Some time ago—before the days of coronavirus and social distancing—I attended a conference and ran into a colleague of mine at one of the cocktail happy hours. We exchanged pleasantries and filled each other in on what was new in our work. She had a new book out and it had been nominated for an award at that conference. I had just come back from a whirlwind of speaking gigs and was gearing up for my TEDx talk.
“Wow, you’re doing a TED talk?” she asked when I mentioned the latter.
“TEDx,” I replied. “I’m super-excited about it.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, it’s not a real TED but I guess it’s still kind of cool.” Noticing my death-glare, she fumbled to correct herself. “You know what I mean, Gabriela. It seems like everyone has a TEDx on their resume these days.”
“If the folks at TED offer me a spot on their stage, I certainly won’t say no,” I said, forcing a smile. “I’m sure I can make room for both on my resume.”
While this conversation happened several years ago, it stayed with me because it reflects a pattern I often see in writing and publishing. In our industry (as with any entrepreneurial endeavor) there are people who come to the work from a place of abundance, and there are others who embrace a scarcity mindset. For some, writing and publishing is a zero-sum game where one writer’s success means another one’s failure. A scarcity mindset assumes that there is only a fixed amount of success to go around, and if one person claims a share, there is less of it left for everyone else.
This idea of scarcity versus abundance brings me to the next lesson in our “Ten Lessons in Ten Years” series.
Lesson #5: Choose Abundance over Scarcity
Writing is an act of abundance. This scarcity-driven attitude is absurd and it runs counter to the very notion of creativity. After all, when we write we create entire worlds out of nothing. The very essence of our work is an act of abundance. Yet so many writers treat publishing like a battle to the death, our own literary version of The Hunger Games and there can only be one victor. That scarcity mindset shifts the odds so they are no longer in anyone’s favor. And writers aren’t the only ones who fall prey to the scarcity mindset; I’ve seen this attitude from publishers, marketers, and on rare occasions, even from someone I considered a mentor.
As writers, we are sensitive creatures and it can be tempting to take these put-downs personally. Remember that the scarcity mindset stems from fear. When someone reveals their inner competitive demons, it says far more about their own insecurities than it reveals about our abilities. Abundance, while beautiful in theory, can also be terrifying to those who harbor self-doubt. In a world ruled by scarcity, a writer’s dwindling career may have nothing to do with their skill or effort. It may simply be because of bad luck or poor timing. Another equally talented writer may just have gotten in the door a little bit sooner. In a weird, sick way, there’s something comforting in the thought: “I failed not because I’m not good enough, but because someone else beat me to the prize.”
When we operate from a place of abundance, the tables turn.
Abundance means we have to take responsibility for our success. It’s not someone else’s fault that we couldn’t “make it” as a writer; we have no one to blame but ourselves. Some writers almost collapse under the weight of that responsibility. Choosing the scarcity mindset isn’t just about their own ego, it’s a matter of survival. While embracing abundance does require taking responsibility for our creative work, it also relieves a lot of the pressure. After all, when we believe there is enough success to go around, then all we have to do is knuckle down and get to work. Finishing a project and sharing it with the world no longer becomes a question of if but when.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a member of the woo-brigade and I don’t believe that you can just wish your way into a book deal. I believe in sweat equity: the power of working hard but also working smart. Yes, I believe in abundance, but I also believe that it is up to us not to squander it. This means calling ourselves on our own BS. It means digging deep and realizing when we are honoring our reality and when we’re being lazy.
One of the things I get criticized for most is my stance on writer’s block. I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s an excuse lazy writers use when they don’t feel like writing. And when I use the term “lazy writers” I include myself under that label. There have been many times when I knew I should have been writing, but I wanted to watch TV instead. At the time I blamed writer’s block, but now I realize I was just kidding myself. The truth is, there will never be an ideal time for writing; there will always be something else that seems more fun at the time. Writing is like practicing an instrument or getting on the stationary bike… you might drag your feet and procrastinate about it, but you’ll always be glad after you’ve done it.
We must stay accountable to the work.
When we choose abundance over scarcity, we must also choose to hold ourselves accountable to the work. It’s not enough to say “Okay universe, I believe in abundance” and then sit back and put our feet up. The universe needs constant reminders and it only delivers on that abundance if we keep showing up. Choosing abundance means choosing to do the work.
There is one other crucial element that plays into abundance versus scarcity and that is equity. While I believe in abundance and the idea that there is enough to go around, I am also painfully aware that some writers have a headstart on that journey. When we operate from a place of abundance, that journey is no longer a race and it becomes all the more imperative to make sure that all our fellow travelers make it to the destination. That party at the finish line will be a whole lot more fun if everyone is there, and at DIY MFA we want to help make that happen. Let me show you what I mean with a story from my pre-writing days.
