Do You Have What it Takes to be a Lifelong Writer?

Filed in The Writing Life by on October 16, 2017 • views: 1452

One of my favorite author interviews took place back in 2015,
with Karen Jones Gowen.

As a writer and a publisher, she had a unique take on the whole “writing life” experience, because she’d seen it from both sides.

She spoke about the challenges writers have fitting writing in with the rest of their lives, and how difficult it can be to achieve any sense of balance. She also talked about the qualities her publishing house looked for in a writer. But the quote that really surprised me was this one:

“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.”

In just two sentences, she managed to not only convey complete understanding of how difficult the process of writing, editing, and publishing can be, but she also acknowledged as fact that a writer must have a certain something to make it through all that and continue on to write again in the future.

Just what is that certain something? What does a writer need to survive the journey that is the writing life? After over 20 years as a writer myself, and after interviewing nearly 200 writers here on Writing and Wellness, I’ve discovered five things that most long-term writers share.

1. They know how to motivate themselves.

Though most writers enjoy writing, there’s no doubt that it’s often hard work. Writing routines vary, but every writer has one, because they know that consistent time on the work is what creates a finished work.

Yet a writer, like anyone else, will have days when he just doesn’t feel like it, or when he’s too tired, or when he can’t come up with a new idea to save him. The writers that last are the ones that know how to motivate themselves to sit down and go to work, regardless.

Some have a military like discipline about the issue, and act as their own commanding officers. Just sit down and get to work and quit complaining. Others have enticements they use, such as a piece of dark chocolate or favorite cup of coffee. Some are so invested in their characters they can’t bear to leave them alone to flounder in the last scene, and others use writing as an excuse to avoid other distasteful chores.

All of them have a way to get past their own temptations to goof off so they actually get their pages written. A writer who’s lasted over the decades understands himself, and knows how to work with his own personality to deny his demons and lure himself to the story, again and again.

2. They know when to be persistent, and when to be flexible.

I talk more about these two in my new book Overwhelmed Writer Rescue. Writers need both at various times in their careers, and a long-term writer understands when one or the other should apply.

A rigid approach to one’s writing routine is likely to create only heartache and failure when a loved one is in the hospital, for example, or when a family is facing serious financial struggles.

There are times when a writer has to be flexible in how she approaches her own creative practice. Abandoning writing for a limited time happens occasionally, but most long-term writers find ways to fit the writing in, even if it’s only twice a week for fifteen minutes at a time.

Continuing to write but with a flexible mindset can be a lifesaver during difficult times. Writers often talk about how helpful it can be to write about the struggles they endure, and many emerge with stories that benefit from the rich detail that can only be captured in the moment.

Being open to new routines that better adapt to changing life situations can be the difference between continuing to pursue a writing career and abandoning it entirely.

Flexibility can be key in publishing, too, when writers have to determine the best route for their books, and when having to work with editors, graphic designers, and other professionals.

On the other hand, veteran writers also know when it’s not flexibility that’s required, but persistence. Long-term writers will often tell you about their “dark days,” when they questioned everything they were doing. Others share their battles with modern-day distractions, and even with the plain human tendency to be lazy.

The ability to persist in a chosen writing routine is what gets many writers through these kinds of difficulties. Writers who continue to write, regardless, are often grateful for that persistence when they look back later on.

Which is required at any one time—flexibility or persistence—can be determined by one’s feelings in the moment. Guilt and shame often mean that persistence is required, whereas exhaustion and stress often mean that flexibility is the right choice. Writers who last have learned to use both when needed.

3. They have grit.

Backbone. Courage and resolve. Determination. All of these define the word “grit,” and according to research by Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, gritty individuals are the ones who succeed, even over those who may have more talent or intelligence. In her studies, focused, long-term effort toward a goal was the single most important factor determining whether a person achieved that goal.

Long-term writers have this characteristic in abundance. They have weathered the despair and enjoyed the elation. They’ve suffered through bad reviews and endured poor book sales. They’ve watched projects they drained their life’s blood into languish on the shelf, and then turned around and started the whole process over again.

Veteran writers understand that both success and failure are fleeting things, and that what really matters is continuing to put one foot in front of the other—or more accurately, one word after the other. They are able to continuously rise above any emotion-of-the-moment to devote themselves to the work.

“The publishing process can bring even the best of us to our knees,” says Gowen. “It takes an emotionally healthy person to withstand the intense demands….There’s the poor reviews that make one want to quit altogether. An unsupportive spouse or family that can’t cope with the long hours of solitude required. The writing life is one that can be intensely rewarding yet discouraging, a series of highs and lows. It’s a huge accomplishment to complete a novel to publication. To then continue writing book after book requires real persistence and at times just plain stubbornness. Having a career as a writer takes more than just talent and writing ability.”

4. They have a deep desire to write that is more powerful than anything else.

Underlying all these other characteristics is that deep desire to write, that devotion to the craft. Just as a musician continues to play long after the crowd has gone home, a writer will continue to write because she is compelled to.

There are as many different reasons for that compulsion as there are writers, but the one thing long-term writers share is a habit that’s hard to break.

“There are times when I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall,” says fantasy writer Chris Patchell, “but I have to write. It’s a part of who I am and I want to be the best version of myself.”

“I write because I can’t not write,” says thriller writer Renee Canter Johnson. “I have another job in addition to my writing, so it isn’t something I must do for financial reasons. I write for reasons known to my soul.”

“In the end, it’s my love of writing itself that keeps me going,” says women’s fiction writer, Pamela Cook. “Unless you’re a hugely successful author you won’t make a lot of money so you have to love what you’re doing.”

Some writers may have a love-hate relationship with the whole thing, but still find that they can’t turn themselves away.

5. They feel that writing gives back more than it takes.

There’s no doubt that writing requires a lot of us: time, hard work, commitment, courage, and more. Some realize it’s not for them and after a few years, decide that it’s best if they do something else.

I’ve interviewed writers for Writing and Wellness and then found out a few years later that they were no longer writing. The news always saddens me, but maybe it shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with trying something out, or following a passion, even if it doesn’t last your whole life. We learn from it anyway, and what we learn can help us go on to develop our potential in ways we might not have thought about before writing.

But most of the writers featured on these pages, I’m happy to say, have stuck with it, despite a number of challenges, including serious health struggles, family tragedies, and financial crashes. I think they do it because yes, they have a deep desire to write that overshadows all the difficulties, but perhaps even more so because they believe that writing gives back as much as it takes.

Some people give the craft a whirl and decide that writing definitely requires way too much of them. But the ones who last are the ones who crave the gifts that writing can bring.

What else makes us feel as good as completing a story, or seeing a character relationship play itself out to its completion? What else is as thrilling as hearing from a reader who “got” the story and everything we intended it to be? What else compares to creating a person from scratch that later takes on a life of his own? What else allows us to create our own worlds and then continue to enjoy new experiences there if we like?

Says fantasy writer Sharon Ledwith,

“Writing is a tough gig, but so rewarding when you write those final two words ‘The End.’ It’s a badge of honor, and feels wonderful and uplifting, like you’ve reached the pinnacle of super hero status.”

Only a writer would feel that way. Do you?

What do you think a writer needs to stick with it long-term?

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Comments (5)

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  1. Great article. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for your mention, Colleen! You’re bang on with all your points. It takes stamina and a hard skin in this industry. Well done post! Cheers!