Confession time: I hit some potholes in my writing life this past year. Last spring, the novel I worked on for years went out on submission and wasn’t picked up, so my agent shelved it. In the fall, my agent read the novel I slaved over for most of 2017 and found some serious issues with it; we ultimately decided to put it aside. In the meantime, I wrote and submitted short stories, essays and a conference proposal, all of which were rejected. Despite putting myself out there, I haven’t had any writing-related success in months.
Last week, after a particularly discouraging email from my agent related to my newest novel, it seemed only natural that I should start asking myself the big question: should I really be doing this?
Should I really be a writer? Am I good enough to succeed? What if I sink time, money and energy into a writing career for years, and it never pays off?
I asked these questions aloud to my husband. Predictably, he told me he couldn’t answer the questions for me. But he did add one more: what did I want out of writing? Specifically, am I looking for fame and fortune, or do I just want to write?
I decided to ask myself all of the questions above, and pay attention to my most instinctual answers. I quickly came to the conclusion that I do not want to stop writing. I do not want to stop pursuing my dreams just because of a few setbacks. And— hardest to articulate, but most rewarding to recognize— even if I never achieve my specific dream of seeing my name on the spine of a book at my favorite indie bookstore, I’ll still be happy and proud that I invested my time, energy and creativity in becoming a better writer.
While I was coming to those conclusions, I thought of six ways to determine whether I was writing for the right reasons, and whether I had the stamina to make it last. I’m going to share them with you today, in hopes that if you’ve ever faced a crisis of faith in your writing life, or even if you’re just moving along the path but unsure how far the path goes, you might benefit from them too.
Six Ways To Know That You’re Writing For The Long Haul
1) You tell yourself to take a break, but you can’t stop thinking about writing
Like every relationship, your relationship with writing has highs and lows, but you still feel fully committed. That being said, every writer needs breaks, both short and long. I’m all for taking a sabbatical from writing work— in theory. I just haven’t been able to put it into practice yet. I tell myself I’m taking a break, for real this time, and the next day I get a great idea that I just have to write down and… well, the break gets broken. If you have trouble taking breaks too, or if you’re able to take one but are excited to start back up again afterward, you have enough fire to keep going.
2) Your definition of success is (mostly) under your control
If success to you is Rowling-levels of fame and fortune, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Fame and fortune are not under our control. That all depends on the market, your audience, and a bit of luck.
What is under your control is the quality and quantity of your writing; your perseverance; and your willingness to fail and be vulnerable. If you define success as being a better writer in the future than you are now, and see the fame and fortune as hopeful side perks, you’re in it for the long haul.
3) You continually tweak your process
If you’re willing to rethink the elements of your work— how you get ideas, how you draft, how you structure your stories, how you research, how you schedule your writing time— and hone them until you’ve found a winning formula, you have enough passion to make it long-term.
4) You’re able to let go of the result.
If you can detach yourself from your work and send it out into the world, if you’re able to accept failure as a part of the process and continue submitting as long as it takes, you’re gritty enough to make it through the hard parts and come out the other side.
5) You’re willing to do things you hate in service of your writing
No one loves every part of her job. I love being a teacher, but I hate faculty meetings. I love being a parent, but I hate changing diapers. I still do the things I hate, because I love the job (or, in the case of parenting, my daughter). If there’s something you hate that you do anyway because it serves your writing, then you’re probably determined enough to write for the long haul.
6) “Writer” feels like part of your identity
If it’s one of the top five words you’d use to describe yourself, you’ll probably be a writer for life.
Have you ever found yourself doubting your writing life, career choices, even your writing identity? What did you do to get yourself back on the path?
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, at Facebook.com/sowulwords, or on Twitter @sowulwords.