Reaffirming my commitment to writing

I’ve always had trouble reconciling my passion for writing and pressures of financial stability. It’s as if the two concepts are oil and water — destined to separate and never work in harmony with each other.

This isn’t true at allWriting for money isn’t the problem. It’s tying security and fulfilment to writing that imbues the process with a seriousness that is suffocatSuccess, by traditional measures, revolves around what I did for a living. The self made person that works hard and does what it takes to build a stable life is celebrated and iconized. The problem with the idea of “making it” is that it means others have to fail in order for me succeed.

In turn that means I can fail.

I struggled with this for such a long time. It’s why the type of writing that I found fulfilling became a hobby that was relegated to my spare time. Working at a newspaper became my job for so long because It paid the bills, provided health insurance and afforded me some “spare time” to pursue the kind of writing I really loved.

The problem is that spare time translated into “not enough time.” There was never enough hours to write fiction or explore the type of journalism that truly interested me. I did this all for the sake of security.

Knowing nothing else I stuck with the status quo and continued to split my attention. It made me unhappy and disillusioned. Then one career fell apart last week and I was left without the stability I’d been working to keep all this time. It’s scary to experience one of the pillars of your life come down so quickly, but ultimately what it left behind was perspective.

It is impossible to find success in a job. It’s ultimately unstable and could go away with the next “cost cutting move” and “reduction in workforce.” No amount of hard work would have saved my job and that is demoralizing to someone raised on the belief that effort is the ultimate determinant to success.

It’s impractical and deadly to seek security in something so fleeting as a job. The fear of seeing everything fall apart drives people to work themselves to death. It causes the type of stress that gives people heart attacks, cancer and ends lives prematurely.

I see the people around me head down that road and its frightening to see.

True success is dependent on how you do something not what you do. This is a hard concept to grasp because our lives, careers and ultimately our happiness is centered on building toward the future. Yet, living in the moment is the only way to live without killing yourself through worry and stress.

There is no security in any job, but that doesn’t mean I’ll do nothing for the rest of my life. It just means there is no reason to ignore the things I am called to do any longer.

Writing will be a struggle for anybody who is seeking something from it. To subscribe any amount of importance to the end product really defeats the purpose of writing in the first place. This doesn’t have to be a stressful or emotionally draining process. There is creative tension sure, but the prospect of failure doesn’t have to be such a dreadful thing.

Failure affects those who expect their writing to deliver something that it can’t give. To expect a piece of writing to deliver fulfillment or financial stability is suffocating to the person producing it and taints the process with a seriousness that is unnecessary.

The prospect of seeing their best efforts rejected or ripped to shred by critics is the reason why a lot of people don’t even try. Added stakes like financial security, a grade or the notion of self fulfillment adds even more stress to the process. When the writing comes to symbolize a piece of yourself then pitching a story is akin to masochism.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the “why” of things that it’s easy to forget that writing is an art. There is a joy in self expression regardless of what it is or who it is for. There is as much pleasure to be had in writing news article as there is a piece of fiction because I enjoy the craft for its own sake. The real secret to writing is that fulfillment comes from the act of writing and a willingness to let go of what comes out of it good or bad.

Writing in this way requires a certain level of detachment. That doesn’t mean I don’t care what happens, it just means I accept the fact that this piece may not sell and that’s ok with me. For some people accepting this level of uncertainty is impossible and that is why they are not writers.

Anybody who wants to be a career writer comes to grips with failure and how they deal with it ultimately determines their quality of life. Failure only matters to the person that puts too much self importance on writing. I’m not smart enough to make the determination that I am a bad writer and neither is anybody else in this world. It’s also not my call to make that determination either.

My only task is to get better and help others do the same. The reaction to those moments of rejection is a good indicator of my real reasons for writing. A rejection letter doesn’t mean anything beyond the fact that my story or pitch didn’t work for whomever read it. That is the truth for rejection letter one all the way to 100.

I had trouble calling myself a writer because that would mean making it front and center in my life. That would mean making a commitment and putting something I loved so much in the line of fire. Yet, to shift back into the old mindset and seeks security somewhere else brings so much regret  that I can’t go down that road again.

The choice to be a writer is a simple one to make, it just took me a long time to get there.

