According to one of my favorite children’s books, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk to go with it. And if you give the mouse a glass of milk, he’s going to want a straw (to drink with). Then a mirror (to avoid a milk mustache). Then scissors (to groom himself in the mirror). So on and so forth. There is always something more to want.
I think the writing life can be that way too. If you write a good short story, then you’ll want to try a novel. Once you write a novel, you’ll probably want an agent. If you get an agent, you’re going to hope for a book deal. Then good reviews, bestseller lists, prestigious awards, bigger advances…
Rising expectations are a double-edged sword. It’s good to have goals, and to push oneself to grow. But it’s destructive to never be appreciative of where you currently are and what you’ve achieved.
I often struggle to walk that line in a graceful, healthy way. In fact, I often fail. But lately there are two things – two pretty basic things – that are helping me to keep a better balance.
1. Morning Pages
Made famous by Julia Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY, morning pages are supposed to be handwritten and stream-of-conscious. A way to get in touch with one’s inner self, as well as to clear the pipes for creativity to flow. I basically do them all wrong – I type them on the computer, sometimes in the morning but usually just in spurts throughout the day – and yet I still find that they work.
They help me the way that scales help a pianist. They’re warm-ups. They’re meant to be easy and foundational. They create momentum.
Sometimes my morning pages are like a journal. How I’m feeling, what I’ve been up to, etc. Other times, I write about what I want to be writing about. I might be stuck on a scene, or just trying to figure out my goal/focus for the next writing session. Whatever the case, it’s a nice way to come at a story from the side, instead of attacking the thing head-on and scaring it off.
2. Reminding Myself to Have Fun
Speaking of attacking and scaring… Many times I have found myself grappling with a page, a paragraph, or even just a line. And with each passing second that I can’t get the words “right,” I grow increasingly frustrated and miserable. That kind of negative mindset is poor soil for creativity to blossom in.
One solution to this problem is so simple it’s almost stupid. The hardest part is having the presence of mind to do it.
I sit back, take a deep breath, and remind myself to have fun.
Seriously. That’s it. But also: that’s it. That’s the thing. Fun! I got into writing because I enjoyed it. Not because I wanted a million-dollar book deal or a Pulitzer Prize. I just love characters and stories. So why not tap into that joy, instead of banging my head against the keyboard and hoping the perfect turn of phrase will fall out?
In this children’s book that I like so much, the mouse ends up coming full circle and asking for the same thing on the last page that he did on the first. To me, that’s what these two techniques do. They bring me back to the first thing. The best thing. The cookie.
The writing itself.
What do you guys do to manage rising expectations and maintain a healthy balance in your writing life?