“If you do not change your direction,
you may end up where you are heading.”
– Lao Tzu
I doubt Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had a twenty-something pharmaceutical sales rep in mind when he dispensed this wisdom, but nonetheless, his words changed my life.
For me, writing has been a lifelong calling. I crayoned my first novella, The Boy and Girl Got Married, when I was six years old, and my passion for the craft has grown ever since. My lightning bolt moment followed in fifth grade while reading Judy Blume. I felt so profoundly understood by her words that it dawned on me: this is what I want to do when I grow up!
By the time I encountered Lao Tzu, I was in my early twenties—a freshly minted pharmaceutical sales rep with a business degree, contemplating my company’s generous offer to pay for my MBA, my Judy Blume moment long forgotten. While getting my MBA would’ve undoubtedly help me climb the corporate ladder, Lao Tzu’s words begged me to consider whether the top of that ladder was where I wanted to end up. The answer—though incredibly inconvenient to admit—was no. Though my career may have appeared to be “on track” to the casual observer, I felt a million miles away from where I wanted to be. And I realized that if I didn’t change my direction, I would end up exactly where I was heading.
Where are you heading?
Is that where you want to end up?
I believe these are two of the most important questions we writers can ask ourselves. If you’re happy with the answer, great! Let that affirmation boost your confidence and propel you forward. If not, that’s great too. Now you’re aware of the detour you’ve taken and can change course. While discovering you’ve ended up in the latter category can be disconcerting, there are three simple changes you can make today that will put you back on the path towards your writing dream:
Change #1: Align your actions with your writing dream.
Until my Lao Tzu awakening, I had been living under the assumption that my actions and decisions didn’t really matter. It felt like there would always be later. That somehow things would magically work out. What I began to understand was that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing and expect to end up somewhere different. Getting my MBA would have made me more qualified for a job I didn’t want. Once I realized this, I couldn’t ignore the possibility of what might happen if I devoted that time and energy to a career I did want.
Your direction is determined by the decisions you make and the actions you take every single day. Your choices will either move you closer to your writing dream or farther from it. Once you look at your life through this filter, it’s easy to spot the misalignments. The good news is, being aware of those misalignments is half the battle. And fixing them doesn’t have to be hard. It can be as simple as deciding to stop waiting for someday to write your book, and begin right now. It can be shifting your schedule around to make time to write every day. It can be finding ways to cut costs so you can afford to take a writing class or deciding to stop treating writing like a hobby, and start treating it like a career, giving it the respect and attention it deserves.
Recently, I asked members of the Writer Unboxed Facebook group to tell me about changes they’ve made to align their actions with their writing dreams. Joelle Wilson and Deb Peterson shared that they set their alarm clocks extra early to take advantage of the quiet morning hours before work. Lana Billman transformed her grown child’s room into a dedicated space for writing. Claire Greer got her whole family aligned with her writing goals by creating a schedule that allows her to write every Saturday morning while her husband spends time with their kids. For Stephen Whq, it’s a matter of setting priorities, and writing, along with his family and day job, is at the top of his list.
Identify the misalignments in your own life. What actions and decisions are currently moving you away from your writing dream? Brainstorm ways to change them so they are aligned with your vision. Start implementing those changes right away, and watch how your entire trajectory begins to shift.
Change #2: Empower your words.
The only words more powerful than the ones you write are those you speak. This is especially true of the words you use to describe yourself and your work. Early in my writing career, I would say things like, “But I’m not a real writer.” In truth, my writing was so important to me that discussing it with other people—even my best friend—made me feel incredibly vulnerable. I feared people would secretly think, she doesn’t have what it takes, so I’d head them off at the pass and play down the whole affair. But all that did was give people permission to not take me or my work seriously. Worse, it gave me permission to not take myself seriously, which had a negative impact on the very thing I cherished so deeply. It wasn’t until I changed my words and started referring to myself as a novelist that people took interest in my work and wanted to publish it.
Self-deprecation is a toxic habit for writers. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t finished your book—or even the first chapter. If writing is your calling, it deserves to be regarded as such. Don’t permit your words to make you feel small and unworthy; allow them to energize and empower you. If an agent declines to represent your book or a publisher doesn’t want to buy it, don’t think of your work as rejected—that word annuls your project’s worth and can poison your passion and enthusiasm. Instead, empower your words (and yourself) by reframing the situation in a positive light: I’m still searching for the right home for my project. Don’t think of yourself as a wannabe or claim you’re not a real writer. Instead, embolden yourself with the truth: I’m writing my first book. I’m seeking representation. I’m pursuing publication. Doesn’t that sound like someone who’s worth taking seriously?
Think about how you describe yourself and your work. Are you contaminating your own creative well? If so, replace poisonous words with powerful alternatives, and watch how it transforms your experience.
Change #3: Dwell on solutions.
Writers are full stories, but we also tend to be full of excuses. I don’t have time to write. I can’t afford to attend a writer’s conference. I’m waiting for the right idea. Do any of these sound familiar? The problem with excuses is that they allow you to become a victim of circumstance—and that’s a powerless place to be. You’re not a victim. In fact, I bet the road blocks that stand between you and your writing dream are no more difficult to overcome than many of the other obstacles you conquer every day.
When it comes challenges, you have a choice: you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Being part of the problem means repeating excuses over and over and not doing anything about it. Being part of the solution, on the other hand, means searching for answers and taking action.
Back in my pharmaceutical sales days, my chief complaint was that I didn’t have time to write. Not only did I have to commute to and from my territory, I spent all day visiting doctor’s offices and my evenings running sales reports and preparing for the next day. There wasn’t a second to spare. Or so I thought. Once I committed to being part of the solution, I saw my situation in a whole new light. The bulk of my day was spent driving in my car and waiting in waiting rooms—in other words, my day was full of opportunities to write! I started carrying a digital recorder so I could brainstorm ideas while I drove. And all of that wasted time in waiting rooms? It became writing time.
Many of our fellow Writer Unboxed community members have also committed to being part of the solution. Rather than being defeated by time constraints, Dede Nesbitt turned the daily carpool into a writing session by simply bringing along her laptop. Rick Middleton transformed his hour-long commute into productive writing time using dictation software. Bjorn Larssen installed a plugin that blocks distracting websites, allowing him to reclaim valuable writing time.
We all have obstacles in our path. Whether you overcome them or not depends on whether you are willing to be part of the solution.
Write down all of the road blocks standing between you and your writing dream. Review your list and think of these obstacles as exciting challenges that require innovative solutions—then brainstorm ways to overcome them. Once you start putting these ideas to work, you’ll discover that every day is full of opportunity.
Today, more than a decade later, Lao Tzu’s quote sits on my bookshelf next to my novel, Empty Arms, and my children’s book, High Flyers: Rookie of the Year, to remind me of where I’ve been and, more importantly, where I’m heading.
Has your path ever led you away from your writing dream? If so, how did you find your way back?