Becoming a professional

Professionalism as a code of conduct. It doesn’t matter what kind of skills you have or the career you’re trying to get into, at some point the successful person makes that shift and starts acting like a pro.

The first step is knowing the value of undivided attention. The Professional knows that work loses quality when the mind wanders, so he’s always focused on what is going on right now. He knows that negative emotions take the focus away from where it should be.

Dealing with stress in an effective manner is key to becoming a pro. Stress happens when your attention veers too far into the past or future. Regrets happen when the past becomes more important than the present. Worry happens when the future becomes more important than the present.

There is a simple solution to stress, but its hard to master. The Professional never casts judgement on the circumstances of life. He accepts the results was if it was meant to happen that way. This is difficult because it’s hard not to care, but the Professional knows that too much love can smother the dream. The only way to achieve success is taking action and the faster he can pick himself up after trouble, the faster he can accept the fact that things didn’t go his way, the faster he can get back to the business of achieving success.

The second step is feeling certain about uncertainty.The Professional can deal with change because he accepts the fact that it is the one constant. This is different from planning for the future. The Professional isn’t worried about the result when he plans for something. Worry is regret applied to the future and needs to be dealt with in a similar fashion. He knows that whatever result lay in the future is not for him to judge as positive or negative.

The third step is knowing the value of space. Not the location kind of space, but the space between perception and feelings. The Professional knows how to look at the situation not the way he feels about the situation. This is different from being detached or suppressing emotions. The pro feels everything that happens, its just he’s the one that is able to take a deep breath observe the moment without trying to label it as good or bad. He knows that it’s critical to make decisions from this place.

Your career is a game have fun with it

The pressure of building a career  can be overwhelming no matter what you are trying to pursue, but for a person trying to parlay their creativity into a career that pressure can be stifling.

The more time spent worrying translates into mental energy diverted from whatever it is you are passionate about. The way this pressure drives you to inaction often isn’t overt. It’s not an overwhelming fear that paralyzes you, but a low background noise of doubt and fear that nags at you.

Procrastination is the byproduct of this stress. It’s a mechanism of avoidance that is in direct response to our own fears and doubts about what needs to be done. It’s natural to gravitate toward doing things that provide instant gratification, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the right or appropriate thing to do.

Important tasks and procrastination are like planets and gravity— the bigger the task the stronger the urge to procrastinate. Higher stakes mean the consequences for failure are much greater, which ratchets up the fear and our craving to avoid dealing with it.

There’s no reason to approach your life and goals with such of grim determination. Creating the life and career you envision should be an enjoyable process, not cause you to flee from it. So why do we torture ourselves in this way?

The simple reason is fear. Our careers are such a huge part of our identity that the notion of failure is terrifying. Failing is akin to getting killed— it’s like having a huge part of yourself ripped out and called invalid. Perhaps dealing with this effectively requires a shift in thinking.

To borrow a phrase from Joker in the Dark Knight “Why so serious?

Think of your life, career and everything you do as a game. This game is fun, but it’s not frivolous because there are rules and consequences for breaking them. The beauty of this game though is that you are both player and game designer so by default you should be an expert.

Gamefication is the concept of applying game-like experiences to to real life situations. Generally this is applied to business and marketing campaigns, but it works in your personal and professional life. Knowing that you are in control is critical to a successful career and this is like setting the ground rules. The idea is to set up a framework for what it means to accomplish something and the specific rewards for finishing. When it’s clear what success means then it’s much easier to shoot for it.

Take a moment to consider yourself as the game designer of your own life. The concept and rules are yours to consider, set and abide by. What would this game look like? How would it play?

Start from the top

There’s a concept in game design called Epic Meaning, which is the motivation or belief that players are going to achieve something great. Deciding on the Epic Meaning for your life is the first step because this is the reason why your are playing in the first place.

Franchises like Halo and Mass Effect are prime examples of this. There is no better feeling in the world than knowing that you are the badass that saved the entire human race from extinction so we play out those fantasies. Perhaps your Epic Meaning is not so lofty, but don’t make your life aspirations the equivalent of Tetris.

The key is to make it compelling, something that would get you excited about approaching each day.

Achievement system

Once you’ve decided on an Epic Meaning decide on an Achievement System. These are the parameters for your game and determines the way you approach getting things done.

