“The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. … Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers — common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.” — Stephen King

This is not a grammar lesson. This isn’t a list of what adverbs not to use and whether or not it’s okay to write “said.” These are the hard-earned life lessons I’ve learned on my journey as a writer, which started when I began putting words to paper at six years old.

In the first half of my adult life, I was a walking thought-terminating cliche, the embodiment of what I thought I should be instead of who I was. It took me a long time to learn that reality as a writer wasn’t a pick-and-choose adventure or an RPG where I got to reroll my stats. I was a unique individual, who had unique components that needed to interface with the world in particular ways. There was a right way for me to live and interact with my art. There were also many wrong ways.

Because the negative can be fun, here are some of the wrong ways.

Listening to other people’s opinions and take them as fact

A phrase I often heard in game dev was that “When people give feedback, they are usually correct that something is wrong. But they are usually incorrect about how to fix it.” The same can be applied to writing. When someone reads your story and feels something isn’t working, then something probably isn’t working. But usually, their suggestions to fix it will be tailored to how they see and perceive the world and may not necessarily jive with what you’re trying to accomplish as an artist.

(But if you find a person who can filter the world via your perception and understand what you’re trying to accomplish with your art well enough to give you targeted suggestions, feed them enough cookies so that they’ll hang around forever because that kind of thing is more valuable than gold.)

To listen to your inner voice requires you to have an understanding of yourself and who you are as an individual. This may come in stages, and that voice can be coaxed out by cutting down on outside noise.

Worrying about my “brand”

I grew up in an awkward time when the Internet was first available to the public, and it went through the transitional phase of being a thing for hobbyists and nerds to becoming a necessary part of modern civilization. Writers were suddenly pressured to maintain a constant Internet presence, which is oftentimes anathema to the solitude required for the deep work that writing requires. I let this warp my perception of who I was. I was used to roleplaying on message board forums and online games, so I thought I could do the same in my writing life and I created a “character” as a sort of avatar to live through.

And this character ended up sneaking into my real life.

I even had a name for her. Well, kind of. She was “Nameless,” the plastered grin, vodka-swilling girl who wore a military jacket and a dog collar. The kind of girl who liked to write drunk and edit drunker.

But what I’ve seen many “character” writers go through over time is that they pigeonhole their own social media personality until they become more absurd, more bombastic, and more exaggerated over time. They lose their own sense of self and in private often lament that they feel they’d lose their following because they feel locked into this personality. And I found this happening to myself too. It affected not only my persona, but my writing. I thought I had to write within the niche of the brand I’d created which made the writing become stale. It’s why I went through a period where I was constantly throwing out manuscripts. Nothing seemed right, and it was because I’d lost sight of myself.

Being yourself is messier, and oftentimes less funny or entertaining. You have to risk being boring or inconsistent. You have to risk getting less “follows” because maybe you don’t belong on Twitter or Facebook, or you don’t get as much attention as someone who Facetunes. But it allows you more room for growth than a two-dimensional character.

It took me a long time to get rid of Nameless, because she was protection in a way. I could hide inside of her and have her interface with the world. But that meant nothing ended up touching me. Not the bad. But not the good either. I had to cast her off and allow myself to be vulnerable, even if it meant I risked not being as likable or shareable.

Also, everything I wrote when I was drunk was total shit.

Not setting my sights high enough

This is a problem among a lot of women artists that I’ve found, but can apply to either gender. Men have the tendency to take every shot they can, whether or not they’re qualified. Women try to aim their sights and only take a shot if they think they can hit it. I think this is a big reason why many publications tend to be male-dominated, even though in studies women have shown to have overall higher verbal intelligence.

I regret not looking for an agent for my first two books, and just throwing them up on Amazon because I assumed nobody would want them. (I don’t regret publishing them all together, because I am proud of them and those books have given me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise. But I do think how easily I sabotaged myself often.) I regret going for low-hanging fruit and not aiming for publications that I thought would never accept me. (And this also ties in to not listening to other people’s opinions, because many people told me I wasn’t marketable or that my books would never sell. None of them professionals in the business, by the way.)

If you’re at the beginning of your writing life and your acceptance rate is higher than 80%, you’re probably aiming too low.

Thinking of writing as just a potential career, and not as an art

I’m a smart lady. If I wanted to make money, I could’ve been a doctor or a lawyer. I had a pretty decent career in game design for a while before I quit. I have made money from writing and had several jobs that required creative writing, but every time I think of what I can write that’s going to get me money I begin to lose sight of why I wanted to write in the first place. All of the enjoyment starts to leak out of it.

It took me a while to realize that I didn’t find writing for the sake of writing to be pleasurable. I wanted to actualize the things I saw inside my head and create worlds of my own for other people to enjoy. Most people could make more money working in fast food (With better benefits) than writing for websites, and probably have more free time.

