Rebuilding My Optimism Muscle

When I was writing the first draft of my first novel, I had big dreams. For one, I wanted it to be published in hardcover. I had published nonfiction in paperback and felt like I would finally be able to consider myself a “real” writer if I had a hardback. (It was 2001. Such ideas seemed to make sense back then. Now I know being published “only” in paperback is the writer’s equivalent of a first-world problem.) Also, I wanted a two-book deal, and I wanted the book to be optioned for a movie. Like I said, big dreams.

Over the next few years my dreams grew less grand. I stopped caring whether it came out in hardcover or paper and just wanted it published. Just this one novel. Forget a two-book deal. Then, as I got deeper into the thicket of rewrites, I stopped caring whether it got published at all. I just needed to make an agent’s cut, I figured. If I could do that, then, even if he or she couldn’t sell it, I’d know I was on the right track. By the last draft, I didn’t care if an agent ever read it. My only dream, my only goal, was to finish the damn thing.

Ironically (or maybe not so ironically, depending on your belief system), I got a lot of what I wanted. Two-book deal. Awards and great reviews. My first novel got optioned for a TV movie and even more amazingly, they actually made the TV movie.

But all that didn’t lead where I had hoped it would lead. My second novel didn’t do as well. The economy crashed. Technology changed. My editor got laid off. An editor at another house who wanted to buy my third novel based on a proposal got laid off. I wrote a partial draft of a sequel to my first novel and a treatment for a movie. Both almost happened, but didn’t. Friends shared similar sad tales. Every day it seemed like there was more bad publishing news. I started to suffer a crisis of faith. I felt like I had been led down at least two dead end paths. It was hard to keep any writing dream alive. Woe was me.

Then last year around this time I switched my focus a little, and went on Weight Watchers. I kept writing. In fact, after blogging a few times about writing through doubt, I got a deal with Agate Publishing to write a book on the subject. (Working title: The Not So Fearless Writer. If all goes well, look for it sometime next year.) I kept working on my novel-in-progress. But I also worked on getting my head and spirit right too. And it helped me see things in a new light.

Like losing weight, being a writer isn’t a one-and-done situation (unless you’re Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee or unless you want to be done after one). I’ve lost 49 pounds, but now I’ve got to keep it off. Just like I’m never done watching what I eat or making sure I get lots of exercise, I’m never done with the struggles that come with working and publishing. Even writers who “make it” have worries and hurdles to jump. They have to figure out how to write each new book, and with the added pressure of all the expectations of their legions of fans. (Even JK Rowling is nervous about what you’re going to think of her new book.)

Like I have to keep learning my craft even though I’ve written a few books, I have to keep working on my faith in myself and my work. Like any muscle, my optimism muscle will get flabby from lack of use. So to rebuild my optimism muscle:

  • I went back to just writing for myself. Just to finish. In fact, the working title of my novel is Every Good Wish, but I named the computer file “Every Good Wish for me” as a reminder that it’s for me that I’m finishing it. Oddly, thinking less about its commercial prospects, actually put me in a better mood about it and gives me more hopes about it being a good book (which does up its chances for commercial success). Tayari Jones went through a similar situation with her novel Silver Sparrow and blogged about it eloquently saying:

    It was a tricky thing because I had to think of why I wanted to actually experience it as an author, not why I thought the book needed to be in the world. What did I hope to get out of the process? Any reward would have to be in my own heart, because I had been pretty much assured that SILVER SPARROW wouldn’t see the light of day.

  • I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I read more novels this summer than I did all last year. Last month, I sent myself to the Elinor Lipman School of Writing by reading (or rereading) every novel of hers. Right now I’m reading The Cutting Season by Attica Locke, and it’s blowing me away. Reading good stuff makes me more optimistic.
  • Lastly, I got help for the woe that was clinical depression and not just being in a funk about publishing. It’s important to know the difference between moping too long and depression.

