Mastering 15 Habits of Great Writers – Day 4 – Practice
Remember I told you a few days ago that I was participating in Jeff Goins’ workshop on acquiring 15 habits that great writers practice. Well, today is Day 4 and the key word here is practice. But it isn’t quite the kind of practice I figured it would be…au contraire! It turns out I have to put something written out in public, not necessarily to succeed, but perhaps to fail. I don’t HAVE to fail to complete this practice accurately, but the chances are good I WILL fail. Not exactly inspiring, what?
But wait, the point isn’t to fail, it’s to…uh…actually, Jeff explains it better than I do in his early morning email to us:
Nothing is the worst thing you can do. Because it’s passive. And writing is active. It requires your fully conscious self. You need to show up and show us your gift.
Until you do that, you’re just practicing in private. Playing around. Kidding yourself. Don’t do that. It’s time to put your work out there — not because you’ll succeed. Quite the opposite, in fact. You’ll probably fail. And in the failure you can learn.
So do it. Now. Today. Fail fast, and then tell us what you learned. This will be messy, no question about it. That’s okay. Because practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes habits.
Jeff also suggested that one thing we could do to put it out there, among a number of good suggestions, was to describe in our blog a time when we failed and what lesson we learned from it. This story comes from my distant past, a few decades ago. Take note of the passage of time here, because that is important. Also important to my story is Jeff’s own tale about learning to become a professional here.
I’m setting the scene now for my tale. Picture this…a youngish person, determined to become a writer, not yet having learned that she already was a writer. Payday-type work was interfering with this goal. So committed was she at the time that she decided to get up two hours earlier than her usual getting up time and devote them every day, from 5am to 7am, to writing.
I remember those mornings well. The coffee was set on a timer every night, and the first awareness was the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, followed by an immediate awareness of a full bladder. The dogs thought I was crazy to get up so early and dashed briefly outside to take care of their own bladders. They immediately went back to bed while I pulled out my word processor and started to transcribe my notes from the day before. The silence of the early morning filled my soul, and I was released to my writing like a greyhound dashing after the electric rabbit.
Oh, how I loved my stories and my characters. I wrote first in longhand (from years of practice) and then transcribed what I wrote, revising as I went along. I hadn’t learned how to compose at the keyboard yet. I wrote two novels this way and sent them off to publishing houses, without results, other than a few standard rejection slips. I always had another novel in the works so I didn’t get too discouraged. But it was hard.
With the third book, I poured my heart and soul into it. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see blood stains on the pages from the depth of being at which I wrote. When it was finished, I proofread it within an inch of its life, typed it up all nice and tidy, and sent it off with hope in my heart, which at the time was in my mouth…not a comfortable state of affairs.
After a few months, I got a reply back from a well-known publishing house. With trembling hands I tore open the envelope and read the contents. I had to read it twice before it sank in what the editor was saying to me. She had LIKED my novel. It was a personal letter, not a form rejection slip. The editor praised my character development and dialogue. She also liked the story itself. However, she found the ending too convoluted for the age segment the story was aiming for, and would I be willing to revise the ending more to what she had in mind?
Would I?! Was she kidding me?? I started right to work that afternoon. I believe I was too excited to eat supper and certainly too keyed up to sleep much that night. But I still got up in the dark at 5:00 the next morning and went at it with all the enthusiasm I possessed. I just knew this was going to be my big break. Reluctantly, I put away my writing stuff at 7:00 and got ready for work.
This went on for a few weeks, and finally I had the redraft finished. I sent it off again, with a letter addressed to the editor who had originally written me, explaining the previous circumstances in case she had forgotten in the interim. My heart was singing with joy as I waited the next couple of months, bounding to the mailbox, every time I heard the mailbox lid clank open and shut. After the third month, my heart wasn’t quite so joyful. I sent a brief follow-up letter asking if they had received my manuscript.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Finally, about six to seven months later, I received an envelope from that publishing house. I had to take a few deep breaths before I could bring myself to open it. I pulled out the letter, then sat in stunned silence. I couldn’t believe it. Tears slid down my cheeks as I tried to read it again. It didn’t matter how many times I read it, it still stated the same thing. It was a FORM rejection slip, not even bearing my name or the title of my manuscript on it.
For a while, the pain was too intense to feel much else. It seemed like evil people far away had murdered my baby. I got terribly emotional, and finally the rage came. How dared they treat me like this, after I had, at their specific request, spent days and sleepless night and my heart’s blood, trying to fulfill their order. Not even the courtesy of a reply from the editor, nor even my name on the letter of rejection.
Unfortunately, the hurt and the rage lodged themselves inside me, just above my ribcage and slightly to the west of my heart. Sometimes it felt like indigestion; sometimes it felt like an emptiness that couldn’t be filled. I decided that publishing houses didn’t deserve to see my work. I started to concentrate more on my journalism and the odd short story. It pains me to say that I didn’t send out one more manuscript to a publishing house after that. Even considering doing that made me feel sick to my stomach. That was my dark secret.
Honestly, it did not occur to me once that, although the publishing house did not have a particularly good bedside manner, my behavior from then on was less than professional. It took Jeff’s article that I linked above and read just today to show me how I had probably undone my own writing career. I was somewhat successful in my journalism, winning an award for a series of health articles. I met with small successes in the self-publishing of my novel Witchcanery, both in awards and modest sales. But I never did gain that high-flying recognition that a bona-fide publishing house gives a writer. And I missed that.
I am a writer, but not what I envisioned all those decades ago. I’m much older now, and without the energy I used to have. But the more I participate in this workshop, the more I think that perhaps it’s just my habits that need revamping. It’s been a long time since I have felt such hope…this time for me as a writer and not some outside recognition. That will come.
Yesterday, one part of the exercise was to write down a phrase about what I personally am that makes me feel good. I hit upon a phrase, which shall remain my own mantra, but which makes me grin every time I look at it. This alone tells me it’s not too late
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I want to thank everyone who’s read this far for…um…reading this far. It’s a lot to get off my chest, but I had to do it publicly. Each one of you is part of the public. Soon, I hope, I’ll be giving you as much as you’re giving me.