A few weeks ago, I re-dyed the gray from my hair, got new glasses and a full set of braces, complete with turbos that keep my molars from touching in an effort to correct a pretty strong overbite. I joked with my husband that in my attempt of rocking the mid-life crisis, I’d gone back a decade too far, hanging out around 12-13 instead of 22-23.
None of these things would be categorized by many people as “fun”, but many would agree that the reward will be worth it. My vision prescription had changed a little, but the lenses were no longer able to be all the way clean. The gray will come back, but for a little while, I don’t have to lean in to see how much is present (I know, many people rock their gray. But I got the cross between a brown and gray mouse gray which is NOT CUTE). And in two years, I will have teeth that are straight, secure, and the stress in my jaw that was impacting my neck and giving me headaches will be a thing of the past.
But to have all three things happen in the same week definitely felt like a setback, and it reminded me of when I took my story to my critique partners and they all, hesitantly, told me that the voice and scope of what I was trying to tell didn’t work. I’d started the story too early, which I’d suspected, but 40k in, I didn’t want to think it was all for nothing.
The next day, I’d participated in an online workshop where Donald Maass was giving assignments and then feedback on the assignments. In a comment, he made the point of the suggested age of characters within women’s fiction, and mine were too young, the story too focused on everything that was leading them to where I wanted them to end up. I was telling too much to try and span the time and that’s just one of the places where I was losing my writing voice.
I paced my backyard, mumbled curse words under my breath, and then plopped in the metaphorical physician’s chair and started really looking at my story. The only way to improve what I had was to start over.
All the way over.
I ended up writing the book that allowed me to sign with my agent. I was able to work some of the things I’d written in as flashbacks to showcase character better. It was absolutely a setback, but it was the only way that I was going to be able to improve that story.
This tends to be the time of year when we are looking back at what happened, looking forward to what we would like to have happen. It’s tempting to focus on setbacks, to think about things that we tried to accomplish but didn’t.
I love Michael Hyatt’s This is Your Life podcast, and in a recent episode, he talked about the necessary quality to achieve goals. One part that stuck with me he borrowed from his own mentor Dan Sullivan who said, “Measure the gain, not the gap.” Instead of focusing on how far we are from achieving what we want, we need to hone in on what we HAVE accomplished. Sure, you may not have acquired that agent you desire, but how did the story improve? Did you add more words? Understand the nuances of writing and craft and marketing better than you did a year ago?
And really? Celebrate those improvements.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says, “You don’t just get to leap from bright moments to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going to great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.”
There are going to be steps back, things that happen in our story, to our character development, in our journey toward publication, in the reception of our work. The creative life isn’t a montage of greatness, but ebbs and flows of progression.
The ultimate goal is to focus on our gains, figure out how we made them happen, and strive to repeat that achievement, to continually and consistently keep improving.
What do you do to keep your eye focused on improvement?
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.