Think about what kind of game you are playing then create a system that applies to your life. Do you view life as a fighting game that is predicated on mastering techniques and conducted round by round? Is it an action RPG predicated on leveling up and completing quests that contribute to a much longer journey?

Create a system to chart your progress and the parameters for succeeding. If you love competition for example then perhaps create a series of challenges that will allow you to acquire a certain skill. Remember that challenges in a game sense imply a time limit and quantity of things to do so be specific about what completing a challenge means.

If you like Role Playing Games then perhaps your life is a journey and the tasks you accomplish are quests that contribute to a much larger narrative. Define the main quests you need to embark on and the side quests that are worthwhile to pursue. Set clear objectives in completing your quests and the steps needed to get there.

The best way to do this is to take a look at your favorite games and see how the designers went about getting you to play. Structure your goals like the mission structure in your favorite military shooter. Organize your to do list like the challenge mode in your favorite fighting game for example.

Reward Schedule and payoff

The Reward Schedule provides closure and fosters a sense of accomplishment for being productive. Knowing the benefits of playing your game is just as important as what the system of achievement is.

The benefit of completing a certain set of challenges might be learning a new skill or acquiring a new item. Perhaps finishing off that side quest will help you in the journey find a new job or get published. Whatever it is, make sure you know exactly what it is you are getting at the end.

Don’t be a loser

Losing is a disease.

It’s a plague that affects the perpetual wishers and dreamers who live lives unfulfilled. It affects the complainers who whine more than they want change and those who wallow in the spirit of ‘I Can’t.”

San Francisco just finished a celebration that started when the Giants capped a four-game sweep over the Detroit Tigers in the Major League Baseball World Series. The collective euphoria will die down a little bit once the parade down Market Street drifts further into memory, but the Giants aren’t a story that will be forgotten around the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Giants won their second World Series Championship in three years and the organization’s seventh championship in its history. While the the historical achievement is impressive, the most enduring part of this 2012 team is the way they did it.

The sweep closed the book on this baseball season, but there really wasn’t supposed to be a final chapter. The Giants were dead in the water twice during this playoff run. They were down 2-0 in the best of five Division Series against the Cincinatti Reds and down 3-1 in the best of seven National League Championship series to the St. Louis Cardinals. That means they won six win-or-go home elimination games just for a shot in the World Series.

That’s six chances to fold. That’s six chances to become another anonymous statistic in the long collective memory of baseball history. That’s six chances to defy the odds and the Giant met the challenge every time. When the players hoisted the trophy on the road in Comerica ballpark in Detroit they reeled off seven straight wins with their last loss coming a week and a half ago.

This team is an enigma to the national media that focuses on high-priced sluggers and star power, but the one thing that isn’t sexy is what these Giants did best.  They competed better than anybody else. They played their hardest every inning, every pitch, every moment despite long odds and history that told them constantly that this wasn’t possible.

You may be wondering what this has to do with your career. Well, competition is not something that is relegated to sports, but  a mindset that is universal, timeless and critical to your success. Your job search is a competition, your business is a competition even that novel you are writing is a competition. The opponent could be the unseen fellow vying for your job, the rival trying to pull off the same business model you are or it could be yourself and the demons that you carry.

The best compete at the highest level and the ones that don’t you’ve probably never heard of because they’ve already quit. To rise up in the ranks, to get where you need to go is a matter of preparation, belief and a willingness to compete. It’s aspiring to be the best not just when it counts, but every moment of every day.
Sometimes career struggles stem from the heart. No amount of advice will fix the person who thinks like a loser. There isn’t much anybody can do for the person that has lost the will to compete.

Numbers can’t explain a competitor whether it’s unemployment figures or postseason history because competition happens in the here and now. Facts, figures and numbers of any type are written after the fact and we use it to extrapolate a possible future. History only has power over the folks who believe in what it says.

Data can be used to make an informed decision in the present, but too often it’s used as a reason to not even try.

History helps you identify what risks may lay ahead, but it can’t predict anything with absolute certainty. A competitor embrace the risks that come with history. To them it is an opportunity that is there for the taking and the best ones rarely let go. Competitors are selfish, but it’s the type of attitude that you actually want to have. To a competitor, every opportunity is a chance to win and make yourself better. It’s a chance to prove yourself worthy of the moment however large or small it is.

