...and other posionous lies the books will tell you
As an author, I'm always looking for tips on how to "make it". Writing's no different from most walks of life like that. And in writing as in regular life, these are two things I come across all the time. Almost as much as I hear it on sports commentary ("she won because she wanted it more").
Of course it's baloney. I won't say why here, because I've promised that post to How Publishing Really Works' Bad Science series (suffice to say it's to do with a basic misunderstanding of causation and correlation).
What I want to say here is something more serious. This kind of motivational mumbo-jumbo is plain dangerous. It ruins lives, and if I hear or read you pddling it, I WILL call you out on it.
OK, so why? Surely we all need a good kick up the backside. We all need to be inspired! Well, yessirree of course we do. When I read about Einstein beavering away in his patent office on relativity, Catherine O'Flynn sitting typing away in the shopping mall and coming up with What Was Lost, I get inspired, and I think, well yes, there's hope for me yet.
There is nothing - repeat, nothing - so inspiring as a role-model. Someone like us. A nobody who shares our uncertainties and our frailties, and overcomes them to triumph. They can push us to persevere just that little bit longer, to work just that little bit harder.
But suppose we don't make it after all the work and the perseverance. What happened? Why did we fail? Well, the answer's simple if you believe the self-helpers. If those who want it enough succeed, then if we don't succeed it's because we didn't want it. If you make your own luck, then if you get unlucky it's your fault.
I'm sure it's all well-meaning. "Yeah, but I didn't mean it like that," is an answer I often get from the well-meaners when I pick them up. But if you don't mean the sucky flipsdide, then the fluffy upside's worth precisely zero.
One of the hardest lessons we can ever learn, is the importance of drawing a line and saying "I will NEVER succeed at this." I'm never going to beat Usain Bolt in a sprint. No matter how hard I try and how much I want it. My legs are just too short. And it's the same with writing. Millions of people want to be writers. but not everyone has got what it takes to make it. Ever. Whcih doesn't mean they should stop writing - just like my inability to outbolt Bolt doesn't mean I should stop jogging. It DOES mean it's just plain cruel for friends, family, and so-called help books to carry on telling them "of course you'll make it, just try a little bit harder". So they try and they try and devote their whole life to it and one day they wake up and they're 80 and disappointed, and they realise that actually if they'd tried to make it as a cross-stitcher instead they might have done it. Only they were too busy being encouraged to flog a dead horse.
So now it's my turn to play guru. Before you decide you want to make it as a writer, do the following:
1. Decide what you mean by "make it"
2. Give yourself a timeframe in which to achieve this. Make it realistic. It WILL take time. If you want to have something published it may take a year or so of hard work; if you want to give up your day job it's more likely to take 5-10.
3. Set milestones for yourself so you can see if you're on track.
4. Get going, and be a human sponge (more on this next week)
So what do you do if you're not meeting those milestones? Well, it might be that you're not working hard enough - of course it might - but when you set the milestones you should work out how much time you realistically have and set them accordingly. Nonetheless, experience might mean you have to tinker. Carry on, workl hard, and find you're still struggling? OK, maybe the answer is you're not doing it smart enough. Maybe you've got a great blog but no one's reading it. Or you're writing amazing books on a subject no one wants to read about. Experiment, change your approach, try and be smarter.
Get to the end of your 5 years of hard, smart work, and still nothing? You know what? Keep writing, keep loving your writing, but DRAW THE LINE and see if there isn't something else you CAN make a go of.
Put it like this. If you saw someone who's five foot nothing slogging themselves to death in the park for 6 hours every day; pushing themselves to tears every time you see them; and someone standing there telling them to damn well try harder, what would you do? Ball them out or call the police? So why, when roomfuls of struggling writers undergo the same treatment, resulting in the same tears, is it called self-help?