theory to the endeavor of writing and publishing, too. It’s not a sprint. Very few are the writers who can whip out a beautiful, flawless manuscript in a few short months and make instant millions from it. More likely, you’ll spend years honing your craft before you get even a whiff of interest from a publishing professional.

So set gentle deadlines; meet them; and brace yourself for the long race.

~Alicia Bessette

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24 thoughts on “The Midpoint and the Long Race

  1. What a timely post this one is, Al. I fall into the category of Writer Who Doesn’t Write. I’ve been working on a story for a while and thought I pretty much had it where I wanted it. I had two good friends look at it and they both gave me wonderful advice as to what I needed to do to make this a much better story. Then I ran into a research roadblock and haven’t touched it for several weeks. I know how to get around this roadblock, but have been coming up with the usual(lame)excuses to not write. But now I see that I should look at this story every day and even if I don’t make corrections or additions I should at least put some thought into it. I know this will help move things along and I will eventually get it finished. Thanks.

  2. Big H sounds like a smart guy.

    I like to say “Life is long,” not so much over time to achieve, but more that there’s time to focus on different things.

    So many of my creative friends experienced, like me, that their ambition got sidelined when they had a baby. That can be disorienting and confusing and scary. It took about two years of cooing over baby 1 before I got all my urges to write and “achieve” back. For baby 2, I was much more relaxed about it. Coo over the baby if you want to, write a book if you want to. The drive will come back; life is long.

  3. Scott: A nice break from a writing project can do wonders.

    Emily: Right now I’m reading a fantastic middle-grade fiction book called Every Soul A Star by Wendy Mass, and one of the characters, an older woman, is fond of saying, “Life is short, but it’s wide.” Another good expression!

  4. Very wise words today, Al. Many of my friends are making ambitious writerly new year’s resolutions, and I’m not up to that right now. Maybe there is a gentler way to find my own balance–a midpoint that I’m certain will shift as time goes on.

  5. “It’s a long race.” Exactly.
    I think it’s one reason every writer should take a shot at running one marathon — or at least training for one. The mental game is half the battle, instead of seeing 26 miles, you see one mile you have to finish at a time. Instead of seeing a novel, you break it down to one scene at a time. Which, I admit, is easier to talk about as a theory than it is to actually do … kinda like a marathon. And this is coming from someone who has to bet someone else to get the first draft written in six months or it’ll never get done. But it’s the revising that counts. Right?

  6. *applauding*

    I knew someoe who worked on the same short story for years. And years. And as far as I could tell, never worked on anything else. I would call that the Writer Who Doesn’t Write. Endless revising can be its own avoidance strategy, I’d say.

  7. Kristina, great point. An aspiring author recently asked me, “How do you know when something is finished?” I really didn’t have an adequate answer. Maybe this is something every writer has to figure out for his/herself?

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  9. I used to wish and worry and fret about publishing’s slooooowwww pace and wish it would go faster. Then one day, like a flip of a switch, I realized it was NEVER going to go faster. With layoffs and a tight economy, it might even go slower! After that, I didn’t worry about it at all. Congrats on figuring out what you needed.

  10. Big H also likes to say, “It’s better than a kick in the pants,” meaning that it always could be worse and you should appreciate what you got. The writing life is always hard–always. But it’s important to appreciate the process. The wise Roland Merullo has told me many times to celebrate and mark each success, every step, regardless of whether the world is paying attention or not. It’s all about perspective. And you have to remember that most things really are better than a kick in the pants. My grandfather didn’t have enough food to eat growing up during the Great Depression. Two generations later, Alicia and I make our living selling fiction, and we never go hungry, which pretty much blows Big H’s mind. Much better than a kick in the pants indeed!

  11. Almost every published author I “know” — particularly the first-time ones — say writing/publishing is a journey. And they hope it never ends!

  12. Alicia, that is one of the trickiest questions. I deem something “finished” when I can no longer tell if my changes are helping, hurting, or uselessly shuffling around. That’s another reason one needs an agent, because at some point we just can’t tell anymore ourselves!

  13. And herein lies the writing inspiration for the week. Thank you for posting this and for sharing so much of yourself. My issue has been carving out the time to write for myself. I write all the time…for other people, and I found that because of my nature, I easily put others first, even when it comes to my writing. So my Christmas gift from the Universe was wrapped in a beautiful, invisible package, and inside was Me…as a storyteller. I unwrapped the package and received my writing and my storytelling. And the gifts kept coming for the New Year. I had an inkling to see my writing as the next someone I get to take care of; as someone I get to make time for; as someone I get to show up for and really listen to. And voila. I still have that tug in my gut telling me I’m not good enough; it’s getting a little quieter but like your yoga teacher, the other side of me is screaming louder: who am I not to believe in myself. I can believe in others until the cows come home, why not me?

    My goals for 2010 are to make this year a year of doing, of sitting down, of putting pen to page or fingers to keys and sitting and doing. Therein lies the beauty of the journey.

    Happy new year, my friend. May this be a year of bliss and peace, of letters and words!

    Sat Nam!

  14. great post. I’ve never met a deadline I couldn’t reschedule. but the best cure for meeting a deadline (for me, anyway) is to work consistently.

    As for when to stop working on something, I’ve been telling myself the following the past week with my novel: a story is not good because it’s finished; it is finished because it’s good.

    So, i’m trying to make things good. It makes more sense in my brain.

  15. A wonderful post.

    I don’t believe my art or writing is finished until it is sold. Until then, anything could happen. I’m a slow writer. I can only write well in a certain place when all is balanced. I feel lucky because when I can’t write, I can paint. Unlike writing, I can always paint.

    About writing and painting my grandmother used to say, “It keeps the crazy birds away.”

  16. Hi Alicia,

    Big H sounds like a wise guy.

    I really hate that Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer-two of my favorites- published great works so young. I often think, “not only will I not be published by that age, but I’ll NEVER be as good as they are.” But I try to keep in mind that I have my own story to tell, and it’s one that will unfold if I keep at it.

    Looking forward to reading your novel!

  17. This is such a great post! I have been on both sides of that fence too. It’s so difficult to push yourself without pushing too hard.

  18. The reasons I heartily agree with your post are the same reasons I despise “Nanowrimo.” Every November, novelist hopefuls try to pen a complete manuscript in a month’s time. I’ve never tried it, and I probably never will. The idea that you or your writing are not worth more than a month’s time is ridiculous. If you believe in your craft, you have to give it the respect and time it deserves to flourish.

    Now that I’m in the revision stage of my first manuscript, a YA social sci-fi called Thirty Decibels, I can look back unabashedly at the days of my “Ticking Clock Syndrome” – if you were wondering, that affliction doesn’t mesh well with being a new parent. Now, I have a rhythm – generally two 5-7-hour days of fiction-writing per week. It works for me. My day job is copywriting for a digital marketing firm, which keeps the muscles taut.

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