25 WAYS TO BE A HAPPY WRITER (OR, AT LEAST, HAPPIER) by Chuck Wending
I read this article — “22 Things Happy People Do Differently.” And I was like, yeah, you know, I like some of these. They’re a little simple, a little direct, but still, I liked the point — we have to choose to be happy instead of letting the universe ladle happiness upon us.
Further, I thought, well, writers are a traditionally unhappy lot, always moping around and crying into their manuscripts — the tears streaking the title page and soaking through the first few chapters. And so it seemed a good time to look at how writers can choose to be happy, too.
And thus, another list was born struggling and screaming from my quivering blog-womb.
Writers write. If we were little simulated characters in a video game, we’d have various meters to fill up (liquor, pee, self-esteem, tweets) and one of them would be labeled with two tags: HAPPINESS and WORD COUNT. The happy writer is a writing writer.
2. CARE LESS
We come to the page with too many expectations. Each poor little story is like a trembling donkey upon which we heap tons of weight. We don’t just want a good book, we want a bestseller. If it isn’t perfect, we hate it. If it isn’t 100% right, it’s 1000% wrong. Problem: we care too damn much. It’s all or nothing with us and that’s the kind of dichotomy that shanks our happiness right in the kidneys. So: care less. Ease off the stress stick. Have more fun with what you’re doing. When your kids and dogs play in the mud, you can either freak out that they’re too dirty, or you can laugh and jump in the mud, too. So, fuck it: jump in the damn mud already.
3. WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE
A career spent writing things you don’t want to write is a career spent trying to birth a VCR through your pee-hole. It’s awkward. It’s painful. It won’t fit and it’ll damn sure tear you apart. Writing as a career isn’t so financially fruitful that there’s much value in coming to this thing without the purity of your love and desire on display. Writing what you want to write, on your terms, is a powerful kind of bliss. And the trick with bliss is, it’s up to you to find it.
4. PUT DIFFERENTLY: BRING YOURSELF TO THE PAGE
I’m sympathetic that writers sometimes take assignments or write stories to fit parameters they did not themselves design. The same rule applies as above with a slight modification: even in writing something outside your purview you can still put yourself on the page and make it your own without hammering that square peg through that circle hole (or, for a more grotesque version, “hammering that Rubik’s Cube into that pigeon’s cloaca”). If I’m gonna write an article about trout fishing, grout lines, tulip farming, or a brand comparison of monkey diapers, by gosh and by golly I’m going to write that article the way I want and in a way that pleases me before it pleases you. If I’m not doing that then I might as well be digging ditches.
5. STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS
You will never be at the tippy-top of the writer pyramid because there is no fucking writer pyramid. No ladder, no mountain, no March Madness-style ranking. You will always find other writers who have more awards, more sales, more books, better covers, sexier author photos, more Twitter followers, bigger advances, more powerful beards (GODDAMN YOU ROTHFUSS), and on and on. One author with a butt full of awards can still end up jealous of another author who has more awards. Or no awards but a bigger audience. Or better hair, or a cooler agent, or the ability to hold one’s liquor. Strive to be better, yes, but don’t strive to be someone else. You are your own person with your own stories to tell. You’re stuck with you. You can’t comparison shop to be a different person, and trying to do so will only drown you in a washtub of misery.
6. OPEN YOURSELF
The happy writer is an open writer: open to experiences, emotions, words, ideas, books, authors, tastes, smells, films, travel, unusual liquors, fancy cupcakes, sexual positions, exotic lubricants, animal costumes, and so on, and so forth. All happy thought-grist for our word-mill.
7. SET REALISTIC GOALS
“I’m going to write this book. It’s going to earn me a seven-figure advance. It’s going to climb all the bestseller charts like that giant ape climbing whatever that really tall building is, and I’m going to win all the awards and then I’ll sell the film rights for another seven figures and the protagonist will be played by Baby Goose himself, THE RYAN GOSLING.” Unrealistically high goals just mean a long fall when you miss a ledge or a foothold crumbles beneath you.
8. RECOGNIZE THE LENGTHS OF YOUR CONTROL
And that leads me to this: Happiness lies in knowing the difference between control and influence. You control the quality of your work. The quality of your work influences factors outside your control like, say, whether you get an agent or sell a lot of books or get to make sweet sweet on-screen love to Ryan Gosling. Happiness is controlling what you can control to the best of your ability while letting the rest fall to the misty vagaries of your influence.
