How to Weather the Ups and Downs of the Writing Life

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on September 22, 2015 • views: 2321

Weather Storm 2While spending some time with my family recently, I had the pleasure of watching again the great movie, “Miss Potter,” about the life and writing career of children’s book author Beatrice Potter.

I thought I remembered it quite well, but it’s been years since I first saw it, and I found myself impressed all over again with the way Miss Potter overcame so many odds to become the successful writer she became.

I’ve been equally impressed when reading so many of the stories told on this site, by writers who have overcome health challenges, financial struggles, personal traumas, and more to persevere with their writing dreams.

There’s no doubt that the writers who make it, and the ones who stay with it for the long term, have an enviable ability to bounce back from difficult experiences. We all have them. The rejections, the bad reviews, the poor sales, the stories that just don’t work, and the constant struggle to manage it all, from the writing to the editing to the marketing to the social media and more.

The goods new is that all of us can learn how to become more resilient. So even if you feel the storms buffeting you about and you’re not sure of your ability to hang in there, you can get better at it.

Are You A Writer a Publisher Will Want to Keep?

I was stunned when writer, editor and publisher Karen Jones Gowen noted in her feature on this site (check it out here) that as a publisher, she looks for writers that have what it takes to survive in this business:

“The publishing process can bring even the best of us to our knees. It takes an emotionally healthy person to withstand the intense demands: rigorous editing when their words are being challenged or perhaps cut entirely; after publication if sales don’t meet expectations; and then having to follow up with another book if a sequel was planned.

“Having a career as a writer takes more than just talent and writing ability. A publisher will look for the qualities that say this writer is a keeper who will go the distance. This is a writer who will survive the emotionally draining wreckage of crafting a manuscript through editing, book launch and beyond to then starting at the beginning and doing it all over again.”

Where does one find this sort of resilience? Scientists say it’s all about how we handle stress. How do we respond when faced with poor sales, negative reviews, rejections, or writer’s block?

Going Through Difficulties Can Make Us More Resilient

Interestingly enough, researchers started their study in this area with kids—kids who had been through difficult childhoods.

It was Flannery O’Conner who said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Turns out that surviving a difficult child may give you more than material to write about—it could give you the resilience you need to survive as a writer.

According to resilience researcher Bonnie Bernard, M.S.W., studies that followed children born into difficult conditions—with parents were mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive, criminal; or in communities that were poverty-stricken or war-torn—fared much better than expected over time.

At least 50%—and often closer to 70%—developed social competence despite exposure to severe stress and overcame the odds to lead successful lives.

The good news, Bernard says, is that we’re all born with the capacity for resilience. It’s not just “certain people” that have the gift. Instead, we can all learn how to become better problem solvers, turn negative circumstances around, and maintain faith in a bright future.

Best of all, we can all learn how to transform ourselves as we need to, to meet the challenges of the writing life—and of life, in general.

What Gives a Soldier the Strength to Go On?

In addition to children that survive difficult childhoods, veterans stand as another good example of a group of people who often exhibit resilience. Those who return to normal life and are able to adjust without severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other serious health side effects are particularly strong in this trait.

Researchers have looked into this group. They wondered what it was that protected some veterans from suffering as much as their peers. To dive into the extremes of it, they observed former prisoners of war. Participants had been through prolonged captivity, malnourishment, and physical and psychological torture.

One thing emerged as being critical to a soldier’s ability to bounce back: optimism.

Dennis Charney, M.D., and Dr. Steve Southwick found similar results in their study of Vietnam War veterans. They found the following characteristics were critical for true resilience:

  • Optimism: having a positive view about one’s options
  • Altruism: finding ways to use one’s experiences to help others
  • Firm beliefs: having a set of beliefs that provide a moral compass
  • Humor: being able to find humor in certain situations
  • Role models: being able to look up to others and seek to emulate them
  • Spirituality: having some sort of spiritual center
  • Social support: having others around that support oneself
  • Facing fear: being able to face what one is afraid of
  • Purpose: having a specific purpose in life, a reason to keep going
  • Training: being willing to learn more about how to be more resilient

How Do You Respond to the Stress of the Writing Life?

What do you do when you get a rejection? Do you trash your manuscript and give up? Spend days moping about? Or give yourself a few minutes to lick your wounds, and then send your manuscript back out?

This is important, because feeling rejected creates the same physical response in your brain as being threatened by a tiger. “This notion that I’m going to be rejected or fail or won’t be accepted by the group activates the same circuits as if I saw a wolf,” Dr. Southwick told Time magazine.

How we feel when we’re rejected (or when we have other negative experiences) is less under our control than how we respond to that feeling. How well can we counteract it? How soon can we let go of those feelings of failure?

Researchers from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma performed brain-imaging tests on super-resilient Navy SEALs, and found that the participants were able to move quickly between emotions—from discouragement to empowerment, for example. Patients suffering from depression and anxiety, on the other hand, have a harder time letting go of negative emotions.

In other words, it helps if you don’t dwell on it.

Hara Estroff Marano, Editor-at-Large for Psychology Today, wrote in her article “The Art of Resilience”:

“Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs….”

We must let go of those negative emotions. But that is only one step toward true resilience and recovery.

10 Ways to Develop Your Own Writer’s Resilience

How does one develop resilience as a person and as a writer?


You can start today. Simply ask yourself how you respond to setbacks. What are your usual habits when things don’t go your way? Science has found that how we cope with small stressors predicts how we’ll do with the big ones.

“It’s possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent,” Marano says. “It’s possible to fortify your psyche. It’s possible to develop a sense of mastery.”

Imagine yourself stuck in traffic when you’re late for an appointment, reading a bad Amazon review, getting another rejection in the mail, having your writing time derailed by a family problem, or being unable to get a contract for your third novel.

