It was the 24th August 1999 in New York City. I was earning more money than God but I was bored and unfulfilled.
It was a good time to be in the technology sector. There was a lot of money sloshing about. My daily rate was very healthy but my mind wasn’t. My life completely lacked creativity.
In late August 1999 I went to New York to visit a friend. Via my friend’s massage therapist I came across a tarot master who, like me, had a musical background and had also worked in the technology sector. He understood how I felt, trapped by the lack of creativity in my life.
I practice Buddhism and usually don’t dabble in other traditions but I was on holiday and thought, what the heck, I’ll have a reading.
The tarot man began analysing the numerology and astrological features of myself. I gave him my date of birth and the time I was born. He said lots of stuff that I didn’t really understand. Then he said, “Ah. You have Gemini in your mid-heaven. This suggests you might be good at writing.”
This was my light bulb moment. The only job I had ever enjoyed in my working life up to that point was when I wrote the training manuals and on-line help for an IT system at an investment bank. Unlike most of banking, the work was tangible. I had something to show for it.
In our initial chit-chat the tarot man had already suggested to start journaling as a way to discover what I really should be doing with my life. Now he recommended two specific books about how to start writing. They were The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write, both by Julia Cameron.
Afterwards I walked the twenty blocks back to my friend’s apartment. On the way I stopped at Barnes & Noble, bought both books and a spiral bound journal with a furry leopard print cover.
Later that day I flew home to London. Once I had checked in at the airport, I settled myself in a chair in the departure lounge and then pulled out the leopard print journal and The Right to Write. The first exercise it prescribed was to write three pages of anything that came to mind, there and then.
I didn’t realise it at the time but this was my introduction to doing morning pages which twenty years later I am still doing. I have written consistently since that day.
What have I learned in the last twenty years of writing?
If I could summarise this in one sentence it would be that nothing will go as planned but providing you keep writing, you will have the adventure of a lifetime.
However, I’m guessing that you want some more meat than that so here are twenty things I have learned about writing in the last twenty years.
- It isn’t as simple as “write best seller, get famous, earn lots of money.”
This was my initial aim and motivation but I haven’t achieved it yet. I might never achieve it. I have since discovered that it takes a phenomenal amount of work to be published and the other riches rarely happen. Those who do achieve this status have an exceptional work ethic.
- It was eight years before I realised what I needed to know about novel writing.
Having a reasonable command of grammar and spelling, coupled with what I liked to call “a fucked-up imagination” only took me so far. Eventually I had to learn how to do it properly.
- Getting feedback on your work and revising it makes it better, however painful that process is.
You have to be open to feedback. You don’t have to act on all of it. Once you have poured your heart onto the page, what matters then is how the piece works for the reader. There will be times when you have to make tough decisions, strike out your favourite paragraph or get rid of a character.
Further reading: 5 tips for getting the most from your beta readers
- Having said that, don’t give your early work to people who like to be brutally honest. They will destroy you.
Early on in your writing career, or in a fledgling project, you need kind feedback. Ask people for the type of thoughts you want. Do you just want a proof read without their opinion on how they would write the article? Maybe you just need to know what they liked about it. Remind people that you are learning and the piece is a work in progress so you need gentle comments.
- You have to trust the process. If your writing wants to take you in a certain direction, follow it. It often leads somewhere interesting.
Recently I heard the expression, “Trust the story. It knows better than you.” Get your head out of the way and see where your heart, via your fingers, wants to take you.
- Write as often as you can. If you let lots of days go by without doing it, it is harder to pick things up.
I am not an evangelist that you must write every day. I usually don’t do any work on a Saturday and sometimes a Sunday. But I do write on the other days, sometimes for as little as ten minutes. If you work “little and often” you can fit writing around your other responsibilities, you will make progress on your project and this is a good way to dodge fear.
- You don’t need oodles of time to draft something. You can do it by using the time that you have.
You don’t need to give up your job to write a book. You can fit it around your existing life but you will need to say No to some things. Writing a first draft does not require great swathes of time. During the edit phase it is nice to have a couple of hours at a time to work but if you don’t get a first draft down on the page then you will have nothing to edit.
- You might never get the external validation that you crave. Learn to live without it and keep writing.
This is a biggie. As artists we crave validation from other people. We want to be told that our work is good, that it is a masterpiece and that someone can’t wait to publish it. The problem is that we might never get this, or it might be many years before it happens. We have to find internal motivation to keep creating anyway.
