Writing has always been the easy part for me. Living? Not so much.
Being a person is hard. The world around us is chaotic and precarious. Our inner worlds are fraught with anxiety and self-doubt. How do we navigate these challenging landscapes?
I’ve turned inward for much of my life, using the anxiety and self-doubt to fuel stories that provide catharsis for my psyche. In addition, I’ve been fortunate to have found an audience and to be able to support myself financially with these stories. As a writer I’ve been productive, fairly easy going and generally calm and happy for almost half a century. But as a woman, a mother and a person on this planet, I struggle daily.
I’ve often thought that if I could apply what I know about being a writer to my life, I’d have it made. So I’ve defined five principles I use in my work in the hopes that I’ll be able to more consciously live by them. Here they are:
1. Don’t Judge Yourself Too Harshly
When I write a book I try to be very kind to myself. This doesn’t mean self-indulgence, except in the very early stages when I’m discovering ideas to write about. I tell my students that great books come from deep obsessions, so it’s important to allow yourself to explore the things that fascinate you. However, after the first rough draft or outline (depending on your level of expertise), it’s time to think about shaping those obsessions into a story that is compelling for others as well. This entails a conscious understanding of the basic principles of good writing.
After the book is published, we writers need to continue to remember not to judge ourselves too harshly because no matter who we are, we are going to get some bad reviews and we can’t internalize them and let them stop us from writing the next book.
2. Learn From Criticism
As important as it is not to let criticism (from ourselves or others) stop us from creating, it’s just as important to be able to learn and grow from well-meaning advice. Every writer needs a good editor, someone who can respectfully and constructively define the weaknesses of a book and point us in the direction of correcting them, while honoring the integrity of the writer and their project. The writer’s job is to apply the changes that resonate and not to take a defensive or closed-minded stance.
3. Lead With Your Heart But Use Your Head
In today’s challenging publishing climate, where writers are expected to create commercial work that is often derivative of bestsellers, it’s hard to maintain your integrity and make a living (or even just get published!). Even commercial projects must have heart and soul or they will fall flat. At the same time, we have to tailor our pet projects to meet the needs of the market. Both of these are difficult but possible.
4. Don’t Give Up
Some of my best work has taken years and years of conceptualizing and re-writing. The Elementals is a book I’ve been trying to write since my early twenties and I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of drafts of a Weetzie Bat screenplay. The movie still hasn’t been made but I keep trying. At the same time, I don’t let my yet unrealized goal keep me from pursuing new projects.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
My early drafts are a mess! But I always call them “done” if I’ve worked hard on them and have a beginning, a middle and an end. Then I have a friend or my editor read them and go back to fix everything. Even after a book is published, there might be things you wish you could fix but don’t spend time worrying about it; go on to write a better book the next time!
Now all I have to do is be as kind to myself as I am to others, keep an open heart and a cool head, continue to fight for what I need and allow myself to make some messes along the way. Actually, when I look at it like that, life really doesn’t sound so hard.
Francesca Lia Block is the author of twenty-eight books, with four more forthcoming. She is the recipient of the ALA Lifetime Achievement Award, among other awards, and is published all over the world.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Sage Photography.