I’ve seen enough artists having breakdowns to know that the best way to ruin your life is to do what you love, but then have it twisted and distorted so that its original intent is lost. You’re no longer doing the art for the pleasure of it. You’ve lost the core and all you have is the pale specter of the motions left behind.

Getting too involved in writing communities

I didn’t get into online writing communities until long after I’d started writing. I think writing communities can be valuable for some people but so often they’re full of drama, back-biting, ingroup ideologies, and tribal markers. I have met a lot of good friends who happen to be writers in these groups but it’s important not to make your entire identity being a part of the writer community. These people do not encompass the totality of your fanbase or your influence and they do not always want what’s best for you. Most writing groups lack the diversity that you’d want to experience as a writer trying to understand and make sense of the world and all its components. The same ideas and comments get recycled over and over again.

You can interact with other writers without getting embroiled in the drama and same tired fights about plagiarism or the legitimacy of ‘the classics’. (Or whatever flavor of the month argument is going on. They tend to move in 3–9 month cycles) Or by picking sides in drama. Make friends outside of these groups or you may find your writing getting worse as a result.

I also believe that getting too involved into community politics is a form of procrastination. It takes a special calling to be someone who wants to be an editor and put together anthologies, or to be a community organizer. But it’s no coincidence that the people who do this and also call themselves writers generally aren’t producing much writing.

Not standing up for what I needed as an artist

So much of my life was spent in the pursuit of making myself smaller. My idea of heaven was to not be bothered by much of anyone. I wanted to live in a tiny little closet with a cold overhead light and a mini-fridge and just write until I died. But for much of my early twenties, I didn’t even give myself the luxury of having my own desk. I’d write on the floor or at the kitchen table. I let other people whittle away my time and energy. I felt like I was asking permission to do something I loved when I was a grown adult making my own money.

I got so hung up on what I thought I “deserved” that I didn’t ask what I wanted. I wanted to be a writer. And I wanted not only to have my own space but to be happy and proud of it. I thought I deserved a closet so that’s all I allowed myself to believe in. But when I was able to peel away the layers of feeling what I deserved vs. what I wanted, I really wanted a home.

“Deserve” is such an insidious, ambiguous idea. “Deserve” has a moral component and is often decided by fates, muses, gods, and the law. What you deserve in the end doesn’t really matter when it comes to your writing life. It’s what you want. And if you become capable of owning and getting what you want, then you probably deserved it.

Making shame part of my process

A typical writing session in my early twenties would go like this:

– I’d begin to write
– I’d discover a mistake or be creatively blocked
– If I couldn’t figure out how to fix the mistake right away I’d begin to panic, feel intense shame, and usually start to cry. Most of the day would be ruined and I’d lay in bed nursing my emotional wounds
– I’d seriously consider quitting and doing something else
– I’d usually wake up in dull throbbing pain after I had spent myself emotionally, fire up my current word document, and realize that the answer for what to do was right in front of me.

If I had just skipped the part where I felt intense shame and cried, then I probably would’ve saved myself a lot of pain. I had thought that the process of having an emotional meltdown was integral to my progress. But it was just a huge time waster.

Neglecting my personal life and health in the pursuit of writing

It was easy for me to get caught up in the romanticism of self-flagellation. I know not many people think of nihilism and depression as “romantic,” but you can probably forgive me for having a couple of misfiring synapses. Most of the writers I admired were hopeless and miserable. They screamed at their wives and drank themselves to death or threw themselves into rivers. And whenever I’d go to parties I’d smile and laugh and tell people I wanted to die, and they’d laugh back and tell me that all writers wanted to die.

It was some point between trying to starve myself to death, drinking bottles of white wine for dinner, and no longer writing anything worthwhile that something had to change. I’d burned myself out because I thought the way to get myself to write was to continuously scorch my own heels. I no longer got any pleasure from writing because I had been trying to use it as a surrogate for friends, family, love, health, enjoyment itself. But every publication, paycheck, good writing day, hefty word-count, or a good review wasn’t satisfying me. It couldn’t. It was as silly as expecting food to satisfy a sexual craving, or for sex to keep me from dying of dehydration.

Writing is fun, and the pursuit of it has been worthwhile for me, no matter what success may come. But writing can’t replace a life that is full of enjoyment and beauty, friends and family, and love. Who knows what art would’ve been produced from those famous tortured artists if they had not committed suicide or decided to get help for their mental issues. We’ve decided that beautiful art comes from tortured minds, but I think it’s probably that sensitive and artistic people are just easily tortured and require a greater force of commitment and work to get a baseline level of happiness.

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