When you feel like you’re taking the hard path

A couple of weeks ago, Australian speculative fiction author Deborah Biancotti shared some very wise insights while guest-posting on Lisa Hannett’s blog:

“… But here’s what you have to remember: You’re running your own race.

“This means you set the pace & the direction. YOU do. Both. Pace AND direction.

“… So when you find yourself rubbernecking, looking at all the writers who are “passing you by”, remember: they’re not in your race. … Your race is still your own & it will always be your own.”

The excerpts I’ve included above will hopefully convince you to go read Deborah’s entire post, because it’s succinctly and excellently put and we should all print it out and tape to the wall by our computers as Lisa suggests. (Then come back here.)

What a great post. I really needed to hear those words, because it can be so hard to persevere along that lonely track when I see others taking what seems to be a much faster path. I almost said ‘easier path’ just now, but I know that’s not really the case. Every writer has a different path, with different challenges, drivers and external pressures, which is actually Deborah’s point.

My path has been longer — and more laboured — than I anticipated. I made a decision long ago not to write short stories — they don’t really interest me to write or read. I much prefer the immersion of novel-length works. But the latter do take far longer to complete, and when you consider how many ‘bottom drawer’ novels can be expected before something publishable turns up, I do find myself wondering whether a period of dedicated short story writing might have served me better as a training tool.

But that wasn’t to be my path.

The process of becoming an author is strange. There’s this cycle that starts with blithe self-confidence, which gives way to the devastating realisation that said confidence was completely misguided, which in turn is replaced by sheer determination to improve and prevail. And then it all repeats and repeats as skill levels creep upward. I can’t count how many times I’ve felt I’m just about there, that I’ve finally produced something worthy, only to have it all come crashing down.

When you’re in the trough of this cycle, it’s all too easy to compare yourself unfavourably with fellow writers in the ‘race’ and perceive yourself as losing. There’s always another writer (often a friend) who has better turn of phrase, a more unique voice, superior insight into character, better industry connections, is faster, better, more talented.

I had lunch today with a writer friend who questioned his own natural talent and said he persevered out of sheer bloody-mindedness and determination. Part of the thrill for him is the challenge of traditional publication purely because it’s so hard. That’s his ‘race’, I guess. (Go figure.)

My race? All I can do is keep running, keep improving, keep believing. I want to write a novel I’m proud of and have it reputably published. My pledge to myself is to try not to dwell on what I haven’t achieved, to not compare myself with anybody else. I’m going to focus on my goals instead, and do all I can to achieve them.

How about you guys? Do you sometimes wonder whether you’re taking the right path towards your goals? Does it ever feel like you’re in a race? What strategies do you employ to deal with setbacks?

 

18 comments

  1. “try not to dwell on what I haven’t achieved…” I love that. I will have to remind myself of your pledge. I am guilty of comparing myself to other writers who have written more, been published, are wittier, better, blah, blah, blah. It’s a vicious, self-defeating cycle. Thanks for the reminder that we’re all in our own races.

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  2. I do sometimes wonder if I’m going about my first book the right way. But I believe in what it could become if I can learn the skills I need to make that happen, so I keep going as best I can. “Slow and steady wins the race” and all that.

    Setbacks are inevitable and can be discouraging, but they can also be an opportunity to see things in a different way and take a different course of action that we might not have considered otherwise.

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  3. It’s interesting what you say about short stories. Up until getting a kindle about 6 months ago I would have agreed with you totally. I’m finding though I am more and more being attracted to them. I must say I’m preferring the more ‘literary’ ones where the author is experimenting with form rather than the sting in the tail’ variety. I’ve read some which are so exquisitely written that they’re almost poetry. Sorry no links cause I’m on the phone. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

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  4. I like reading the occasional short story…but not new ones. Just oldies by F.Scott Fitzgerald, mostly. I prefer novels…so *sigh* that is what I am writing, too!
    This post really spoke to me and I really needed this reminder today: “You’re running your own race.”

    And now I am going to walk away from your blog WITHOUT looking for the Vanilla Slice again…I am going. I will not look at the Vanilla Slice…I will not look at the Vanilla Slice…. *curses* I am now completely obsessed with a pastry I’ve never even seen in real life.

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  5. This post really resonated with me. It is so easy to be sucked into the race even if the race is only in your mind. Our culture is so obsessed with success, which is defined in a very limited way. Most days I can write and feel okay, even good, about my work and other days I can question every choice I make not just about my work but about how I’ve chosen to live my life as a writer. I have found that writing a blog and getting feedback, even if it is just a “hi. enjoyed your post.” really helps me keep in the game and realize that if I can connect to one person, perhaps my words can one day connect to many.

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    1. Yes, and yes, and yes. I really admire those people who can define and embrace their own goals, and not get caught up in the accepted definition of success. I sometimes feel as though I’m constantly striving to prove myself to myself and others.

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  6. You definitely hit a nerve with this post, Ellen. I think we can all relate the comparisons we make to other people, some more talented than we are. Thinking of it as running our own race at our own pace is a good analogy to keep. I like that. It is too easy to become discouraged if we try to run someone else’s race. We all have different life experiences and responsibilities and we have to be kind to ourselves for where we are and what we can do with what’s been given to us.
    On the short stories, it is a whole other animal than writing a novel. It is another, different learning curve.

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  7. Watching the race is detrimental for me. However, I find comfort in my writers association. Everyone is at a different place in their career and that reminds me that I`m in the right place at this point of my career.

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  8. Ellen, what a great post! For me the paragraph about the cycle you go through was so true, but I think the bit you skipped over was between the cycles you go through that ‘I’m never going to get anywhere I might just as well give up’ part. But fortunately that itch to write always comes back and makes you get back to the page. I think I’m in the low part of the cycle right now :o( but it was great to see your take on it, that has perked me up a lot!

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    1. dang those emoticons!

      It’s good to hear from you, Nat – I miss you! And I’m glad I’ve helped to perk you up a bit. You’re right to point out my sneaky omittance of the ‘despair’ part of the cycle. But I think despair often comes when one is focusing on some other path or race (to continue the analogy), so hopefully by remembering Deb B’s wise words, we can skip over it pretty quickly 😉

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