Fighting Discouragement in Writing

08 Dec 2012

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Oyindamola Affinnih

I don’t feel like writing anymore; I mean writing novels. But what do I do? I have been wired for, and sentenced to writing. As I have told other writers who got this low, a way to fight this mood is self-encouragement.

My background in psychology and my experience help me to understand it all - the whole complex cycle. There is a raging torrent of forces in this country to put writers down.

But all over the world, writers, even the very successful ones, go down with post-achievement blues. Writing a favourite manuscript provides a high excitement and energy, sometimes equal to the effect of drugs. I got wise on this long ago from psychologists who explained the phenomenon with the experience of pop musicians and rock stars.

The musicians are used to high level of excitement when they play concerts, and the shift from this to everyday life may be too abrupt, and also leave a feeling of emptiness. They may take drugs to try to sustain that level of excitement and stimulation.

Also those stars, who are used to having their egos continually affirmed by their fans, into thinking of themselves as special and important, feel deflated and empty; so empty that they resort to ego-boosting drugs like cocaine to restore sense of importance.

However, most writers, even the high-selling ones, don’t have it that bad; and that is not my current situation. Of course, the excitement of developing an intricate plot and the joy of playing god in a world created by the writer, and perhaps the fulfillment from seeing all that effort in print, provide a high that can only be sustained if the book is a massive hit or when there is an elaborate promotional activity. Even then, that is short-lived. But most cases, the situation doesn’t call for drugs.

Truly, the joy of writing peaks during the journey; upon the completion of the book the writer is left with a low feeling of nothingness, or emptiness; all the fun dies down as soon as the morning after. What one writer calls “book hangover” sets in, and the author feels sad and lost. 

New writers don’t understand this until they get there; the case of experience as a teacher. For most of them, they sink deeper into post-achievement blues when their books are poorly received. The joy of seeing their efforts crystallized in print is blunted when the announcement of their books pass as non-event.  A couple of them have high expectations in book launches, but they also end up brutalized by poor attendance and unfulfilled pledges.

Indeed the discouraging factors are many in Nigeria. After the energy-sapping nights of high concentration, after all the sacrifice, the writer even needs far more efforts and time to get the novel published.

Traditional publishing is almost dead in Nigeria. I mean, finishing a manuscript, querying an agent or publisher for consideration; waiting for the good news or even the famous rejection letter, and after some months, seeing the joy of writing in complimentary/writer’s copies from the publisher.

Now, self-publishing, or at best, subsidy publishing is the vogue. It is a relatively huge investment, considering the financial disposition of the average writer. Whatever way it is done, the book is published, received with joy; and media reviews and distribution in bookshops begin. Continuous joy and expectations! But give it a month or two, the joy train stops.

Worse, sales figures are poor, and in many cases the booksellers don’t make returns to the writer. So much pain in writing, but as they say in the popular cartoon, “Special Agent Oso”, it is all part of the plan - the growth process.

Discouragement is a fact of life or growth plan, which one must deal with constructively to make progress. So it pays for every writer to accept that they will become discouraged along the way to becoming a professional writer.

Psychologists say discouragement is usually a good sign. For those who take it in their stride, those who refuse to be discouraged in the face of the mountain of challenges, it is a good test of whether they were born or wired to write.

Rather than get discouraged, they learn from the stories of other writers, or resort to self-encouragement. In doing so they realise that all writers go through discouragement at some point regardless of their talent level. Knowing that this is common to all writers is helpful to remind us that the good writers get past these discouraging times and continue to write and improve. We don’t need psychologists to tell us that improvement only comes from practice and trying new things.

As fellow writer Jerry D. Simmons rightly puts it writing is about discipline and consistency: He says “writing is about ideas, thoughts, experience, or stories. This commitment requires a tremendous investment in time as well as a strong sense of discipline.

“Bestselling author John Grisham once said in an interview that he didn’t start writing until late in life, never took a writing class, and learned to write from reading. Now he writes at least one page a day. Of course John Grisham is the exception in many ways, but his first book wasn’t published until he was 30 years of age and his focus has always been on areas where he had familiarity or personal experience.

“Bestselling authors with whom I’ve worked over the years have similar stories. Many did not start writing until they were adults, had no formal training, and they try to write something every day. Regardless of whether or not they ever use their daily work, they are dedicated to getting something on paper or their computer. The best way to learn to write is to write, as much and often as possible.”

When I get as low as I am now I do some of the things suggested by writer and blogger, Cheryl Reif, which are listed below:

• If rejections are getting you down, there’s a good chance that you’ve lost touch with the joy of writing.  Step back from the pursuit of publication to rediscover why you started writing in the first place.
• Submit more! Yeah, I know—contradictory advice. But I warned you this wouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Sometimes you might need to step away from pursuit of publication; other times, you might need to thumb your nose at rejection by sending your work back into the world again.
• Get another opinion—from a critique partner, an online critique group, or a professional editor. Sometimes a fresh perspective is the key to breaking through times of feeling stuck.
• Start a new project.
• Dust off an old project.
• Read other authors’ rejection stories.
• Play with words.
• Re-read your favorite author to remember what you aspire to accomplish.
• Re-read your least favorite author to remember how much better your writing is compared to that lf so many others.
• Reach out to writing friends in person. 
• Give something back—share a critique, an essay, or an hour of your time with a writer with less experience,
• Encourage another writer.
• Journal. Heck, writers and psychotherapists are some of the fortunate few who have psychiatric analysis as part of their job description–make use of it to get past creative blocks.
• Identify where you feel helpless—because feeling helpless is a sure path to stress—and identify one small action you can take to move forward.
• Change writing location.
• Read or re-read an inspirational book.
• Tackle your energy level: Get outside, move around, drink water.
• Revisit your successes. I (Reif) keep a special folder in my email for messages that encourage–a thank you email from a teacher after a school presentation, an effusively complimentary note from a client, acceptance letters, thanks from critique group friends, fan mail–things I can revisit to remember that someone out there thinks my work is worthwhile.
• Take a smaller bite of the pie. If you’re overwhelmed by the size of a project, try tackling one aspect of it at a time. Instead of working on a REVISION, work on plot continuity, or development of a single character’s or the tension of a single scene.
• Switch gears: if you’re writing fiction, work on a poem instead. If you’re stuck on a blog post, try writing an essay. The trick is to discover success somewhere else, so keep this one short and sweet, so you can carry the momentum back to your original project.
•    Revisit why you write. Who is your audience? What do they care about? What are you trying to give them? State your writing purpose in a sentence or two and use that to focus your writing energy.
• Take a break. It is possible your discouragement is a symptom of burnout? Maybe you need time to rest and recharge.
• Or maybe you need to refill your creative well (another side-effect of burnout).
• Give yourself more mental, physical, or emotional space.

In conclusion, I dare say that a writer desirous of growth, keeps on writing. People who do that become better writers because they have more practice, they are often more visible, thus they receive more feedback, which allows them to improve; they gain more confidence in their ability, and which translates into better writing skills and quality.

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