There’s a caveat to this. Competing does not guarantee you will win every situation. A mind set does not sway a decision in your favor. It won’t guarantee that you will get that job, that the rejection letter won’t come or that you won’t be the next man up during a round of layoffs.

Competitors don’t make winning or losing into a problem because to them it’s about playing the game not a result. Pressure only afflicts those who orient themselves with the results and see the game as a means to an end. A competitor simply doesn’t see winning or losing because they know it is beyond them to judge what is positive or negative in their lives.

A horrible situations may seem like losing, but who’s to say that the experience was bad for you? The next job might be better, that rejection letter could lead you to a better offer elsewhere, perhaps getting laid off is your opportunity to start a new career.

A true competitor wins every single time because the idea of losing does not exist to them. To them, the true measure of winning is playing the game to its fullest. A competitor feels the greatest pleasure in being exhausted and knowing in their heart of hearts that the effort was there.

Results don’t matter, but the effort does because in the end that is all we can give to our careers, to our lives and to the moment at hand. The best thing about thinking this way is that you can only get better.

Not all of us get to celebrate our career achievements with a parade down Market Street, but there is a certain pleasure in the grind no matter what that is. There is pleasure in simply playing the game for its own own sake.

For 29 other MLB teams the season ended early, but hope is eternal for there is always next year for them. The beauty of being a competitor is that there is always a shot at redemption. Give everything you have to each moment of the day for in the end effort is the only thing completely under your control.

The only way you can lose is to not compete at all.

Knowing the “why” of things

Some people write because they care about words. Others do it because there is a story that simply won’t leave them. Whatever motivates you, it’s crucial to have a good reason for writing.

Determining the right reasons for doing anything should be career step No. 1. because often it’s the “why” that determines whether you quit or keep on going. Sometimes the thing that holds you back has nothing to do with your prowess as a writer and everything to do with your attitude and the way you feel about yourself.

There will always be an endless number of challenges in your writing career. If you’re not fully committed then the mental grind will be enough to make you quit.

For me, writing is a necessity. I exhibit all the signs of severe depression from the feelings of worthlessness and guilt to symptoms of anhedonia or consistent lack of pleasure in many activities that should be enjoyable. There are some mornings when I wake up and question whether it’s worth it to even go through with the rest of my day.

My first instinct is to quit. It’s difficult to go through each day regretting everything that happened and feel like the future is a bad thing waiting to happen. Having such a bleak outlook on life is not something anyone really chooses to have nor is it simple as convincing yourself to be positive. No intellectual argument about fortunate my life is, no matter how convincing, really makes me feel better. If there is something to feel bad about then I will find it, but there’s a difference between feeling depressed and choosing to act on it.

I choose to write instead.

Writing is a respite from the often intense negative feelings I have about myself. Thinking through ideas, doing the research and crafting stories  is a break from the often bleak outlook that really accompanies every other activity. It’s different from escapism  because that implies running away and I never shy away from my inevitable dark moods.

I accept the dark places my mind goes to and often writing often brings out the worst kind of dread because of how much it means to me. I choose to keep typing because eventually all those feelings drop away and the only thing that remains is pure focus on the task at hand.

Writing in any form helps me deal with depression. It’s not just an activity, but a necessity and that is a huge reason why I want to make this a career.

Knowing the reasons “why” you’re writing doesn’t make the challenges go away, it provides the fuel to deal with them. Depression makes the business aspect of writing a challenge. Try marketing yourself when the first inclination is that you won’t just fail, but fail in the worst possible way imaginable. Try networking when you think the person across from you is probably  thinking the worst about you. Try writing a query letter  feeling like it’s going to get rejected the moment it leaves your inbox. Top all of that off with knowing that this is your livelihood and the pressure to succeed can be suffocating.

Despite all of those difficulties, I know why I’m doing this and that’s the most important part. I love to write and want to spend as much time as possible doing it. All conversations about quitting end there no matter how complicated the “how” or “what” is. Perhaps the challenges that you face are different. Your situation could be too complicated for anybody to imagine, but motivation and the willingness to push through lay in the “why.”

Figure that out and nothing will stop you.

When ideas aren’t enough

Writing stories is akin to architecture— its built on a solid foundation.

