Earlier today, I received an email from a friend and colleague in which she lamented the latest obnoxious attention-grab of another writer.
Last week, I spent a good hour or so with a different writer parsing out all the reasons why still another “writer” could possibly be so popular. His writing is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, his observations and advice are obvious, and his descriptions are so boring that I’d almost rather read the obituaries.
This–the tendency to lose time and energy by devoting it to someone else who is really only a peripheral figure in my life–is a little frightening.
Before I continue, let me make something clear: What I’m talking about here is not jealousy or any sort of professional envy. I have nothing but respect for people who have reached their goals and attained success by exerting the kind of effort that involves putting your ass on a chair in front of a computer screen or a pad of paper every single day (or almost) and really committing all of their powers of observation and skill to their craft. People like Liz Eslami, who published her first novel, Bone Worship, earlier this year. Or Sarah Menkedick, who was just accepted to an MFA program. Or George Singleton, one of my former creative writing teachers, who has been published in Oxford American, has published a few books since the old days, and who has generally done well for himself. Or my college poetry professor, Ha Jin, who has become a literary darling in this country. Or … I could go on and on.
No. What I’m talking about is a frustration with what may seem to be comparably slow progress. But as the very wise Lola Akinmade told me once over lunch, “They’re not doing what you want to be doing anyway, so why devote your energy to thinking about them?”
The way I see it, there are three skills you need to master apart from your actual craft if you intend to be creative for a living (these apply equally to any type of artist):
3. Developing the ability to remain undistracted.
These aren’t skills you necessarily pick up in nice, neat, progressive stages; they overlap. They’re messy. You think you’ve got them down and then, kerplut. And then… up again.
Discerning simply means deciding who you are, what you’re meant to do, and why. I am a writer. I am meant to write. I am meant to use my writing primarily to tell the stories that other people can’t, to tell stories that are overlooked, that are complicated.
Defining means determining how you’re going to direct all of your efforts as a creative person who has discerned her/his vocation. That sounds pretty easy, but it’s surprisingly torturous for many creatives, especially those of us who rightfully resist being pigeonholed. Here’s the important caveat: You can have many definitions, and they can change. You can even have discrete definitions for each of your projects. For example, I have a friend who’s an exceptional writer, whose writing is of such originality and such quality that she should have a massive print audience. But that’s just my opinion. She prefers digital outlets, one reason being that she retains more creative and editorial control. That’s how she has defined herself and it is absolutely the right decision for her.
Finally, there’s the don’t get distracted part, and this may be the toughest of all. You know who you are and what your goals are, but every single day there’s stuff happening around you that could just flatten you and send you straight back to bed because it makes you nutty.
But why? All that does is siphon off your energy, and I don’t know about you, but I just value my energy way too much to keep giving it away.
I could spend a bunch of hours monetizing my blogs, focused more on SEO than on subjects that actually interest me. But when I look at my definition of myself and what I want to be doing, that’s not who I am… not even if it means making more money (which, by the way, I’m not convinced it does).
Hype is hype and eventually fizzles out. And even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. The world’s really big enough for all of us, we each bring something unique to bear on it, and ultimately life is just way too short to give yourself away.