What Being a Writer Has Taught Me So Far…Or How to Become a Circus Performer, by Lori Ann Palma

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I started writing seriously about ten years ago. And I use the word “seriously” to define the time I really attempted to begin a novel versus the twelve-year-old me who thought writing a book would be cool, but promptly gave up when I realized it was hard.

In those ten years, I’ve completed three manuscripts, published one short story, been rejected about a hundred times, and written over 75 blog posts. I’ve experienced highs and lows, and when I take in the entire ongoing experience, I can honestly say that the valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way have made this crazy ride worth every second.

As my writing career continues, I keep returning to these lessons to overcome fear, rejection, and deadlines. They’ve taught me to twist and adapt to my circumstances, which often feels like I’m training for the circus life instead of the writer’s life. Through the hurdles listed below, I’ve learned, and am still learning, how to be a writer who can perform under pressure.

Hurdle #1: Fear and Doubt Are Not My Friend. For as long as I’ve been writing, I still experience fear and doubt. I’ve learned it can happen at any time… before I start a project, in the middle, during the revision stage. Additionally, my reaction varies—it’s been minor in some instances and absolutely paralyzing in others. After years of starting and finishing projects, I’ve come to understand that fear is part of the process. It blooms from my own self-judgment, and once I realize this (all over again), I know I’m only battling the critical thoughts in my head and not actual truths.

  • Lesson Learned: Become a Human Cannonball. The lesson I’ve learned is that writing is the only cure for fear. Like a human cannonball, I now know that I must launch myself into the story, no holds barred, no judgments, and keep going despite my fears. Yes, it’s going to feel extremely uncomfortable shooting at a zillion miles an hour without seeing a landing point, but it works every time.

Hurdle #2: Editing is Way More Difficult Than I Thought. When I first completed a manuscript, I was on this amazing high. I’d finished something! The euphoria quickly evaporated when I read through my draft and realized it was a raging dumpster fire. The beautiful prose I thought I’d written didn’t exist, and the realization was terrifying and disheartening. At first, I didn’t like the editing process because it defied the fast-paced action of words flowing on the page, but what I’ve realized over time is that editing is a blessing. They call it revision because it allows you to make the vision in your mind become reality. Without editing, my characters would be flat, my theme would be nonexistent, and all the potential in my draft would go unrealized.

  • Lesson Learned: The Lion Tamer Has Nerves of Steel. The lesson I’ve learned is that it’s natural to fear the first draft beast. It might growl and take a few swipes, but I have the power to tame it if I’m willing to enter the cage. We may tussle and fight, and I may be frustrated and afraid and overwhelmed, but if I keep at it, we’ll eventually get along, and I’ll put on a better show for my readers.

Hurdle #3: Rejection is the Worst Feeling Ever. Ah, rejection. At first, I thought I’d whisk through the publishing process like a cloud through the sky. Um, no. The truth is that no writer gets out unscathed. When I got my first rejections from agents, it felt like acid eating my insides. I couldn’t do anything except struggle to understand why it happened to me. And my reaction didn’t improve for a long time because I continued to take rejection like a personal hatchet to my writing dream. Over the years, I’ve learned that rejection is inevitable if I continue to put my work out there, and more importantly, I have control over my experience of rejection. I can choose to see the negative, or I can take a moment to consider the positives—I’m working on my dream, I may have received valuable feedback, I now have an experience with a particular agent, or, at the very least, I know that this agent isn’t right for me.

  • Lesson Learned: Take a Cue from a Sword Swallower. When swallowing a sword, I have to imagine it’s something you do very carefully and thoughtfully. Rejection is the same way. Initially, my brain goes into a shame spiral, as if I’ve done something wrong, but when I take the time to think about it, I can pull myself out of that rut and see all the positive. It still hurts…I mean, sword swallowing doesn’t seem pleasant, but it’s a risk that does come with reward.

Hurdle #4: There Will Never Be Enough Time. I want to finish editing my WIP. I want to write another novel. I want to make tons of art. I want to blog and draft a non-fiction book and write epic tweets and Instagram my life. But…when? It’s impossible to do everything at once without turning into a harried and overworked mess, so I’ve learned that I must prioritize. For now, editing my WIP, my new web site, and social media are my priorities. Everything else has to wait, and that’s okay. For now, I can only do what I can do.

  • Lesson Learned: Professional Jugglers Are Super Smart. There’s a reason jugglers only juggle three or four bowling pins at a time—adding more increases the chances of dropping everything. I employ this same logic. If I juggle three things, I’ll glide along. If I add a fourth, I might not be able to handle it. Prioritizing is key.

Hurdle #5: Social Media Doesn’t Feel Very Social…It Feels Like Work. I’m managing three different social media networks right now, and the learning curve has been difficult. This hurdle is one that I’m still in the process of overcoming. What I’ve learned so far is that each network has its own set of rules, and I must adapt to those rules. I can’t sit back and wait for knowledge to come to me. I must seek it out instead.

  • Lesson (Still Being) Learned: Platform Divers Aren’t Afraid of Heights or Eyes. I think of the old timey divers at the turn of the century who would leap from a platform into a small pool of water, sometimes on a horse, as hundreds of audience members waited to be entertained. They might’ve been afraid, but they didn’t hesitate. Learning social media is like that as well. I’m finding that I have to dive in, make mistakes, and adjust while everyone watches.

Hurdle #6: This Is My Serious Writer Face. I’m not only a writer, but a serious writer who takes my work very seriously because I write serious YA. Ugh…sounds like a bore, right? This is what I’ve learned, too! Nobody wants to talk with someone who can’t lighten up and find humor in the fact that we hear voices in our heads and then write that stuff down. (Take the label of writer off of it, and you’re just weird.) Laughing is so important, and I wouldn’t have learned that without SCBWI EPA events where I’ve met other writers. I now know I can be serious about my writing without having to be serious all the time.

  • Lesson Learned: Being a Clown Is the Best Job Around, Who doesn’t love to laugh? And who doesn’t love to make others laugh? Being a clown doesn’t mean you can’t take your craft seriously…after all, even clowns must go to school. But they also know that fun is meaningful and brings people together. If I’m going to write, then I’m also going to have fun while I’m at it.

 

Now it’s your turn! What hurdle have you experienced, and what type of circus skill have you used to overcome it?

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10 Responses to What Being a Writer Has Taught Me So Far…Or How to Become a Circus Performer, by Lori Ann Palma

  1. rosecappelli says:

    What a great post, Lori! I enjoyed the circus comparisons and it really puts things in perspective. Thank you.

  2. L. Marie says:

    Thank you so much for writing this post. I can so relate. I’ve completed three novels and have been rejected over a hundred times. Persistence is the key!

  3. Kristen C.S. says:

    Fabulous analogies, Lori! What a great POV to put to the challenges of writing and getting published. Hmm…as for me I think I can add Tightrope Walker to the list. We hear so much about authenticity, the story only you can tell, the story you SHOULD tell, but also all of the stories that you SHOULD NOT tell. And even these come with caveats. In the end, there is a narrow path of success that we each follow, but the ability to keep stepping out on that rope, the weight of the dream bar that keeps us balanced, and the skill we master along the way that frees us to become more daring and walk to higher heights will eventually make us a show stopper. =)

  4. I can sympathize with some of these, and I appreciated your candid list of what you’ve accomplished over the last few years. You inspired me to do the same, and it’s helped me realign my priorities for the next few months. Thanks.

  5. Great post, Lori Ann! Count me among the fire eaters at the circus. Sometimes hearing the truth about your work is painful, but necessary to move forward. And you have to take baby steps so you don’t light your head on fire. 🙂

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