I recently stumbled on an advice column on The New York Magazine “Should I Give Up on my Writing?” A frustrated writer in her mid-50s was expressing her frustration and readiness to give up writing. She wants to make it and wants to breakthrough. I enjoyed reading the response. Now, I’ll be giving my two cents because I can relate too well. Many writers whether beginners, MFA grads, or experienced writers can relate. There were moments that I felt like I was drowning in my past professional life as a teacher. I had to quit for health reasons. Sometimes, I feel stuck in a rut as a writer/editor. But it’s not time to quit but find a new set of strategies.
Polly’s advice is terrible advice. Just terrible. Polly made some points that I agree with, but she completely missed the point that Panic and Dread was making, “The New Age advice is walk confidently in the direction of your dreams, and the road will open up before you…I feel like I’m just walking in a circle. …I’m tired of walking.” I have been fed that exact advice of ignoring everything else and following the direction of your dreams and everything magically falls into place. I heard that redundantly for ever concern from: college applications, career choices, office conflict, trying to get a promotion, dating and relationships—and of course writing decisions. The evangelical Christianized version of it is “Just pray about it.” No offense to the well-intentioned church-goers. I believe in the power of prayer, but I also believe in the power of getting your ass off the couch and doing something about it while praying. Sometimes, I hate it when the expression “just pray about it” is an excuse to dismiss something, avoid conflict, or say “I don’t give a shit about you and your problems…” Regardless of how you look at it, the idea of “following your passions and everything will just happen” is bullshit. It’s as naive as expecting to run into a soulmate out of nowhere who seduces you and then a blissful happily ever after till death follows. A relationship requires commitment. A goal requires strategy. Likewise, with following your passions, once you find it that doesn’t mean everything falls into place. It is a choice and commitment. Polly’s advice best suits a hobby or amateur writer. However, Panic and Dread who is clearly wanting to write at the professional level. I would say that writing is a double-edged sword of art and business.
Every freelance writer has been in her shoes. The long hours, instability, and being your own boss can be exhausting, and anxiety-provoking. I have a long way to go before the big 5-0, but I can still relate. When I was in my 20s, I dealt with the pressures of being the bright, young new writer. We are living in a culture that expects instant results. If that unrealistic aspiration doesn’t happen, I must be doing something wrong and must quit. While completing my education, I often wondered if something was wrong with me. I kept hearing about my peers who were getting awards, earning praises from English professors, and the ones who’d have brilliant responses to class discussions. I sat and listening to them so eloquently quote Machiavelli or Foucault.
During my studies, I had a novel in mind but kept groping through it like a blind woman. Something was missing. I wasn’t connecting or being relevant to my audience. I didn’t exactly know my audience. I felt frustrated. Eventually, I realized that comparing myself to others will make me feel more defeated. I decided to discover my own niche. There is something unique that I can offer that others cannot. No one else can write like me, even if we both were assigned the same topic. Studying literary criticism was the most helpful tool for me. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m more grounded and have more experience. I’m not on a bestseller list and definitely haven’t received a call from Oprah. My experience has been teaching writing, hosting writer events and groups, and freelance and a few years in-house editorial and copywriting work. I’m also starting to feel like Panic and Dread. I want to get my novel done and be a successfully published author. I’m definitely not getting younger. But, I have a few words that I have to say to her and anyone in general.
First, please stop romanticizing the life and vocation of a writer. Please. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Now! When I started editing, I was surprised to discover that there are people who do. They are not ready for the multiple drafts, feedback, time commitment, and lastly target audience, or deadlines. And of course, criticism. Being a writer and editor means graciously handling criticism and feedback with utmost professionalism. Defensiveness is not appropriate. If you can’t handle the professional, constructive feedback of an editor, how will you deal with the comments of your readers? It’s not about you. And yes, sometimes writing may be inspired by real life events and you are making yourself vulnerable. I can understand that a lot of work goes into the writing. Some of my topics are about alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and domestic violence. These are things that make me furious. Ignorant and apathetic readers infuriate me even more. When I write, I have to process emotions, experiences, and situations. When it comes to the editorial process, I have to distance myself. I have a supportive, honest group of critiques. They are experienced writers and provide honest feedback. If the story is crap, they tell me. It is not the easiest thing. As a professional writer, I understand that the feedback is nothing personal. Most of the feedback is about target audience, consistency, holes in characterization or plot that I have overlooked or holes in development of argument (for non-fiction), tone, voice. Often, I have to adjust writing to make sure my writing consistently speaks to my chosen target audience. Connecting with your audience may mean different things to different people. Fear of being irrelevant is a writer’s nightmare. I feel Polly’s advice is falling into the trap of romanticizing the vocation of a writer. You can’t just follow your passions, say what you want, and be alone ranger and then it’s success or que-sera-sera. Would Polly give that same advice to someone wanting a promotion or moving up the ladder? Of course not. So, why should it be any different for a professional writer?
Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. I felt like I was drowning when I was comparing myself to the superstars in my college. Comparing yourself to another person will only increase anxiety—the destructive kind. The anxiety can be redirected to strategize, explore, and discover self. I continued to journal, blog, and practice writing. That helped me focus and build on my strengths. I then also hung out with those MFA superstars, professional writers, and much more experienced editors to pick their brains and learn from them. This helped me analyze my current approach and strategies (or lack of) and consider how I may apply them. I didn’t find the answers overnight. That’s where patience is needed.
Find your niche and embrace it. In one of my classes, I finally found it. I found my niche, writing style, motifs, and target audience. Marilyn Robinson is known for writing literary fiction about Christianity and small Midwest towns, Karen Russell is known for magic realism. Jhumpa Lahiri is known for portraying contemporary Indian-American immigrant life. I found mine. I have feisty, passionate, cultured but troubled heroines, urban settings, expat lifestyle, and realism. My themes are psychological and about identity beyond national borders and feeling alienated in a changing world. That moment of finding my niche was exciting. It felt like an orgasm in my pen life.
I believe Panic and Dread has something that others cannot offer. She is in her 50s and has more life experience than I do. Grey hair means crown of wisdom not being close to expiration or an imagined finish line. I get it. Our culture is youth-centered. I’m tired of young authors who are the know-it-all, puffed up, self-absorbed millennials full of opinions but lack wisdom, experience, or facts to back up their words. I’d rather hear from an older experienced person than a dimwit know-it-all millennial. Then again, there are wise people of all ages. We’re living in the era where anyone with a keyboard can post their stuff online. There are posts about trivial things like “look what I ate today” and a lame trick someone’s cat did. Take this as an opportunity to create something meaningful that speaks to our culture at large. Every writer is an expert at something, the real question is: what is the expertise?. Being in the 50s means having had more time on this planet to allow that expertise to mature and get better with time like fine wine. Panic and Dread probably has a lot more to say than she assumes about herself.
However, understand similar writers and your competition. I studied writers in my genre and those who wrote about similar topics. That helps me understand how women writers are read by the general public or my target audience’s reactions to certain topics. It also helps me give a good response to that author through my writing. Salman Rushdie said, “A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.” Or, you may add something to what has been said. I don’t compare to feel defeated. I compare to further distinguish myself. There are some things that I can offer that others cannot. Studying writers of similar genre or topics serve as a helpful tool in marketing.
Practice the art of goal setting. What exactly is a breakthrough? Journaling about how she imagines breakthrough or success would be is a good start. The next step would be to list goals and when to accomplish them. Set short term and long term goals. Creating tangible short term and long term goals will motivate, keep you accountable, and get you through. My long goal is to have a manuscript ready to be published in 2 years. In order to accomplish that, I’ll need to break it up into steps. My short term goal is to finish my raw rough draft by the end of this year. When I am done with my first draft, I will celebrate and reward myself. In 2016, I plan to either establish or find a critique group and take a few writing workshops. In 6 months, I will finish self-editing my first draft. By the middle of next year, I hope to have a second draft ready for critique. I’ll also be spending this time researching and continuing to build my platform and network and attend a conference. The year 2017 is the year I plan my publication, pitch, or create marketing plan. Check out passion planner to help you keep organized. I’m planning to get one for myself for 2016.
Identify and Understand your Target Audience and Study Marketing. Study marketing may mean taking Marketing 101 courses at the local community college or connecting with marketing professionals. I went to a MediaBistro event and it was mostly journalists and content writers. These guys had a stronger marketing background than me. During my college studies, I took a few introductory business classes, one copywriting class, and a book marketing class. And, I had some sales experience. I needed to understand product development. Once you identify your target audience, study them and figure out how your writing can serve them. Face it. The reality is that no one cares about the cute antics of your cat or about your idea unless they get something out of it. Consider what motivates you to pick a book or be interested in an author.
Studying psychology may help you identify what would compel someone to read your style and topic of writing. Marketing professionals and advertisers study the psychology of buying and what motivates people. I wonder if there are marketing courses relevant to writing in your area. Maybe you can get direction from taking a college journalism course that focuses on marketing and researching readers. Another option may be networking with marketing professionals interested in arts and picking their brains about the basics of market research. That may help “connect with your audience.” Everyone enrolled in an arts program needs to study marketing and basics of business management in addition to their writing, photography, art courses. Hello, Fine Arts Program Directors: Are you listening?
