Writing is a lot like feeding children.
One of the best things I ever found on the Internet was the Fat Nutritionist. While enduring the breakup of my marriage, I lost a ton of weight, and I lost even more after the divorce. (I knew why, too. I wasn’t miserable and trying to cover the misery with food anymore.) When I stumbled across Michelle’s site, it was like getting a love letter from that difficult land called Eating Stuff, and vindication in words I could understand that I really wasn’t broken about food at all.
One of the things she talked about is Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. In short, the principle is this: I am responsible for getting a variety of healthy food on the table and teaching my kids not to fling food at each other (much) when they sit down to eat. (Well, at home that rule’s a teensy bit flexible. At a restaurant, not so much.) I do the cooking and try to get a variety of pretty healthy things to the table at regular times. The kids are in charge of whether to eat and how much. They’ll eat as much as they need, and they’ll grow into the bodies that are right for them. The best way to avoid giving them food complexes (I have a rather large one, if you haven’t guessed) is to have this division of responsibility clear.
It’s very close to things I felt but could never quite articulate about the kind of parent I want to be: loving and letting these amazing human beings find their own amazing selves while being kept safe, supported, and taught how not to get run over crossing the street. Most of all, I did not want the Princess to reach her teenage years and get a huge goddamn complex about her body and food. There’s already enough cultural/social pressure there, I didn’t want to add to it the way my own issues got started: you would be such a pretty girl if you lost some weight, now eat everything on your plate because we worked hard to get you this food! (Note: the people who repeated this over and over again may have meant well. But given their other behaviours, I don’t think so.)
And this also articulates something about writing I have felt for a long time. You have to learn to lay the table and let go.
The list of things an author doesn’t have control over is long and daunting. Covers. Reviews. Whether a reader “gets it.” Distribution patterns, plenty of marketing decisions, what people say on Twitter or on Goodreads or in hate-filled (or well-meaning but boorish) emails or letters sent right to you. Even if you self-publish, you don’t have the control you might want over covers, or marketing (time and financial constraints) or editing (again, time and financial constraints, or just sheer inexperience) or reviews, or or or…
What do you have control over?
Not much. Making the effort to meet your deadlines. Taking charge of your own career, taking the time to read and follow submissions guidelines. Deciding which hill you want to die on when an editor wants you to make a certain revision and you disagree, and putting on your big girl (or big boy) knickers and realizing that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your editor is right. (That last time, though, that’s the hill.) Other factors can impinge on your ability to do these things, though a lot less than you think if you are rightfully determined.
The only thing that is entirely within your compass, the thing that you have 100% control over, the thing that is all yours, is writing the best story you can. Doing the work to sharpen your craft, to do your research, to consistently make your writing time a priority[*], to keep improving, to not punk out or look away when a story gets difficult, to go right for the jugular and be vulnerable on the page, is your responsibility. This is the thing you control right down to the molecular level. To the goddamn quantum level, really.
Lay the table with the meal that is your best effort. And then let go of it. Someone loves it? Cool. Walk away. Someone hates it? Cool. Walk away. Someone markets it wrong? Walk away. It doesn’t get distributed as much as it could due to outside factors? Walk away. Cover is horrid? Walk away. Any one of a million other goddamn things? Walk the fuck away.
Walk yourself right back to the words, honey. To the keyboard, typewriter, journal, pad of paper, whatever. Get started on the next one. Get started on learning more, crafting better, not punking out. Leave the meal on the table for them to throw at each other, and get back to work. This is the thing you’ve got the control over, let it take up the majority of your time and don’t eat your stomach lining up with the things that you can’t control as much as you’d like.
This will not only help save your stomach lining (and quite possibly what little sanity you have, which I make no estimation of since I am of the opinion that it’s always questionable when one is making a living from writing anyway) but it will free up your energies for getting the next meal on the table. In more ways than one.
Over and out.
[*] Yes, this is code for “do it every day.” But my Faithful Readers know that.
Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there is a ton of other useful advice. And sneaky peeks!