9. GAZE NOT INTO PUBLISHING’S DEMON EYE
You should know how the publishing industry works, but you don’t need to know it biblically. Pretend that you’re in a Lovecraft novel, right? In the world of a Lovecraft novel it’s enough to know that the Great Old Ones are out there beyond time and space in an astronomical mind-destroying fuck-tangle. You have your knowledge, yay, great, now go home. Don’t study it. Don’t stare. Don’t go fucking around with the Necronomicon or ululating foul entreaties of Azathoth the Blind Idiot God because that’s how you lose your sanity. Same thing with publishing. Know it’s there. Know how it works. Then go home and write your books. Because you start picking off those cosmic, spiritual scabs and you’ll start shedding sanity faster than a Collie blows his coat.
10. DON’T GIVE HATERS REAL ESTATE IN YOUR BRAIN
Creative folks put themselves out there further than many by the nature of the work: you create a thing whose value is reflected only when it is held and beheld by the community that receives it. But that also means you’re a kind of antenna receiving both good vibes and venomous ones, too. Fuck the haters. Piss on any negativity that comes flinging your way. Letting haters have real estate in your head is like letting a strange dog shit in your kitchen.
11. STOP LOOKING AT YOUR AMAZON RANKING (OR OTHER INTERNET NUMBERS)
I don’t even think that number means anything. I suspect one day Amazon will reveal that the entire Amazon ranking calculation is the invention of an insane spam-bot staring into a snowglobe. And now authors are ranked separately from books? Oh boy. Pinning your self worth to an Amazon rank is no better than measuring your value by the pH balance of your front lawn. For that matter, stop obsessing about blog hits, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, Myspace wongles, OkCupid tickles, or any other pokes, peeks, clicks, views, twists, tweaks, or other agglomerated purple nurples. Those numbers will never add up to your happiness.
12. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO SUCK
You ever get the opportunity to play with an artistic medium in which you have no experience? Photography? Fingerpaints? Erotic botany? When you do that, there exists this level of freedom where you’re like, “I have no stake in this, I’m just going to spackle some paint on my fingers and — I don’t know, fuck it, I’m going to draw a turkey on a jet-ski.” And then you’re there dicking around and fingerpainting like a boss and suddenly you realize: this is fun. And it sucks, but yet, there’s something real in there. Something of value. (“I WILL BE A CHAMPION FINGERPAINTER.”) It’s a cool moment where by creating art with no limits or no pressure and with jizz-buckets of fun you still managed to do something interesting. Something different. Carry that into your writing. Leap into the beyond. Fingerpaint like a boss. Remove the pressure of quality and give yourself permission to suck. Remember: with writing, you can always fix it in post. Why do you think Word Jesus invented the Editing Process? PRAISE WORD JESUS.
13. DEAL WITH YOUR SHIT
Happiness is active, not passive; it’s a decision, not an award someone gives you. Happiness takes adjustment. When something is broken, you adjust that thing with a wrench, a screwdriver, maybe a flamethrower. Writers, as it turns out, bring a lot of shit to the table. Other people have baggage. Writers have cargo. (By the goddamn tonnage.) This burden will stand in the way of your happiness as a writer because, worst of all, it will stop you from writing. Whatever it is that blocks you, it’s up to you to unblock. Deal with it on the page. Deal with it in therapy. Deal with it with medically-approved happy pills, whatever. Hard as it may be, it remains your choice to atomize the obstacles in your mind and on your path.
14. WHEN SOMETHING ISN’T WORKING, CHANGE IT
We can usually tell when something is off. We know when our process is wrong. When we’re writing the wrong thing. When a behavior we’re committed to isn’t yielding the results we expected. You can only try to pick a lock with your dick so many times before you realize it just isn’t gonna work. (Or, for the lady version, “You can only try to open a stuck pickle jar with your vagina so many times…”) We often repeat mistakes out of some combination of stubbornness and laziness, but all that does is sink our boots deeper into the mire of dissatisfaction. Change your game. Mix it up. Approach your problems from a new direction.
15. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY
Move your body. Don’t fill it with a ton of crap. Your brain is the thing responsible for your writing but that brain is just a passenger in a car that needs to be working in tippy-top shape. Fill it with the right fuel. Take it out driving. Keep it maintained. Your body isn’t some unmufflered explodable rust-fucked jalopy. Give your brain the best ride you can give it.
16. FUCK MONEY
When the time comes to send my son to college in 16 years, it will cost about as much as it does now to send him to Alpha Centauri. So, I’m no enemy of cash. I like money. I need it. To eat. To live. To whiskey. (Is “whiskey” a verb? It should be. CALL OXFORD, CAMBRIDGE and tell MERRIAM to stop playing grab-ass with WEBSTER, stat!) I’m not saying you shouldn’t write with money in mind — but writing with only money in mind is a tram ride into Disappointment City, population: you. You gotta find a reason to write that isn’t just a pouch of imaginary chits and ducats. You gotta write because you want to write, because the story is about to pop out of you like a chestburster. You must love the writing more than you love the money from writing.
