Promises, Promises

“In order to dare we must know; in order to will, we must dare; we must will to possess empire and to reign we must be silent.”
-Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic

Photo by discoodoni on Flickr.

I used to be a big old planner and maker of promises. Now by “plan” Of course, I don’t actually mean plan, I mean talk about planning. You know, the kind of plan where you tell all your friends about this big project you’re going to start, maybe even set a vague date (“maybe next week” or the always-hilarious “as soon as I have time”), and then no one ever hears about it again? Maybe you give it a fancy name. Yeah, I’ve done that. It often starts with “Operation” and ends with something badass-sounding. No deadline, outline, or coherent goals, but man check out that awesome name it has.

That kind of plan.

I’m now convinced that this sort of thing is the fast track to Shamesville.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this works for someone. But it’s certainly not me. The conceit behind this idea seems to be that public accountability among your friends and family will somehow act as surrogate for actual motivation.

And here’s why that doesn’t work.

Scenario A: Your friends are quality people who love you and don’t want to see you hurt. Therefore, when you declare Operation: Supermotivated September and then proceed to watch the entire run of M.A.S.H. in your underwear, they’re not going to call you on it. Chances are, you’re miserable enough already. And because your friends aren’t interested in kicking you while you’re down, they keep silent. And so everyone forgets Supermotivated September ever happened, until Damn-the-Torpedoes December when the whole farrago starts over again, and you feel like everyone has just a little less faith in you before, whether they do or not. Your faith in yourself is probably eroding nicely by this time, though.

Scenario B: Lacking your own internal motivation, you try to foist it off on those around you, hoping somehow that they’ll jump-start your motivational engines by badgering you. Now your friends are irritated at being handed this unwanted responsibility, and you’re irritated because of the badgering, and mysteriously you feel no more motivated than before. The subject gets dropped quickly so the hurt feelings will go away. Everyone loses.

Scenario C: You make a public declaration of goal-setting, and everyone’s behind you. You get some words of encouragement, and they really help — until the darkness comes and the wolves howl. Then you trip up, miss a couple of steps, but you don’t want to disappoint anyone. So you hunker down, hoping no one will notice. Then, because you feel shitty about that, your goals just sort of fall apart. A month or a year later, someone asks, “hey, how’s that project going?” But now the last thing you want is anyone bringing it up and exposing your shame, even though you’re the one who brought it up in the first place.

I’ve done all these. None of them have ever worked. Ever. That’s why I think the whole notion of “public accountability” in goal-setting is kinda bullshit. It’s not that I don’t care what people think — quite the opposite — it’s that disappointing others isn’t actually a sufficient deterrent against slackassery.

A close friend of mine once told me that when he starts some big new project, he doesn’t so much as mumble it into a hole in the ground. He keeps his mouth shut until he’s already started and has a reasonable chance of finishing. As a breaker of promises and a hoarder of shattered dreams, I liked this idea so much that I’ve done my best to adopt it ever since.

Just to be clear, the whole declaration-of-intent thing is not the same as getting support from your friends or your peers once you’ve started. I don’t mean that you should start your next big novel and then not say word one about it till it’s hit the shelves. That’s crazy, not to mention crappy marketing. But you have to do something first.

For me, the motivation always comes from starting, not saying I’m going to start. The evidence is right there in the neglected online to-do lists and journal entries full of new year’s resolutions I dutifully repeated every year and only thought about again when I looked back on them with regret.

Screw that.

But that’s my story. If you have a different one, I’d love to hear yours. Does declaring your intentions to write that novel / edit that story / submit that screenplay / whatever actually motivate you? Has it ever really paid off? Tell me about it in the comments. Thanks!

Find Your Writing Tribe

Photo by Letcombe on Flickr.

Since starting this blog in October, I’ve met some amazing readers and writers. It’s been a blast.

It wasn’t until I started talking with other writers daily  — on Twitter, on Triberr, on Goodreads, via email, via IM, ad nauseam — that I realized what a huge impact it had on me. Having a group of like-minded people who support you, and whom you can support in turn, is a truly invaluable resource. A successful “tribe” of writers can pick you up when you’re down, spread the word about your work, and grant you insights you might never have come up with on your own. And you can do the same for them.

So what makes a successful tribe?

They must be writers.

I truly think this is key. Your non-writer friends are great people, I’m sure. But you need someone who understands your passion from within.

For example: my dad is a mechanic. I love my dad. But I don’t have clue one about how automobiles work, nor do I care to learn. When it comes to matters mechanical, I have nothing to learn from him, and he sure has nothing to learn from me. He might be able to relate his frustration to me about some mechanical problem he’s having, and I could sympathize. But could I help him address it? Not really. That’s why to get real help with your writing problems, you need another writer.

By the way, “aspiring” and utterly unproductive writers don’t count in this equation. I know that may sound unforgiving. But more than once, I’ve seen people who don’t write drag down the people who do write by responding with jealousy, dejection, and angst. It can get downright toxic. If you’re anything like me, you have enough trouble just finding the time and energy to get yourself to write, much less someone else.

Now, I don’t mean leave your non-writer friends out in the cold — take them out for coffee or to a movie or something. Just don’t put all your energy into trying to motivate someone else. That’s not your responsibility.

They must have a fresh perspective.

While old friends might understand you on a deeper level than new ones, a fresh set of eyes on your work can bring amazing insights to bear. Someone who doesn’t know your story from a hole in the ground will give you a different reaction than someone who’s been hearing about it daily for the last five years. They’ll see things you may never have seen.

This has payoff from the other end as well. As a reader, I love seeing new works-in-progress from writers I haven’t known very long. It’s exciting to learn more about who they are through their writing, especially when you read something you had no idea was in them. It’s a rush.

They must be supportive, and they must be tough.

Because what’s writing advice without at least one flat contradiction? Being “supportive” is a tricky and sometimes treacherous thing. Unalloyed compliments and cheerleading aren’t always helpful — in sufficient volume, they can be downright destructive. On the other hand, someone who unfailingly lambasts your work isn’t that helpful either.

Ideally, you need people who will be honest without being cruel — people who want your writing career to succeed, and are willing to deliver a few gut-punches to make that happen — but not for the sheer joy of punching. There’s a fine line sometimes between “tough love” and being unnecessarily hard on someone, and if we’re going to support each other as writers, we’ve gotta learn to walk it.

Most of all, I think we need people who understand that as writers, we’re in this together. Writing is, by nature, a lonely and isolating business, which makes finding people you can talk about your work that much more important.

So who’s your tribe?