- It is good to hang out with other writers. Join a writers group or network where you live.
For many years I didn’t do this. Being a creative person can be a lonely business and we often feel at odds with the regular world. Hanging out with fellow writers or artists allows you to see that your urge to create is normal. Whatever hang-up or issue you are having with your work, you will find someone in the group who has been through a similar thing and can empathise and give you tips to get through it.
- Enjoy learning how to get better.
A creative life is one where you are always learning. This can sometimes be discomforting but if you are always open to learning then your growth will be less painful. There is always something new to master on the craft side as well as the business / marketing side of getting your work into the world.
- Rejection is part of the game.
There is a lot of rejection in writing as well as other creative disciplines. Your work will be rejected by magazines, literary agents, publishers, online blogs and publications. Sometimes you won’t be rejected, you’ll just be ignored. Try not to see it as something personal. Very often your work might not be what they were looking for or it is lost in a sea of other submissions. Sometimes it might not be good enough which is why you need to keep learning, keep writing and not let rejection knock you back.
Further reading: How to cope with rejection and keep creating
- Your project will take longer than you think and it will need more re-writes than you want to do.
Oh how I wanted to knock out a book in record time, have it be perfect and then move on to create another masterpiece. In the early years of writing I used to get frustrated that I couldn’t punch out work to a deadline like I do in my day job. Over the years I have learned that creativity has its own rhythm and it is better to go with this flow than fight against it. I have also learned that books (and plays and movies) go through lots of revisions and this is normal.
- You often have to write crap for days and then all of a sudden you will hit something amazing.
You wouldn’t have got to that amazing thing if you had just “mulled it” or “thought about it for a bit longer.” Amazing things appear on the page when you wriggle your fingers on the keyboard or when you push a pen across the paper.
Further reading: Why you should aim to make lots of crap art
- Don’t worry about being published to start with. You probably won’t be good enough.
Do the work and learn as you go. When you start to write you immediately think of publishing and that your words must come out perfect, witty and intelligent. It isn’t going to be this way. Even seasoned writers write crappy first drafts.
- I didn’t think I would still be writing computer code 20 years later, but I am.
Yes, I wanted to write a bestseller, earn a fortune from it and give up my day job. It hasn’t quite panned out that way. However, now I only do my job three days a week, I’ve found a niche which I enjoy and I see it as an income stream which funds my creative ambitions.
- People won’t understand how much effort writing takes or that it is work at all.
The uninitiated think it is idyllically easy to sit in your garret and bang out a masterpiece. They assume that when you type those magic words “The End” that the book is ready. Little do they realise that you have several more versions to go, that you will throw away a lot of what you have written and that the book is likely to change considerably from that first draft. Smile sweetly at these people and then go and hang out with other writers.
- You can learn a lot by reading books and figuring out how the writer has made it work.
This was something I didn’t pay heed to in the early days. I thought I knew all I needed to know because I could speak and write the English language. You need to be reading as well as writing. Any reading is good whether it is a trashy romance or Charles Dickens. Analyse its merits as well as what you find annoying about it.
- You don’t need to be “qualified” before you can start to write.
You learn by doing not by reading about it or doing course after course. Yes, there are skills you need to master but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to do just one more course before you can embark on your “real” writing. Start now. Learn as you go. Supplement that learning with reading and courses.
- Beware of writer envy. It can kill your creativity.
There is always someone who writes faster or better or gets more reads than you. I look at people who can knock out three or four novels in a year with awe. I wish I could be like them but I am not. I wish I could blog every day and build a large online following. If I measured myself against those people then I feel like a failure. I can’t create like them, their life is not my life. I can only create like me. My life is unique.
- It will change your life in ways you never thought possible.
In the days following 24th August 1999 when I was a misty eyed, optimistic scribbler I could never have predicted how my creative journey would go. I never thought that I would make peace with my day job and still have a fantastic creative life. I never thought that I could blog regularly and have readers send me lovely comments and emails. I had no idea how hard it would be to have a novel published (and to make it a publishable standard).
These last twenty years have been a wild adventure. I had no idea how much fortitude I could muster up, how much I can learn and how much resistance, fear and doubt it has been possible for me to overcome.
It has truly been an incredible journey and I wonder what the next twenty years will bring. Thank you for being part of it.
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