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Learning to Wait Well: A Pragmatist’s Guide to Easing the Ugh

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photo by Martijn van den Bemt

I want to talk today about waiting, and not just because I’m yet again standing on the shore of A Long Wait. (Okay, partially because I’m standing on the shore of A Long Wait.) Over a decade plus, I’ve found that waiting is a staple of writing. It’s inherent in almost every phase of the process, and it’s unavoidable. The most prolific, confident writer in the world must still learn to wait. In fact, it might be harder for the busiest to accept that productivity doesn’t necessarily affect waiting.

We wait for inspiration to strike. For our idea to blossom into a book. For the right time. For courage. For our WIP to “sit” before we revise. For our beta readers and critique partners to do their thing and send us feedback. And again. When we query agents, get manuscript requests, revise and resubmit. When we go on submission. When we sell a project. To get the contract. To announce. To see the cover, or illustrations. To get paid. Or to get formatting, for stores to upload our publications. To see our publication hit listings. For ARC reviews. For release day. For reader reviews. To see if we made the lists. To find out if we’ve been nominated for any awards, and then again if we’ve won. For that next idea. For a second book contract, and a third…

I’m certainly not claiming to be the waiting master, but I have figured out some tactics that have helped me weather the wait better. If they work for me, maybe some of them will work for some of you, too. (And if you’re at the shore of A Long Wait or two yourself, chances are you have the time to test them out.)

Learn to Sit

I’m going to open with the most difficult – and most important – advice I have in regard to waiting. You need to learn to sit with the discomfort. This might sound contrary to all of the advice you’ve heard about it. (Work on your next project, keep yourself busy, etc., and we’ll get to those.) But I think it’s the most fundamental element to maintaining mental health in what’s generally a high-anxiety practice. No matter how good you are at the other techniques, if what’s simmering behind them is an unsupportable level of angst or discomfort, then you’re going to break down over time.

We don’t want to break down eventually. It seems very obvious, but how many of us head straight in that direction? I think that’s often because we tell ourselves, “If I can just…” and assume that after that ‘just’ comes a better, more comfortable place to be. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that that’s rarely the case. Usually the thing after that ‘just’ is equally hard or harder. So you can’t tough it out through the current wait and expect to be fine after. You really have to learn to wait right so that you aren’t toughing it out at all, but rather living sustainably within this life.

The first step to doing this, I believe, is learning to be okay with being uncomfortable, nervous, stressed, anxious, miserable, or otherwise in limbo. Odd, right? How can we be okay with something inherently negative? We’re taught to avoid the negative, which is generally smart, except that sometimes – like waiting for writers – the negative is unavoidable. So when we try to avoid something that’s there no matter what, we end up simply not addressing it instead. No good.

How do you learn to sit with discomfort? Try this if you want: Pinch your arm really hard. I’m not kidding. (Don’t do this if you don’t want to, obviously, but it teaches the lesson quite well. Physical pain and emotional pain aren’t all that different.) Do it harder than you think you need to, and then when you think that’s all you can bear, squeeze and twist a little more. Our instinct is to gasp and let go, rub the spot, right? Avoid. But what’s the worst that can happen from a pinch – even a really hard one? A bruise, probably. So what? Bruises heal.

Hold that pinch. Use your judgement here, but try to challenge yourself. Hold it harder and longer than you want to, and don’t try to think about something else or distract yourself in any way. Don’t just ‘tough it out.’ Focus in on the pain until your brain stops panicking. Realize that nothing happens even though it hurts. Sit a little longer with that. Nothing happens even though it hurts. It’s okay.

It’s exactly the same with waiting (and rejection, and doubt…). The next time you’re overwhelmed by it, don’t immediately run from it or try to shove it down. Sit with it. Go somewhere quiet you can be alone and just sit with the feeling for a while. It’s okay if you cry or get mad or whatever. That’s normal. Just sit there with the discomfort until it’s not quite so scary. Now you’re ready for the other tactics.

Complain

One more emotion-level truth: shouldering the suck all on your own doesn’t help. It doesn’t make you brave, or strong, or anything but tired. Let that stuff out. Vent! Again, we’re told to avoid the negative and to avoid being negative, but sometimes life is freaking negative. This is hard. Tell someone! Vent privately to a trusted confidant, preferably another writer who understands what you’re going through. Cry or rant or whine or whatever you need to do to get it out of your system for now. Go to someone who will tell you that “You’re Amazing and You Can Do This [2].” No one does this alone. It’s not sustainable.

Play the Games

Now that the slightly daunting stuff is out of the way, here’s a surprisingly easy one. Play all those little mental games. I know, people probably usually tell you that “what if” does no good, but I disagree. I think playing “what if” is very helpful – once. Not over and over in an endless cycle in our minds. But once, in a controlled way, such as writing things down in a list or journal. It’s a natural human inclination, so rather than battling it, just put it down on paper and move on. What if all of the agents I queried offer me representation at once? What if I never get any responses at all? What if my last choice offers but no one else? What if I work on my next project and get a book deal on the old one halfway through the new one? What if the book I published on Amazon never gets a single download? Go ahead and chase those rabbits down their holes to their logical ends. It won’t change anything, but it’ll make you feel more prepared and allow you to move on to the next tactic.

Preoccupy Productively

The one I hear most often is still great: preoccupy yourself with other things! Write your next book, send out more short stories, catch up on emails, draft some blog posts, edit an old project, work on your poetry or nonfiction or picture books or various side projects. It doesn’t really matter how you work, just that you do something that’s consuming enough to take your mind off the wait you’re in right now. Nothing you do will change how long this particular wait lasts, so don’t just sit around. Get stuff done! Take your mind off it. Not only will you be less miserable, but by the time you hear whatever answers you’re waiting for you’ll likely be invested enough in something new for rejections to matter a little less and successes to feel like pleasant surprises. Regardless, you’ll be closer to having your next thing ready, and you are always going to want a next thing.

Distract Productively

Okay, let’s just say that you’ve tried all of the above. You’ve learned to sit with discomfort, vented to your writing friends, chased the what-ifs down the rabbit hole, and tried to move on to your next big project. What do you do if it’s still not working? What if you can’t get into a new project or can’t find that sustainable peace?

If all else fails, do something else. Something totally non-writing-related. Remember those? Clean your house. Send cards to your family members. Call your grandma. Brush the cat. Start a new exercise routine. Take a meditation course. Hang out with friends. Catch up on your dental cleanings and yearly physicals. Go out with your significant other. Plan a trip with your kids. Party, play, whatever. Reenter your life; expand your life!

We get so caught up in our writing world sometimes that we let it consume us. I think that’s part of making art, and I think that’s okay. But sometimes we need to remember that there’s a whole world out there beyond the ones we put on paper, and that we should be a part of them. So if the writing part gets to be too much, it’s okay to put it on the back burner for a while. Take a little break while you wait and turn your energy elsewhere. Chances are the wait will go faster, the nerves will shrink in proportion to how your life expands, and when you finally do get back into it you’ll have a new wealth of experiences to pull from. Waiting might seem endless, but it’s actually cyclical – just like art, and life. When one gets to be too much, dive right into the other. Thank goodness we have both, eh?

Do you struggle with waiting? What tactics have you found most natural, and which the most useful? Commiseration and tips welcome below!

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About Annie Neugebauer [3]

Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet with work appearing in over fifty venues, including Apex, Black Static, and Fireside. She's an active member of the Horror Writers Association and webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas. In addition to Writer Unboxed, she's also a columnist for LItReactor. She's represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. When Annie’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two cats, Buttons and Snaps.