The stronger my optimism muscle gets, the more I write, and the stronger I become as a writer.

So fellow writers, how do you keep your optimism muscle strong?

0

About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey, which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother,” and Children of the Waters. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.

Comments

  1. says

    This really strikes me today — your empathy writer to writer is so powerful, thank you. I’m querying with results that don’t always match my hopes. And I’m also editing another WIP. It’s hard to keep my spirits up at times, and like you, I’ve developed a system — exercise and reading and turning to friends and family — to help me stay optimistic and focused on moving forward in a positive way. It’s nice to know other (more successful writers) go through these same ups and downs. Thank you again.

    0
    • says

      Julia, you’re right about exercise! That’s definitely part of keeping my spirits up. I feel the same way when I hear other writers published or not talk about their feelings and their process. It makes me feel less alone in my little room. Good luck with your querying, and with your other WIP! I definitely believe the more we try the luckier we get.

      0
  2. Kendra says

    It amazes me how often articles here on WU hit me right where I am, especially in regards to mental status. I was home sick from work yesterday and even though I wasn’t healthy enough to manage a classroom of third graders, I was sure I could at least handle some revisions on my WIP. Wrong.

    Maybe it was the fact that I was fuzzy-headed from not being able to breathe, or the body aches and general fatigue, but I knew it was more than that. I was depressed over the whole darn thing.

    Finally, after multiple doses of Dayquil and several energy shots, I went back to my plot. Then I went back to the initial spark that started the entire novel (SIX years ago). Then I went back and looked at my world building – and I was kind of impressed with myself. There, in my bed surrounded by tissues, thermometers, and books on writing, I fell in love with my character’s world again. I went back to writing for myself, too. And I couldn’t be happier about it. Isn’t that when we all do our best work, after all?

    0
    • says

      I’m not a teacher, but your comments hit home! I’ve wallowed on that bed so many times. Like you, I have to work at being in love with the work–and that work is delicate work.

      It helps that I’ve summed up my biggest obstacle simply–I make negative comparisons to other writers–it could be over ANYTHING– I call those negative comparisons “thorns.” I can actually feel them in my gut or head or wherever. The latest is about now my stories are too simple, don’t reveal much knowledge of the workings of the world…a la (*Writer du Jour*)…

      Depression over writing is single biggest challenge we have. Whether we need to knock down Dayquil or lose weight, we have to be subtle and smart about how to keep buoyant.

      Great post, Carleen–thanks for getting so to the point!

      0
    • says

      Wow, way to kick that cold & funky mood in the ass! For me too sometimes the key is to just stick with the work and write my way through the mood–focusing on forgetting about the outcome often helps. Good for you!

      0
  3. says

    Today I saw my name in print for the very first time. I have just sold my first for-payment piece to The Big Issue and there I am, in the My Word column.

    Coolness.

    But already there’s that “Can I do it again?” thang? I sort of always knew that thinking “If I can just get published once then …”
    would just translate itself out into the next thing, so that even if I manage to publish eleventy nine novels and have my own syndicated gabfest on TV I will still always feel like that.

    In a way I think it’s good. It’s like page stagefright. Keeps you a little fresh and appreciative :)

    0
  4. says

    Yes, yes, yes. I’m currently sinking into the thicket of lessening expectations. I feel like I need a road map to steer me back to productive rewrites and hope and away from the lurking literary depression. My optimism muscle needs some serious rehab. Thank you for reminding me that if we push through the pain, we will grow stronger.

    0
    • says

      You reminded me of that old SNL skit “Lowered Expectations” about the dating service for less attractive people. Did you ever see it? YouTube it for a laugh–laughing helps with that optimism muscle.

      0
  5. says

    Thank you for this. It’s so easy to feel like a stuck bear (imagine Winnie the Pooh stuck halfway in and halfway out of Rabbit’s den) at any stage in the publishing journey — I know I am now. I needed this encouragement today.