Again, this is where I want to reiterate my previous point of romanticizing the writer’s life. I can’t help cringe whenever I hear a writer say, “My target audience is for everyone, young and old” (how cliched is that) or “why should I be bothering with marketing and target audience, I just want to write.” That works for an amateur writer. For a professional writer hoping to publish and make a living that is as ridiculous as saying, “I want to be a baker and sell cakes but I don’t want to bother with branding, managing the bakery and its daily operations, advertising, finances, and customer service. I just want to bake cakes all day and hope several customers buy my cakes and I become successful.” That is not how it works. Writing is both an art and a business.
Writing is not a popularity contest but neither is it que-sera-sera. Writing is not a popularity contest but finding your clique or tribe. When we are in middle school, there’s a popular clique that everyone wants to be in. In high school, forget popularity contest. You find your own tribes depending on your interests. That’s how it is with writing. Not everyone likes my writing and some may be offended. But, I’m fine with that. I take critiques as feedback, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree or accept it. What matters is knowing that I effectively served my purpose. Focusing on your tribe may make you more attractive to outsiders too. If my writing is consistent and well-done and focused on my target audience, I can reach readers outside my target. My target audience is college educated, well-read women in their 20s and 30s. However, I received ample positive feedback and encouragement from men of all ages. I had guys tell me that they’d love to read my book. My guy friends told me that it helps them understand women’s perspectives and they can also relate to the topics. Even older women told me that they enjoyed it because it helped them understand their kids, grandkids, students, and people they work with. One mom said she enjoyed it because helped her understand the college world and what her college-aged children were facing, because it created a world for her to enter. Do you see how important it is to understand your target audience, create a product (your writing), and learn relevant strategies to reach out to your target audience?
Exhaustion is normal. Work Smarter not Harder. Writing is work. It is emotionally exhausting and sometimes draining. No wonder some writers are known to suffer from depression and alcoholism. A novel can take years to write and it gets lonely. With short articles, there’s nothing more exasperating as spending a lot of time, effort, research into an article only to receive several rejection letters. Being a freelancer isn’t easy. Then, there are people like me who have a 9-to-5 job, a family, and then have to set aside time to write. I often wish I have the energy of my 6-year-old stepson. It is important to guard your emotions. Set boundaries. Practice mindfulness. Cultivate a sense of purpose that drives you. Don’t forget to reward yourself when you meet small goals or accomplish certain things. When I wrote a chapter in one sitting, I decided to treat myself to a sushi buffet. My partner hates sushi. But, it was sheer joy for me to pig out on sushi. Time management is important. If you haven’t learned it, do it now. Find out what work environments you prefer—a cafe or home after the kids are in bed? Don’t forget your social life. Spend time with your significant other, hang out with your friends, take your kids out, and find another hobby or activity that’s for pleasure. Find a balance. Take care of your well-being.
Don’t forget to enjoy writing for pleasure. While goal setting is important, it is also important to spend some time to just get creative and journal for fun. If you are taking yourself too seriously and not enjoying writing, then what is the point? You will burn out in no time. Sometimes, forget target audience, research, platform building, and anything along those lines. I constantly reminisce of my 8-year-old self. When I was a kid, I made up stories and would tell them to my classmates during recess. The other kids gathered around me and wanted to listen. I felt fulfilled and enjoyed making up stories and entertaining the other kids. The recognition felt great and a human need for belonging was fulfilled. As humans, there’s the innate desire to find our place in the community and have a sense of belonging. It felt just as joyful to create the stories. I entertained myself with those stories. Reflecting on those memories helps me keep things in perspective. I sometimes go to a writer’s group and do prompts just for fun. While writing my project, I came up with an idea of writing a comic, short story detective parody of a divorced woman with kids living in Dubai who is a professional pastry chef but also solves mysteries because she happens to be a nosy Malayalee whose curiosity gets her places. I’m having fun creating the world of Dubai in the 90s with all the 90s pop culture references. I don’t care if I mess up my sentences or if it’s a fucked up story. It’s all about enjoying the process of creating. If you don’t enjoy writing and not actively pursuing topics that you are passionate about, it is very easy to burn out.
Read. Read. Read. Read a variety of books, literary, genre, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles, classics, books on writing and business. Excellent writers are well-read. My favorite websites are Publisher’s Weekly, Electric Literature, The Atlantic, New York Times, InStyle, Oprah, Cake Central. Learn to read for enjoyment and get lost in a book that you enjoy.
I hope my thoughts helped you. You have a purpose as a writer. What motivated you to pick up the pen or laptop? You have important things to say such as a message to that someone out there. This is not the time to give up. Re-strategize, ponder, discover, mediate, and keep writing.
Dear reader, feel free to share this with someone who may find this helpful. And, you are more than welcome to share your views as well.