17. RECOGNIZE THE LIMITS OF SHAME
Shame sure seems like a powerful motivator, doesn’t it? I once thought it served me well. “Ah, if I don’t write X,000 words a day I’ll be ashamed of myself and that shame will be a burr in my hiney-hole to get me working!” And it does motivate, to a point. But you have to realize that shame is only half a ladder. It only gets us part of the way and it does so for the wrong reasons. We should try to be better writers because it makes us feel good to do so not because it makes us feel bad to do otherwise. Become addicted to the positive feelings, not the negative ones. Give shame its due — which is to say, flick it away like an errant booger.
18. TREAT YOUR AUDIENCE WELL
There exists what I consider to be a positive feedback loop, which is to say, giving positivity into the world returns it like a boomerang and uhh, hello, BOOMERANGS ARE FUCKING RAD-GRAVY (“rad-gravy” is superior to “awesomesauce,” by the way). Treat your audience well and they will treat you well in kind. And it will magnify and multiply.
19. HELP NURTURE OTHER WRITERS (AND BE NURTURED IN RETURN)
We seem like a big community, a formless and faceless blob — but the writing community is actually a lot smaller than you think. Be a part of it. Nurture relationships. Help other writers find opportunity and they will help you in turn. Hell, just make friends with other writers. (I mean, not all of them — some of us are quite scary with our pantsless whiskey rages and our bone-woven beards.) Like with one’s audience, feeding into it feeds back upon you — that’s true of positivity and true of negativity as well. More to the point, imagine there’s a communal fountain: you can either poop in it or fill it with vodka and Kool-Aid. CHOOSE WISELY.
20. SEE FAILURE AS AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL
Failure is illuminating. It reveals every broken board beneath our feet, every crack in the wall, every pothole in the road. Do not shun failure. High-five it. Hug it. Engage in lusty pawing with it. Failure means you’re doing. Everybody fails before they succeed. Failure is how we learn. Failure is part of the grand tradition of figuring out how to be awesome.
21. MAKE NO EXCUSES
We tell excuses to other people as if they’re reasons, but we know the truth: it’s just some nonsense we say to absolve ourselves of the sin of Not Doing The Shit We Were Supposed To Do. Every excuse uttered is another squirrel nibble out of our happiness. Soon your excuses amount to a whole swarm of squirrels. They’ll make short bitey work of your self-worth.
22. LONG-TERM SATISFACTION OVER SHORT-TERM HAPPINESS
The happy writer knows that not every day is spent as happy writer. Every day isn’t, “Open Word processor, giggle as a rain of puppies and panda babies fall upon you, proceed to breathe brilliance onto screen, go take a nap.” Some days are hard. As intellectually grueling as back-breaking labor. Some days feel like you’re pulling out a wolf’s teeth by going through his asshole. What you need to realize is that even a bad day of writing contributes to a sense of long-term satisfaction which is far more valuable than the short sharp cookie-pop of temporary happiness (though that’s good too, and needn’t be avoided).
23. LET YOUR VOICE FIND YOU
An author doesn’t find her voice. An author’s voice is what’s on the page when she writes without trying or pretension. You are your voice. Trying to find it is often an act of digging a deep hole to discover what was standing next to you all along.
24. LOVE SOME PART OF WHAT YOU DO
Sometimes we get an idea in our heads to do a thing (go to the moon, climb Everest, learn bondage knots, cross-breed a panther and a pony into an adorable predator known as the PANTHY), but it turns out we try it and don’t actually like the process it takes to get there. Love of the end-game isn’t enough to keep you happy. It might be enough to get the job done, but happy-making, it isn’t. You have to love some part of the process. The writing. The editing. The rewriting. If the only thing the act of writing earns you is a mouthful of ash and a pair of rage-throttled fists, fuck it. Writing ain’t worth doing if it fails to tickle your inner monkey.
25. FINISH YOUR SHIT
Every time you fail to finish your work, a little girl loses another kitten. A unicorn loses his horn and becomes a regular stupid old horse. A sweet old lady chokes on her dentures. But worst of all, every time you fail to finish your work it wears another small hole in your soul. You can feel it there — that ragged tear in your cloth, wind whistling through the gap. Because you know what it means. You’re giving up. Giving in. Handing over the keys. Letting the terrorists that are your Doubt and Fear and Uncertainty win. You know what all the books published and movies made and comics inked have in common? Someone finished what they started. And finishing will give you a bliss-boost. All your happiness circuits will fire like a 21-synapse-salute. Even if it’s not the best thing you’ve written. Even if it’s the worst.
Because the best thing you never finished is always less than the worst thing you did.
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