    To add to the things mentioned, as I’m a religious person, I’d add prayer to the list of things to do to build the optimism muscle.

    And yes to the reading lots. It’s amazing what experiencing a novel as a reader can do to help me remember why I’m a writer in the first place.

    0
  6. says

    I just love the idea of “the optimism muscle” and how, just like our bodies and spirits, it needs to be stretch and worked and nurtured.

    I was in a real rut and funk with my writing for quite awhile. I decided to to go the Breakout Novel Intensive in Orlando to shake things up, figuring one way or another I would find myself on a new or a better path. And it absolutely did the trick. It was just what my optimism muscle needed. :)

    0
    • says

      As much as I love working with the Breakout Novel Workbook I can’t even imagine how helpful the class was! Good for you for going! And good luck with your work!

      0
  7. says

    I like to read on a daily basis as part of work. It is easy to get bogged down in all the “hard” aspects of this job. Sometimes it feels like the world is up against you. However, when I read…it’s like that whole magical world of words opens up again and I relax. I melt into someone else’s story and it gives me hope for my own. My pessimism often disintegrates and I can breathe in optimistic air again.

    0
  8. says

    Great post, Carleen. I’m so glad to hear the optimism muscle can be rebuilt; mine has become a little flabby over the last few years. I think I’ve known that the missing element in my toning diet is writing that’s strictly for myself, but hearing the cure so clearly and continuing to ignore it will be difficult. Thanks for the needed kick. (And I am truly looking forward to The Not So Fearless Writer!)

    0
  9. says

    One thing I do now is remind myself that I’ve done it before; I go back and read good reviews of my published stuff, even read pieces that I wrote. It seems I have to do this at least once or twice with each new manuscript–I get somewhere in the middle and wonder how I can possibly find my way to an ending that works and why anyone would want to read it.

    0
    • says

      Very much the same here. I have to remind myself that I always feel like that too. Even with jobs. Yet somehow I figure it out. Good luck with your writing and thanks for sharing!

      0
  10. says

    Carleen,
    Thank you for this inspiring piece and putting yourself out there. Congrats on the weight loss and with all the accomplishments you’ve made.
    Just when I think my optimism muscle as atrophied, I find something that reignites that spark. I agree reading great writing can do that, too.
    I love your writing and I look forward to whatever comes next!

    0
  11. says

    Really interesting post, and actually, very accurate. Like most of the other writers commenting, I found your experience echoed mine, Carleen.

    I especially find that reading a lot helps boost that optimism muscle and certainly writing *for me* rather than for any notion of what the world might want is the way to go.

    Thank you for sharing!
    Shauna Gilligan

    0
  12. says

    Beautiful post, Carleen. Thank you for the reminders.

    And, as someone who also struggles to manage depression, I applaud your willingness to seek help AND your desire to be honest about it. We writers are a sensitive-brained bunch . . . we wouldn’t able to be good writers with any other kind of brain. Still, there’s that nasty little stigma.

    Thank you!

    0
  13. Carmel says

    This may help someone else who plans to self-publish. When I slow down on my wip and get discouraged, I open my ‘cover art’ folder and look over all the snippets I’ve collected that will someday be a part of my cover — artwork, favorite fonts, covers of published books that have the same flavor I want mine to have, etc. After looking these over, the story feels solid and real again. Plus I try to remember something Donald Maass said (misquoting but hopefully not misconstruing) – Respect the good your work will do in the world. Those two things get me moving again.

    0
    • says

      Yes, yes, yes to “Respect the good your work will do in the world.” When I’m in the right (write?) frame of mind, I very much believe that the ideas and messages I’m trying to explore are important and meaningful and I should respect that. Thanks for adding that to the conversation!

      0
  14. says

    Yes! I feel that I’ve learned this lesson late, but better late than never. The need to feel that optimism muscle isn’t just a personal failure, but rather a thing that every writer needs, no matter how successful. (paperback as first world problem… LOL!)

