In the past decade I got married, bought a house, bought my first car, lost my dream job, got a new dream job, published a bunch of short stories, and wrote even more. I learned a lot about life and writing. But without a doubt the most essential writing lesson I’ve taken from my first full decade as an adult and a serious writer is that everything is secondary to doing the work.
Writing is what matters. Showing up at the page or the screen on a regular basis and putting words down. Daydreaming on my commute about characters or stories. Scribbling notes furiously in the middle of the night when inspiration strikes, only to wake in the morning and wonder what the hell I was thinking.
Put another way, the essential writing lesson is this: The process and the practice are what matter.
Publication, being read, “success”, “failure,” praise, critique—all of that is hollow if your creative practice isn’t a sustaining, nourishing force in your life.
This doesn’t mean publication is pointless, or that connecting with readers through your work is meaningless. It just means it’s not the most important thing in a writing life. It’s so incredibly easy to lose sight of that.
No one sees us writing. No one measures our success by the number of words we write or the hours we spend revising. The outside world, non-writers, only measure our productivity by what we publish and present to the world.
At the beginning of the 2010s, I thought for sure I’d have a published book by the time I was 30. I didn’t bother setting other goals for myself, because I didn’t think any other goals mattered. And failing to meet that goal took a toll on my mental health, over and over. First when my weird hybrid memoir/short story collection didn’t sell, and then when I felt like my second collection would never sell.
I broke down sobbing more than once while driving to and from work because I was sure, to my core, that my work didn’t matter. That my book would never see the light of day. That no one cared. That I was an utter and complete failure who couldn’t even get a good job.
I was wrong, of course. My work does matter. Readers have told me as much. Mentors have encouraged me and cheered me on, even when they had their own busy lives to lead. Even if that book never does see the light of day, it still matters. And it took awhile, but dammit, I got that good job.
And here I am at the beginning of the 2020s, still without a published book, still struggling, often, to show up and do the work. But there are other ways to measure time, and success, and failure. To be clear, this isn’t me being bitter or trying to rationalize my feelings over not having a book yet. I’m still confident I can find a home for my short story collection, but if ultimately I can’t, there’s always the next book. Or the next next book. Most importantly, I haven’t given up, so I haven’t failed.
Again. It’s the process that matters. The brainstorming, and drafting, and revising, and revising again, and trashing it all to start over fresh, and going through those steps over and over again until the story is as true as it can be.
Because perfection is meaningless. No story is perfect. The best we can hope for is work that’s true and a practice that sustains us.
If you’re struggling, know that you matter. Your work matters. You are enough. Wherever you are in the process, in your life, in your writing, you’re enough.
Here’s to a new decade full of words.