People often tell me how lucky I am to make a profession from something I enjoy deeply. And I am thrilled that this has been possible for me. I love being a writer. Except when I don’t. No profession is made up of only happy days. Since I line up deadlines, I then I have to meet them. All of them. Some days, that’s hard. Some days the words not only don’t pour out of me, they don’t even dribble. Some days, it just feels too hard. And that’s when the professional side is going well. There are also the surprises, like when a publisher cancels a project you’ve been working on or decides not to publish something they’ve already said yes to. Those days are rough.
For writers who have been published, and especially for those who have been published with some regularity, it can be difficult to talk about the hard days. You don’t want to sound ungrateful. And you don’t want to sound like you’re actually whining about your success, or bragging through complaining. There are lots of ways to be a braggart and none of us want to fall into any of those. So it can be easy to let the hard days isolate you from other writers. But the community of writers is sometimes the only support we have, so we need to work through the hard days as well as we dance through the good ones.
Hard Times Happen
No matter how well your career is going, hard times happen. And they don’t stop being painful just because you’ve published stories or even books in the past. When you’ve poured your heart, time and creativity into a project, it hurts if it is cancelled. And sometimes cancelled really means “dead” because some projects only work for one publisher and you cannot take them somewhere else. Walking away from something that you’ve invested in is always tough.
And then there are the rejections. No matter how well your career is going, rejection never feels okay either. And nearly every author gets rejected now and then. Jane Yolen gets rejected now and then, and she’s brilliant, so we can certainly expect rejection at every level of our career. Over time, rejection becomes just one more pang in a career filled with small rejection wounds, but it never really stops hurting. We may develop thicker skin, but we’ll never have real armor.
So when bad times happen, it’s important to remember that it’s normal. Rotten, painful, and stinky, but normal. And it’s okay to feel bad about it. That’s normal too. You may want to restrict talking about rejections and project cancellations to those writer friends at your same level of experience. People who’ve been published a lot may want to help you to build your thick skin faster than you’re able to manage it, so they can come across as bossy. And people who are not published quite as much may remind you that you have these other publications so you have nothing to complain about, and therefore come across as unsympathetic. But people who are at your level, those people will know how much it hurts. They are the people who can relate most easily. They’re the ones who are most likely to have your back.
Self-Comfort is Good, but Self-Sabotage is Bad
When things go badly off the rails, sometimes we need a little down time. We need some time to eat chocolate and read a good book. Or treat ourselves some other way. But we don’t want to spend too much time in self-comfort because it can become a way of procrastinating. We need to get back to work. If we begin to associate writing with the pain of failure, we can set ourselves up for a monumental writer’s block built on fear. That kind of self-sabotage comes from too much time off, too much of a good thing. The best way to avoid that is to get back on the horse as soon as possible.
I remember years ago in grade school we were constantly being made to run laps. I did not run laps well or cheerfully. And after a lot of laps, I wanted desperately to flop on the ground and gasp for a good long time. But my teacher would never let us do that. She said collapse would lead to cramps and stiffness. We’d have trouble even walking if we gave in to what felt like a good idea. So instead she’d keep us slowly walking around until our breathing and heart rate returned to normal and we felt better. I think that’s probably good advice for writing too. Slow down. Let yourself recover. But don’t flop over, because it’ll be hard to get back up.
Oh No, What Do You Do When You Already Flopped Over?
But what do you do if you’ve already hit the wall of writer’s block? Often the answer is to go off in a totally different direction. Make it a game instead of a serious part of your writing. If you’re normally a prose writer, try some poetry (you can find some great poetry exercises online intended for kids. Check out Poetry 4 Kids.) Trying something very short and very different can be an excellent ways to free up your creativity again. Doing something so different often doesn’t trigger those old sore spots that provoke the fear.
A good solid ego boost can also dilute the gloom and fear that comes from failure of a project or rejection. Few things are more cheering than a nice quick acceptance. Write something for a no-pay market (because they often receive fewer submissions and are thus faster and easier to crack. That acceptance can be very rewarding to the ‘ole ego, and can help blunt any buildup of fear). The cheerful acceptance you can get from that kind of writing can often drag you out of the doldrums.
When all else fails, tell yourself that you’re not even trying to write for publication. Tell yourself you’re just going to relax and “study” for a while. Write something in a genre you’ve never done before, and call it an exercise, telling yourself you’re not ever going to submit it. Try writing for an age group you’ve never considered. Try writing fan fiction or flash fiction or a story that could be a novelty book. Trying something totally new with the resolution that you won’t be selling it can help you get back in the swing of creativity without the burden of potential publication. Though, who knows, you might come up with something wonderful and discover a whole new possibility for yourself!
The keys to pushing through the bad times are (1) building a support network of other writers, including writers at or around your sale level of success, and (2) taking care that a single bad moment isn’t allowed to stretch into a crippling bout of self-doubt and fear.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.