    0
  15. says

    Thank you, Carleen, for this post. I’ve found that one more thing that helps me “flex” that optimism muscle is to change my routine (ex. modify writing time, play with writing exercises, join a new writing group). This made perfect sense to me when I thought about Albert Einstein’s quote on insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    Good luck to you, and congratulations on your successes.

    0
  16. says

    Oh my, did you hit on all the buttons! We all hear of the difficulties of finding an agent/publisher and think we will escape them. Not so! :)
    I particularly relate to your first way of rebuilding your optimism muscle: going back to writing for yourself.
    Author Ray Bradbury once said: “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
    I keep his words taped to my computer — just in case I need a reminder!

    0
  17. says

    I’m busy with rewrites of my first novel. At this point I’m wondering how long it takes the average person to rewrite and polish a novel because it feels like I will NEVER FINISH THIS THING. It’s been almost a year since I wrote the first word, so I’m getting somewhere if not S L O W L Y.

    0
    • says

      “Almost a year” isn’t very long at all for a first draft. And as far as I know there are no averages for how long a book takes. Try to be kind to yourself and keep writing. I got this out of a fortune cookie and taped it on my desk: Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still. Good luck!

      0
  18. says

    Carleen,

    There were so many points I found encouraging. I also experienced a shift in my dream of being published.

    Initially I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t as excited as I thought I’d be about getting a 2-book publishing deal with a digital-first publisher. I realized it was because my inner critic was telling me it was only real if I had an agent and a whopping advance from a traditional publisher.

    But times have changed. The industry is in a constant state of flux.

    I still dream of seeing my book on a shelf as a hardcover and being optioned for a movie. But I understand there are now many paths that lead to this goal and I’m okay with that.

    0
    • says

      Many congratulations to you on getting published!! Keep going and who knows…maybe you’ll see your next book on a shelf, or maybe you’ll decide seeing your name on the screen is plenty!

      0
  19. says

    As a person who let her dream of writing take a back burner for years, mostly because of fright, it reassures me when I read an article like yours. I am not frightened because I am a bad writer, I am frightened because I am a writer! Period! Now that I’m a bit older I have become focused on my writing again. With the hope and dream of becoming published.

    I will NOT let my fear get in my way again. Its just nice to know that even experienced writers have fears. I hope to see my work published, but I know now that I need to write for ME, and not write to just be published (does this make sense?) Thank you!

    Jackie

    0
    • says

      Sure it makes sense Jackie. Fear seems to come with the territory, but I find that the more I write the less scary the writing gets. I still have many bouts where I’m sitting there thinking why in the heck did I think I could do this? But if I stay with it, I figure it out again. I’m sure you will too. Best of luck!

      0
  20. says

    What a great post, Carleen, and congratulations on the weight loss! My “day job” is planning events for WW, and I led meetings for 5 years, so I was particularly taken by your analogy. It’s very true. Staying positive even when the going is rough works wonders on many things.

    Thanks for this reminder to keep our chins up, and good luck with your new novel, whichever route you decide to take.

    0
    • says

      Greetings sister WW! I used WW online and set a goal to stay on it for one year, which I have achieved. I’m in maintenance now. I’ll re-evaluate in the spring to see if I want to go for more. The most important thing for me is to be realistic about what I can maintain forever.

      0
      • says

        That’s exactly what I’ve advised countless folks who come to meetings to do. Finding a weight where you’re happy and can stay is much more important than fitting into your prom dress again. Congrats again!

        0
  21. says

    What I find interesting is how often a change for health in one area gives energy and new direction for another. It’s not readily apparent to me how it begins, just that it does. That’s how I keep my optimism muscle strong–believing a +1 positive change in anything can ripple out in ways I can’t foresee. I can almost always make a +1 change.

