It’s the holiday season! And regardless of how you celebrate, it’s a great time of year for taking stock. You know, the short days, the long, often cold nights, the fires in the hearth. And around here, the blissful silence of a snowy walk.*
My December post here last year related how I’d been reminded of the original spark that brought me to the page as a writer, and how the reminder felt like a gift—one that, in the spirit of the season, I wanted to pass along to my fellow WUers. Rereading the piece made me realize that there are many other gifts the writing life tends to bestow.
So, in the interest of taking stock, and in the same seasonal spirit, I thought I’d try to identify and list some of those gifts.
A few disclaimers: This list is far from complete. And both the gifts and the quantity and quality of each varies by the writer. I understand that many of these are virtues, and I don’t mean to portray writers as more virtuous than non-writers, and particularly not myself. I’m only saying that we’re all works-in-progress. And, hey, we all know how challenging this gig can be. Heaven knows how hard we can be on ourselves–over goals not met, deadlines missed, etcetera. Why not take a moment to focus on the often unremarked benefits we reap from our efforts? Particularly now, during the gift-giving season.
So let’s put another log on the fire and take stock, shall we?
Heightening Empathy—There are numerous studies that show that reading fiction leads to greater empathy. And it makes such obvious sense, that regularly putting oneself into the shoes of characters heightens one’s willingness to seek, and ability to grasp, a better understanding of our fellow humans.
But what does that mean for us writers? As writers, the act of putting ourselves in the shoes of others is no mere passive byproduct of the undertaking. In order to provide the feels, we have to live the feels. Creating the stories that successfully inspire empathy in our readers requires us to constantly strive to immerse ourselves in the perspective and the feelings of others (even the villains!). To do so, we must explore beyond superficial goals and motivations and delve into hidden or subconscious desires and fears, joys and sorrows.
The more sustained our effort, the more improved the outcome. Hence, the longer we strive to improve our writing, the more habitual and acute our empathy becomes.
Increasing Humility—I know, I know—in an essay that touts (brags on?) our gifts, I’m going to talk about how humble we are. Ironic? Well, it’s hard to deny that a writer who has yet to embrace humility is one who’s in for difficulty or pain, or both. Ours is an endeavor for which conceit is a prime liability. Failure and rejection are certain to occur. Early attempts are certain to produce less than our desired results. Self-evaluation requires practice. Practice that can only come with the wholehearted acceptance of feedback. And that acceptance requires humility.
Humility offers the prism through which we not only perceive the work’s flaws, but the path to overcoming them. Humility provides us with the distinction between ourselves and our work. As we grow as writers, we naturally take ourselves less seriously. Not to say that we don’t gain confidence, too. Indeed, I think there’s usually a correlation between building genuine humility and acquiring quiet confidence.
Broadening Outlook—Curiosity begets curiosity, doesn’t it? I mean, one minute you’re researching Ancient Roman wedding ceremonies, and the next you’re digging for information about Roman women’s rights, and then the role of slaves in the typical Roman household, and so on and so on. And all the while you’re building that aforementioned empathy, wondering what life was like for them.
As writers we are constantly seeking the big picture. In order to be successful, we must strive to reveal our world-view through the details that have informed and can project it. And, as Sarah Callender pointed out in her excellent essay here the other day, not only do we have to seek the answers, we writers must strive to ask the right questions. Sometimes it takes an entire book just to ask the right question, of ourselves and of our readers. The effort creates and sustains an ongoing evolution. The more we learn, the more we comprehend how much we don’t yet understand, inviting an ever broadening outlook.
Growing Generosity—I know some really generous writers. Don’t you? Of course you do. I’ve had other occupations, have been involved in other industries, and I’ve never found such ubiquitous generosity among my colleagues as I have in the writing world. If it didn’t exist, I seriously doubt I’d be here writing this essay. I think it’s due to the heightened empathy I mention above. No one knows what we’re going through like our fellow writers do, right? And being on the receiving end of the warm embrace of writerly generosity is bound to inspire imitation, don’t you think?
This is one area for which I’m definitely a work in progress. My wife, bless her, is always thinking of others, even when she’s shopping, or simply flipping through a catalog (something I dislike, even when shopping for myself). She also always thinks of the perfect thing to say/ask when she runs into friends and acquaintances. I’m terrible at that. But I’m working on it. And many of you regularly inspire me.
Stick-to-it-ive-ness—Okay, yes—I’m talking about perseverance, or the ability to continue doing something in spite of the difficulty or duration required. But we writers go a bit beyond mere perseverance. We learn how to finish stuff. Writing a novel (or a nonfiction manuscript) requires us to persevere again and again, through a series of finish lines. All in the pursuit of one project.
Finish a draft. Revise it. Revise it again. Review feedback. Revise it again. Start another and repeat—sometimes switching between two or more major projects as we proceed (not me, mind you, but I know writers who do this, and I admire the hell out of them for it). That’s not just continuing to do something in spite of the difficulty and duration required. Heck, by that definition, daily flossing is persevering. So I’m calling this gift stick-to-it-ive-ness. You can call it whatever you like, as long as you keep going until “The End.”
Fortitude—I think the perseverance required of writers is a generally accepted principle. But there’s something that comes along with persevering, and to me it provides a slightly different gift. There’s a certain sort of resolve and acceptance that builds as one endures. There’s a sort of grit and gumption that comes of putting yourself out there time and again. The word fortitude conveys courage in the face of hardship. I know a lot of brave writers, don’t you? And if I’ve gained any sort of courage as a result of my writing, it’s of the type that fortitude implies—resigned to the uncertainty, accepting of the adversity, and resolved to continue.
The fortitude we gain reveals that our fear is less-than, that the results are secondary, and that our ongoing endeavor is at once both the way forward and the ultimate reward.
Certitude—I’m not certain (heh) how this one will play, mostly because I’ve only acquired it relatively recently. I’m not talking about confidence, exactly. To some of you, what I’m calling my growing certitude might seem a bit woo-woo. But here it is in a nutshell: I feel as though I’ve found my calling.
As I mentioned, I’ve had other occupations; a couple of my past jobs could rightfully be called careers. Or at least career paths. But writing is so much more than a job. Or a career. It’s a way of life. It’s about more than economics (thank goodness!). It’s about seeking who I am, and what it means to be human, and what contribution I might make to humanity. It’s about striving beyond the day-to-day, seeking to see beyond the veil, and passing along whatever inspiration and illumination I find.
As I continue on my writing journey, I feel an increasing certitude that I’m doing what I’m meant to do. And I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
I feel like I say this a lot, but I don’t think I can say it too often: I know I’m a lucky guy. Most every day I get to do what I love. And in the place that I consider my soul’s home, and with the companionship and full support of my soul mate.
It’s funny, but I still get the occasional sad-eyed smile from acquaintances. You know the one—that sympathetic look when someone asks about your pub status or book sales. Our heightened empathy informs us of how difficult it would be to explain the trove of gifts our chosen occupation bestows.
So regardless of our pub status or sales, regardless of whether we made our word count goals or all of our deadlines this year, let’s remember the gifts we are receiving simply by way of doing what we love.
Let’s keep the list going in the comments. What gifts has the writing life given to you?
Wishing you all the happiest of holiday seasons, and many bright blessings in the new year. Thank you for reading my essay(s). See you in 2019!
*The picture is from last year. We had snow but alas, it’s gone. And our dreams for a white Christmas this year are melting.