On Flexibility

I’m heading to the gym in an hour, part of my quest to develop flexibility. You know you gotta have it, or your body gets soft and doesn’t work as well. But lately I’ve been thinking about how important it is to stay flexible in our writing lives.

Flexibility entails things like:

  • acknowledging the changes in publishing and adapting to them
  • practicing a variety of writing formats such as blogs, and out-of-genre pieces
  • learning deeper writing lessons such as structure and tone or whatever it is you’ve been winging all these years
  • abandoning romantic myths of the writing life

I’ve noticed a bit of hardening around the edges in my writing life. I tell myself there are things I can’t write, or won’t write (even at the highest standards.) I remind myself how much I dislike phone interviews or fighting my way into panel discussions. So I seldom (or never) do these things. Hurray for me, I have principles. Or do I?

Such opinions might have been valuable to me once. And even now, they’re not all bad. You can’t do everything, so you set priorities, work your strengths, avoid unpleasant tasks. But these are also signs of inflexibility.

The Writing World is Changing

We’ve been hearing about e-books until we glaze over, but they’re already altering the face of the industry.  Self-publishing is gaining traction. The nature of royalties and advances is changing. And perennially, careers rise and fall and rise again, best-buddy editors give us the “parting of the ways” phone call, and in general, the ground is shifting, my friend.

When it shifts, do you stumble, get bitter, deny – or pivot? Are you flexible?

This isn’t the place to talk about how book publishing is changing. You should be following savvy people on this topic. See Kristine Kathryn Rusch or Michael Stackpole, for instance.

Warm Up to Those Lunges

But even before you grapple with these huge issues of change, I think it’s important to develop an attitude of openness, curiosity and versatility. A little less judgmental superiority can serve us well, too.

Think poetry is for dilletantes? Try writing one. Some magazines, even in sf/f, still publish them. It flexes your writing muscles. Won’t join a writing practice group at the local cafe because you need peace and quiet? Get flexible, give it a try. Won’t attend Dragoncon because it’s too media-oriented? Don’t get whiplash from watching the world pass you by. As an exercise, think of something you don’t want to write and write it. Because, in your writing life, you will have many opportunities to write pieces by invitation. Staying in your comfort zone means zero growth.

Change that Movie in Your Head

There are more subtle ways of losing flexibility. This is a deeper topic, one relating to buried assumptions.

New writers often have a quite unhelpful body of mistaken ideas about the writing life. The longer they believe these things, the more rigid that body of knowledge becomes. These convictions have to do with what we want out of writing, how our work will be valued and our author persona. You can see this movie in your imagination, can’t you? Signings at Barnes and Noble, your new self-esteem, winning a big prize or two and what to wear.

But it’s all wrong if it causes you to reject what really happens to you. (“This isn’t how it was supposed to be!”) Remember the character Liz in Eat Pray Love? Did we ever learn how she paid for all that spaghetti and meditation? If that’s the writing life, man am I bitter. OK, she was refilling the well, I get it. Just sayin’.

The Real Story

To find your real story–to fully experience the actual writing life that will come to you–wean yourself off these platitudes:

Once I Break In, I’m In the Club

Your first published short story is a great milestone. Your first published novel, more so. But now the work is just beginning. You must write one great story after another, developing discipline and learning the skills that will turn weak stories into memorable ones. Your publisher may be friendly, take you dinner, but she is still obligated to buy great stories and fire writers who produce weak ones. There is no club. Wouldn’t it be sort of dreadful if there were?

My Stories Are Me

I don’t want to engage in a philosophical argument on this one. Your stories may be you in some metaphorical or inevitable sense. But so are your bad habits and your unruly hair. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change things or work on them. If you carry around a sense that “people don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” you avoid taking responsibility for learning your craft and learning to tell stories that reach a wider audience.

I’m in Line for Awards and Honors

There is no line. You might work years before receiving a major award. The word never also comes to mind. The thrill of being nominated for an award is surely a lovely thing. Here is validation at last. But is it? There was a panel that read your story, and in the mix they had in front of them, short-listed you. I’ve been on such panels and actually, sometimes things get nominated that are the best of a disappointing lot. Sometimes people get nominated for their star power or some personal life-story that adds a compelling accent. Sometimes the stories are fabulous and yours was one of them. Congratulations! But your best reward will always be readers whose hearts you’ve touched. Get over this sense of entitlement for honors. It not only may not happen, it may not matter if it does.

I See Myself As An Author

Yeah, I know, me too. But, thing is? That calling is not going to save you. It doesn’t confer gravitas and respect on you. And in the one-percent of authors who are considered literary lions, even they suspect they’re frauds. That is, they may write great books but they may be lousy fathers and selfish wives and absent sons. Accomplishment as an author will not–I repeat, will not–justify your life, or make you OK. Being an author means sitting in front of a keyboard and working your fingers until you get carpal tunnel syndrome. This worthy endeavor is punctuated by bursts of inspiration, giddy happiness and deep satisfaction followed immediately by self doubt. So you see why you don’t want to put all your eggs in the “author” basket?

I’ve got to get to the gym, so I’ll stop now. Please comment if you can think of some other writing life delusions.

Openness, curiosity, versatility. Add to this a generous dose of realism and humility. Unless you want to get stove up, practice this stuff.

At least three times a week, stretch a little, hey?

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