How would you respond?

If you find you’re less resilient than you’d like to be, practice the following skills and there’s no doubt you’ll get better at it. It’s actually another gift the writing life has for us:

It may be a difficult road to travel, but it teaches us to be strong.

  1. Maintain a sense of self: Research shows that those children who develop a sense of autonomy, and who can separate themselves from their difficult circumstances, are more likely to be successful later in life. Maintain your independence and autonomy. Whatever your role in your community or in your family, continue to challenge yourself on an individual level. Have something you do every week—a hobby, volunteer work, marketing engagement, etc.—that you must do on your own. Complete the task, and celebrate your accomplishment.
  2. Face your fear: Maybe it’s time you started speaking about your book in public, or maybe you need to do some research that takes you out of your comfort zone. Or maybe you just need to have lunch in a café alone, if that makes you nervous. Facing your fear and overcoming it develops your resilience.
  3. Remember that you are in control: Sometimes we can feel like branches blown about by the winds of our lives. Remember that everything in your life is the result of choices you have made, and that you have the power to change it at any time. You can submit your manuscript to more agents and editors. You can take classes to improve your writing. You can recharge your career by branching out into other areas. You can rest your mind and body on a retreat. Reminding yourself of your own power stretches your resilience muscles.
  4. Seek out and nurture supportive relationships: Study after study shows we all need a strong network of social support to succeed. Take the time to re-evaluate your relationships. Do you have people around you who support your writing dreams? If not, or if your connections have waned, make a point to address this void.
  5. Practice reframing your situation: That publisher you were hoping for just turned down your story—after reading the full manuscript. How quickly can you reframe how you see that situation? You may start out believing it’s a reflection of your poor abilities as a writer, but you can change your thinking to see it as a sign that you’re getting closer to a contract. They asked for the full. That’s a good sign. You’re making progress. Now it’s time to determine what you can do to get that coveted “yes.” Shift from negative thinking into problem-solving mode. What steps can you take to reach your goals? Reframing any negative occurrence and casting yourself in a positive instead of a negative light is key to surviving the ups and downs of the writing life.
  6. Exercise: Researchers have found that working your muscles makes your mind more resilient, as well. Exercise actually supports the development of new connections in the brain, which can help you better respond to stress in the future. Exercise can also get you out of your head, where writers tend to spend a lot of time, and into your body, which can help you find a new point of view.
  7. Sleep: A 2013 study examining the sleep habits of Vietnam veterans found those who slept better had better resilience and were better able to adapt to life back home. If you feel like losing yourself in 30 minutes of sleep after getting back pages of harsh edits, do it. It may be just what your mind ad body needs.
  8. Meditate: This is one of the best ways you can exercise your brain’s ability to bounce back. In a study published in 2014, Marines trained in mindfulness were able to return to a normal heart rate and breathing rate after a stressful training exercise faster than those who hadn’t been trained. They also had lower stress responses. “We were able to show, at least in the brain,” said lead researcher Dr. Martin Paulus, “that we can train people to modify their brain processes toward the direction of resilience.”
  9. Take advantage of opportunities: Don’t wait—seize opportunities to better yourself. Research shows that those who had gone through difficult circumstances and were able to jump on opportunities to increase their education, expand their skills, and increase their life satisfaction did better than those who didn’t. If you think it’s “selfish” to invest in your own advancement, ask yourself why, and try to reframe your thinking.
  10. Accept your path: Knowing that the writing (creative) life is full of ups and downs, and that everyone goes through times when they think about quitting, or think they’re not good enough, or wonder what the heck they’re doing, can help you to realize that anything you experience along the way is likely to be completely normal. This isn’t about you not being as good as someone else, or somehow experiencing failure when everyone else experiences blissful success 90 percent of the time. If hearing other writers’ stories has taught me anything, it’s that we can all expect difficulties—sometimes overwhelming ones—on this creative path. Accepting that the path includes these pitfalls can help us weather them until the good times come around again.

How do you cultivate resilience in your writing or artistic career? Please share your thoughts.

Francine Segovia, et al., “Optimism predicts resilience in repatriated prisoners of war: a 37-year longitudinal study,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, June 2012; 25(3): 330-336,

Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, Jennifer M. Covino, “Stress and Resilience: Implications for Depression and Anxiety,” Medscape, December 29, 2005,

Mandy Oaklander, “Bounce Back,” Time, June 1, 2015.

Hara Estroff Marano, “The Art of Resilience,” Psychology Today, June 20, 2012,

Segovia, F., et al., “Sleep and resilience: a longitudinal 37-year follow-up study of Vietnam repatriated prisoners of war,” Mil Med., February 2013; 178(2):196-201,

Johnson DC, et al, “Modifying resilience mechanisms in at-risk individuals: a controlled study of mindfulness training in Marines preparing for deployment,” Am J Psychiatry, Aug 2014;171(8):844-53,

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Comments (7)

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  1. I’ve never seen that film but really think I should watch it now! Love your list… have bookmarked to digest properly when the right moment comes. #ArchiveDay

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    Really excellent post. When thinking about how I handle adversity, I realized that I do tend to dwell on negatives too much. I have been the most resilient when I had no other choice, when the bills had to be paid or people were depending on me or some other outside forced pushed me on. Looking back, I’m grateful for those outside forces that pushed me to keep going when it seemed impossible. They taught me how to push myself. Not that I don’t need a lot more work in this area! Your tips are good ones.

  3. Musu says:

    You made some valid points here. It forced me to think and look at myself as far as the areas I need to work on. It gets frustrating when the jobs dry up and you want to get work done, but I know things will pay off sooner than later. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Raylynn says:

    Really great post! I enjoyed reading your perspective on resilience in life.