I have been thinking a lot lately about failure, quitting, and managing expectations. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from the individual all-around competition for her mental health has me thinking about that a lot lately. When a public figure gets vulnerable about their mental health, it gives us regular folk permission to consider our mental health, too. Mental health still carries a great stigma; when you talk about it, people always want to know if you’re okay when they don’t hear from you, and they treat you with kid gloves or want to fix you, if they mean well. If they don’t mean well - well, just look at how Ms. Biles was treated.
I’ve quit a lot of things in my life; but that happens when you take a lot of risks. I was going to stay another year to teach English in Japan when I was 23, but I came home instead when my contract ended; I didn’t really like teaching, in the end. Classroom management? No bathroom breaks? No thanks. I quit a career as a journalist and PR specialist because it turns out when criticism about your creative work is tied to your livelihood, you have to have a very thick skin.
And sometimes a writing career is not the dream career that hobbyists imagine, even though it laid a good foundation for me and made me realize what I wanted to do with both my writing and my career. I wanted an income to pay the bills, which would in turn fund my fiction and art. And I do enjoy my job; I always end up doing something that involves public service in my career, and that makes it meaningful. Quitting wasn’t a failure; it was just a lesson. It propelled me in the right direction.
But let’s talk about writing. This year, writing has been a struggle. Last year I worked through pandemic mush brain by writing and submitting a number of short stories; I even got a few published. This year I decided to focus on finishing a novella or a novel, something longer. But those take much more mental stamina, a sort of steely determination and persistence through self doubt and excuses. And they are an entirely different art form. I probably should spend as much time on my short stories, refining them until they are perfect, but there is something so much more satisfying in some ways about short fiction.
I started a steampunk novel before I lost interest at 30,000 words. I moved on to a grimdark fantasy. This one is now 20,000 words and still in the running. I started a horror novella for Camp NaNoWriMo, thinking it would be easier to manage completing a draft of 40,000 words than 100,000 words. End of July and I have 9,257 words in the novella. I am still feeling good about it. Sometimes I think I let myself be influenced too much by what I think the market wants, but if you don’t think about the market at all, you’d better be happy with obscurity.
I’ve also tried Patreon twice, before I realized I couldn’t hack the pressure of the monthly obligation. It didn’t bother me writing for a small audience, but it was like producing a literary magazine, only you are responsible for all the content. To make Patreon worth it, you have to have content weekly that you can market, and that attracts new Patrons to try you out; or you have to have a large platform already. Another failure, but really a learning experience, instead. I was doing too much. I may however revive my Buy Me A Coffee page and offer one freebie a month and the rest for subscribers. I do still want to write enough short stories for a collection, and I love the form. It could be a good break from the novel.
But writing in fits and starts has taught me one thing. I now understand why people say to write every day, even if it is just 200 words, or opening a blank Word document. Writing is a practice, like building up your balance or muscles through regular yoga or weight lifting. Passion is only worth anything if it can be executed. But, too, you must acknowledge that there is privilege in being able to write every day. If you take a few days off, it is very hard to get back into the flow again. It is easy to say you are too tired, your children need you, you need to clean the kitchen.
There, too, comes time for a caveat. Writing every day is also a slog, and a burden. It can be hard on your mental health, especially if you have a family, a full time job, pets and friends. We aren’t writing robots. I had an argument with a troll online recently; I am not hurt by it, it just made me think. I raised his ire when I argued for perspective when he disliked a term I used. He accused me of not caring about the craft enough if I didn’t care about words. It’s true, I do take criticism personally; something I am trying to acknowledge and work on. I’m insecure about my writing. I sometimes fire off texts without proofreading and I can be misunderstood when I use a comma wrong. But we also have to acknowledge that we are human with mental health needs. We need to give ourselves permission to fail. We need to give ourselves permission to make typos; that’s why we have editors. We need to give ourselves permission to use the wrong word every now and then.
Otherwise, how can we learn? How can we grow? How can we improve? Ego assumes perfection is the default mode. Humility acknowledges that mistakes and failures give us strength to recognize our successes and reach for greater heights.
Managing social media for mental health
Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay
Speaking of mental health, one thing I have been working on is managing my boundaries with social media.
Social media is a difficult one for writers. It takes so much time. It’s designed to be addicting, the algorithm rewarding clout-chasers, trolls and bad-faith arguments. We find ourselves constantly checking for notifications for that magic coin of validation, thinking it will help us feel better about ourselves. We hate drama even as we ogle it.
Some would say, if social media is that bad for your mental health, just quit it. There are other ways to market your books. And this really is true. I quit Facebook for two years. I didn’t miss much about it. Even now I’m not that active on it. Twitter is my Kryptonite. It comes with mainly communicating with friends via texting instead of calling them on the phone, so Twitter feels more real, I suppose, even if it is a public forum.
This week I have been trying to detox from social media, using it only lightly. I am trying to detox a lot of areas of my life. Drink less, exercise consistently. Be more mindful. All that kind of stuff. The state of the world is just dreadful. Restrictions are coming back with the coronavirus Delta variant becoming more of a concern; enough people have refused to get vaccinated that they are holding us vaccinated folks hostage. It’s frustrating. And politics is so polarized these days. Either you are a critical social justice warrior who sees everything as a power struggle, or you are a Trumpian Republican whose identity is threatened, and if you are not either of these, you are not liberal enough, nor conservative enough. We don’t know how to have thoughtful discussions anymore; we just shout at each other, blame each other and judge each other. It’s depressing.
Social media can be a microcosm of that real-world climate. But it can also bring good things to our lives. It helps hold me accountable with my writing progress. I do write more when I’m active. It’s less socially isolating; I don’t know that many writers in real life. Twitter brings me into contact with nerdy writers who think like I do. It also offers me a global perspective. Thanks to Twitter, I know what Australians think about their government.
Long story short, if you don’t have good boundaries with social media, you only notice the drama and negativity. If you do have good boundaries with social media, you hardly notice it at all. Boundaries are essential for writers who wish to market their work with social media. So that’s one thing I’ve been working on.
I mostly just did book reviews for my blog this month but I have been reading some great stuff. I am back on a reading kick. When I am reading more, that usually motivates me to write more, so that’s a positive thing.
Book Review: All About The Benjamins by Zev Good - literary, contemporary, family, LGBT
Book Review: In Solitude’s Shadow by David Green - grimdark fantasy
Graphic Novel Review: Dreaming Eagles - historical fiction
Usually I set word count goals, but this year I’m going to try something a little different. This month my goal is merely to write every day. Exercise more. Drink less. Moderate screen time. Focusing on myself. I also want to do more photography, another creative area I have been inconsistent in, and go out kayaking more on my new tandem kayak with my partner.
When the world is chaos, sometimes the only thing you can control is yourself, even if your brain is a mess. Sometimes it is a kind of power, in the end, to realize that you are not invincible, to manage your own expectations. To consider the lessons, not the failures.