We All Finish Together
Before becoming a writer, I wanted more than anything to work in the toy industry and I took one year of classes in design school. One of my classes—Plush and Soft Toys—involved designing and building stuffed animals. This meant creating the patterns from scratch, sewing various “draft” versions out of scrap material, and then carefully crafting a final, full-sized model. It might sound like fun, but when it’s 2am on a Saturday and you’re stuck in the design studio fighting with a sewing machine, you start to feel like a forlorn version of a Santa elf.
For those in the class who had a crafty streak, the sewing assignment was straightforward, even easy, but for about half of the class it was downright torture. A few weeks before the end of the semester, it became clear that at least half of our cohort was not going to finish. The professor made it clear that she would not grant any extensions, and since our entire grade for the course was based on that project, it meant half of our class would fail.
A funny thing happens when you are stuck in a design studio, pulling multiple all-nighters, with the same fourteen people: You become friends. More than that, you become like soldiers huddling in the trenches together. Whatever happens, you don’t leave anyone behind. It was under the flickering fluorescents on one of those long studio nights that we made a decision. No one was going to finish unless we all finished together. Basically half of the class went on strike. They stopped working on their own projects and started helping the rest of the class with theirs.
The professor was baffled. Design school is competitive and she was used to dealing with students who would jockey for first place. Never had she faced an entire class that refused to leave a single member of their group behind. It got to a point that the department head stepped in and gave the whole class an extension. It was rumored she referred to our cohort as being like a wall. Unbreakable.
My vision is that our word nerd community might become an unbreakable force, a wall of solidarity within the writing world. Yes, publishing is competitive and there are many people in our industry who operate from a place of scarcity. But we have something they don’t have: We have each other.
Let’s Invite More Abundance into Our Community
If you’re here, reading this newsletter, you are part of an amazing community that is committed to the craft and is willing to do the work. When I started DIY MFA, I did it because I firmly believed that every person has a valuable story to share with the world and that anyone can master the skills to write it. The key is recognizing that there is room in the universe for all our stories and that our community becomes more beautiful and more powerful when we champion each other’s voices and celebrate one another’s successes.
As I’ve mentioned in several past newsletters, one of the big steps I’m taking this year is that I’m expanding the spotlight of DIY MFA to include people other than myself. We’ve already had a few newsletters featuring members of the DIY MFA team, and we’ve also been sharing a lot more resources from friends of DIY MFA. But we’ve been missing one crucial piece: You.
I’ve decided to add a new section to our newsletter called “Word Nerd Wins” where we’ll feature stories about one or more members of our community. The goal here is threefold. First, we want to share the spotlight and share the amazing work that members of our community are doing so we can all be inspired and motivated by their accomplishments.
Second, this is an opportunity for DIY MFA to use our platform to help lift up members of our community. I firmly believe that the impact of having a platform increases exponentially when you use that platform on behalf of others, and not just yourself.
Finally, this is a chance for us to practice using that abundance mindset as a community.
To that end, there are a few ground rules for getting featured. Basically, all you have to do is fill out this Google form and we may select you for an upcoming Word Nerd Wins. Here are a few things to bear in mind to help you get selected:
- This is an opportunity to share what you learned from your experience. Think about your creative process and how you achieved your win. Share insights about what you learned in the process so other word nerds in the community can learn from you as well.
- This is not an invitation for blatant self-promotion. As you’ll see in the form, while this is an opportunity to share your work with this community, the goal is not blatant self-promotion. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to advertise your blog or book or whatever, this isn’t it.
- It doesn’t have to be a HUGE win. While we certainly want to celebrate word nerds who publish their work or achieve other major milestones, we’re also looking for smaller, more subtle wins. Maybe you finally finished and submitted your first short story. Or you mustered up the courage to launch an email newsletter. Or you attended your very first online writing event. At DIY MFA, we believe all victories—big or not-so-big—are important.
- Diversity and inclusion matter. As I’ve shared in previous newsletters, my team and I are actively challenging ourselves to be more inclusive in terms of the voices we amplify and the work that we share. This goes for the word nerd wins as well. We’re looking for milestones and accomplishments from writers working in any genre. We’d like to feature writers from all walks of life who use their words and stories in creative and diverse ways. Our hope is that by featuring a broad range of voices and perspectives, we will better represent all the amazing humans who make up our awesome community.
So, if you have a win to share, hop on over to this Google form and tell us all about it! I can’t wait to do a virtual happy dance with you.
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.