    Congrats, Carleen. Lots to celebrate in this post. *gives you a high five*

    0
    • says

      I believe you’re right, Jan! I know people in 12 step programs emphasis that idea too. Get better in one area and it radiates out. I find that the more I do of a thing, the more I do of it. Energy begets energy. Thanks for the high 5!

      0
  22. says

    Oh, yes. As Annie Dillard once so beautifully said, “A thousand times yes.”

    Thank you, Carleen, for reminding us all again why we do this writing work.

    Because we love this writing work.

    0
  23. says

    With your successful weight loss you must be glowing with confidence. Congratulations, Carleen! The more confidence a writer has the more power to flex that optimism muscle.

    0
    • says

      My weight loss feels really good. Some days I’m glowing with confidence, but mostly I’m focused on keeping it off. It only feels like the first part of the process, right? If I gain it all back, then it won’t be that great of an accomplishment. It’s an ongoing, one-day-at-a-time thing and meeting this first part does feel great. thanks! Maybe you have a point like Jan: building confidence in one area might lead to feeling more confident in other areas!

      0
  24. says

    Carleen,

    I stumbled across your posting, and it made me smile. It could not have come at a better time, as I am beginning to test the lit agent-publishing waters for my now-complete novel. Optimism fluctuates from day to day, hour to hour.

    What keeps me writing even after finishing this thing and not quite knowing what to do with myself is: 1.) a love for my characters, new and old, and wanting to do right by them, and 2.) getting pulled into another scintillating tale that keeps my mind off the minutiae and reenergizes my brain. Two such tales this year were Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Stand by Stephen King.

    If I can happen upon a great story, I know it will all turn out all right.

    -Jillian

    0
    • says

      Hey Jillian! Reading/hearing part of your book this summer (along with the stuff from the rest of the class) definitely pumped up my optimism muscle. Glad to hear you’re still working on it!

      0
  25. Ronda Roaring says

    I live near Ithaca, NY, which likes to consider itself “the Berkeley of the East.” Around here, many of the writers meditate. I recommend it highly for connecting with your inner self and focusing on your goals. It can clear your mind and allow you to be more creative.

    0
    • says

      Ronda, slowly, oh so slowly, I’m dipping a toe in the meditation waters. I do a little guided imagery stuff or sometimes I can sit a breathe for a few minutes. Excellent addition to this discussion! Thanks for the reminder!

      0
  26. sopheansoeun says

    I’m glad that after so long, you were able to accomplish your dreams. I feel as writers, we tend to dream big. I have the same dreams that you had, and I’m on the course that you were on so many years ago. After reading this article though, I feel like I can look forward to the future of my writing as long as I believe in it just as you did.

    0
  27. says

    I think this was an excellent post because you capture the mercurial nature of publishing and writing. After thirty years in the business, I, too, have had my ups and downs.

    I worry about many of the comments, however. I feel as though they may have missed the point (or, perhaps it’s I who has missed the point?). My take from your post was not to hope. Write because it’s meaningful to you. Work hard and, certainly, do whatever you possibly can to bring your books to others because you’ve written them to be read, of course. But don’t hope. That sounds mean, but I don’t intend to be hopeLESS. Hope implies that your success must come in predetermined ways.

    Instead, write because you’re a writer. Work hard. Release the work to the world. Then….keeping writing because you truly want to.

    ????

    0
    • says

      I don’t intend to tell people to lose hope or keep hope. I think I wanted to show that the business has ups and downs and writers (like everyone else) go through ups and downs, as you say. But if my post gave people hope they can achieve getting published or getting a movie option deal, then more power to them. Maybe they will. Ultimately, what’s within their control is writing the best books they can and whatever they need to believe to keep writing is fine by me. Though I’d caution against believing that getting published was going to change them in some profound way. Anne Lamott has a great essay in Bird by Bird about this–after getting published or having a movie with your name on it, you’re still the same person. For good and for ill.

      0

Trackbacks