The foundation for a good story doesn’t start with the materials you might expect. It doesn’t start with paragraphs, sentences, words or even ideas, but a solid concept.

Concept is different from an idea. An idea is the seed for a concept; it has a general shape but no real defining details. For example, my idea for this post was “I want to write a post about refining ideas into workable stories.”

It’s clear there isn’t enough here to hang a story on, yet this is where most people start writing.

Nailing down the concept for a story shortens the writing process. Writing an entire story for the sole purpose of fleshing out an idea is inefficient. It may take 500 maybe 1000 empty words before realizing that the point of a story lay in the middle. Fixing that will require heavy editing or possibly a rewrite.

Why use multiple drafts when you can do some thinking ahead of time and save yourself some trouble?

Concept is the “big idea stuff.” Getting your story straight on this level makes execution much easier because it helps you answer the question “what’s next?” Knowing the answer to that question allows you to focus on writing the story.

Concepts have some agency— a forward thinking element that dictates what to write next. To put it simply, the concept asks a question that your story must answer.

The type of question you ask is dependent upon genre. Fiction operates on the premise of “What if?” while most non fiction deals more with questions of how or why. The question I asked for this post was “How does nailing down the concept make writing your story easier?”

Once you have a concept, it’s easy to develop it into a working premise for a story. Premise is the answer posed to the core question at the heart of your story. In other words, When somebody asks what your story is about, you are giving them the premise.

The premise for this post was “Being clear about concept sharpens the focus of your idea enough to show a clear path toward the end.”

Premise is sturdy enough to hang a story on. It provides a framework and paves the way for more focused writing and research. Making the leap from idea to concept and eventually a premise requires some thinking.

Here are a few tips for getting through this critical step:

• Be clear about the question: Remember that the basis of a concept is the question you are trying to answer. Determine what type of question you are asking first then expand from there.

• Make sure the concept fits length:
As a general rule, complex questions require complex answers and thus more words. Be sure you have the appropriate space to write the story that needs to be written.

•  Working with multiple concepts  A story can have more than one concept in it, but there needs to be a common thread tying them all together. In those types of stories, the core question you want to answer usually spawn related ones that can be addressed to add depth

• Premise as a starting point To save yourself time and trouble, don’t start until you can articulate the premise of your story clearly. If you can’t answer a simple question like “What is your story about?” Then go back to the drawing board until you do.

Editing is a matter of the heart

Learning to be your own editor is like learning to be your own therapist. It’s more empathy than technical skill.

Good editors aren’t necessarily experts on grammar or style, they have a working knowledge of it and know how to spot glaring mistakes in your writing. The best ones are empathetic to the needs of the three most important people to a story: the writer, the reader and the publication. They keep the needs of all three in mind when rendering judgement on the copy and make sure each is satisfied to the best of their abilities.

Editors also understand that the  purpose of writing is to communicate and the purpose of editing is to make sure the story is understood. When looking at copy, that means stepping outside of yourself and thinking about how it affects all others involved.

Managing so many different perspectives is difficult because each is in a solitary space when looking at the text. The writer isn’t thinking about the reader when sitting in front of the keyboard nor is the reader thinking about the writer when they are reading. The publication’s primary concern is how this one story fits in with all the others, which is a higher perspective than the other two.

The editor cleans up the connecting link between all three so that everybody is satisfied.  They hold the reader in mind when they remove a phrase that doesn’t make sense, but make sure to keep the writer’s original intent when rewriting certain sections. Sometimes neither the reader nor the writer dictate these changes, but the needs of a publication drive the decisions.

The biggest lesson you have to learn when editing your own work is that you can’t be selfish. The decision to make changes should never be your own. It should be done with the reader in mind.

Doing this is a simple matter of asking the right questions while you are editing. The first question is “who” as in who will be reading this story. This will put you in the proper frame of mind because it takes the focus off yourself. The second part is “how” or how will this impact whomever is reading this. The last question involves the author: “Is this what I really wanted to say?” If the answer is yes then move on. If it’s no well then it’s time to make a change.

The matter of satisfying the needs of your publication is more big idea stuff. It’s a question of selecting your topic and whether it fits in with where you are writing. This in turn will dictate the “who” of your story.

Asking these questions does not make the process any easier, but the rewards for being considerate to others will show itself in a thoughtful well written piece of writing