15 Things a writer should start believing to improve their chances of success.
So since I kind of made my disclaimer yesterday on why there is definitely a point of limited returns on the power of positive thinking and how Zig Ziglar and other motivational speakers should be a little more honest about those limitations--or I suppose it's possible that their privilege prevents them from being aware of those limitations--I do want to acknowledge the power that attitude can play, especially in a career (or serious pursuit...or however you choose to think of writing) where you are almost always both your own worst enemy and your own best ally. Though it would be inane (and unfair) to suggest that attitude adjustments would matter one flippy flip in the absence of hard work or many many hours of practice or that you could just positive attitude your way into a book deal with your December 1st NaNo manuscript, it is also true that a positive attitude will help with everything from your daily efforts to handling gatekeepers.
Panacea? No. Influential? You better believe it.
Yes, success involves luck. Sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. I literally had a writing project fall into my lap because I was in line to get my mom a Starbucks one day and got to talking with another customer. A lot of people inherit success in the form of education, height, good looks, and familial wealth. They'll have more opportunities and better opportunities than non-traditionally educated, short, non-conventionally attractive, poor people will. And if you really want to parse an advantage, let's talk about being white, male, and able to pass as a heterosexual... Most people succeed (or not) with fair predictability before they're even born. And when some tall, thin, hawt, rich white, cis, heterosexual, Christian male tells you that he did it AAAAAAALLLLLL by himself, you can pretty well trust that he has no fucking clue how unbelievably not-true that really is.
But here's the thing: all that crap is out of your control. You can't control how tall you are or how rich your family is or how many people want to sleep with you and will give you opportunities to curry favor. All you can do is work with what you have, and make the best of it. And all of you have known that person who just stays positive or bounces back almost immediately and how amazing they are. (Not the annoyingly chipper one who talks about flowers a little too much--we just hate them in a different way.) When a person is motivated and empowered and self-actualized and energetic beyond reason we find ourselves drawn to them.
By contrast I know you know someone who is negative, complains all the time about things out of their control, is unmotivated to change, and generally lethargic--preferring to whine about all the things that have not gone right than to keep trying. They find the cloud in every silver lining. And it doesn't matter how tall or hot or sexy these people are; once their negativity seeps out, it's a curse. When people avoid them, they complain about that. The only people who gravitate towards these types are others just like them. They form cadres that move around like little storm clouds and grouse about everything, sapping the enthusiasm from everyone, and mocking any kind of genuine optimism they encounter. And even though being emo and moving in little emo tornados of my-life-art-suckier-than-thou is somehow chic today, most people getting things done work around such folks because at the end of the day all that negativity and five bucks might get you a sandwich.
Which of these two do you imagine creates more success with what they are given?
The trick is to really believe these things. Incorporate them into your reality. Make them true. Let them seep into who you are and let them change you.
1- If I can read this (online), I am probably in a group of some of the most empowered human beings of all time. Social mobility may be increasingly a myth in our modern society, and far, FAR more mythical than our charming fairy tale about the meritocracy ever tried to convince us, but it exists, after a fashion. You can improve your situation. There is no caste system. You will not do what your father did for a living. You are not a slave or a serf. You can transcend socioeconomic trends . You do not have to be a housewife if you are a woman. You do not have to be a provider if you are a man. Further, you have a computer that is connected to more information than your parents could have fathomed. You absorb more information in a day than a peasant in feudal Europe did in a lifetime. You can Google a major portion of the sum of all human knowledge and that amount is growing every day. You can communicate with one of eight hundred million people with a few hours of effort, and solicit the opinions of people from a wide variety of folks about practically anything. You don't even have to use the Readers Guide to Periodic Literature. You have rights that were unheard of four centuries ago and liberties that we haven't even dreamed of for most of the time we've been human beings.
It is also true that there is unequal power in our society. And certain groups push others to the margins. I can't underscore that reality enough. But these things are also in contexts.
2- I am largely in charge of my life. There will always be things you can't control. For some people, that might even include their own bodies and even their own brains. But that only limits our direct influence. It does not determine that our choices are irrelevant. Only you are responsible for how you respond to adversity and opportunity. Life may happen to you sometimes, but how you happen to life will also influence the end result.
3- I have the ability to make tomorrow better. You may not have the ability to fix every problem, certainly not instantly, but the fatalistic belief that you have no control at all leads to people who do nothing, and simply let life happen and all the chips fall where they may. And unsurprisingly they miss opportunities, never rise to challenges, and waste their lives. Believe that today that you have the ability to make tomorrow better--even if it's just one small thing. Now go do it...
4- Only I--and no one else--get to define my success. A piggy back off of what success looks like to you. Empower yourself. You don't need others' approval. Motivated go-getters follow their hearts even when people around them don't approve.
5- My intentions can help shape my reality. I have to be careful here because I really, really hate the idea that motivational speakers are always spouting that anything you dream can come true. I don't care how focused you are, you can't do a backflip 60 feet into the air from a standing position and land balanced only on your tongue. And privilege is a very real thing that makes life just a whole lot easier for some folks than others. But consider the difference between a writer who has an idea in their head that they would love to turn into a published novel "some day," and someone determined to "win" NaNoWriMo. One has no focus because their intention is vague. The other sits down and writes 1667 words every day because they know exactly what they want to accomplish. This really applies to anything.
6- People are facilitators, not obstacles. Not everyone is going to be helpful to you, so be careful. Some people will sabotage you consciously or unconsciously just because you're doing what they didn't have the courage to. But for the most part we see people as competitors and road blocks when we should see them as allies. (I gladly write a review for an artist friend's book because when the physical version of the book comes out, it will involve a link on Huffington post back to that favorable review. I get traffic. He gets a good review. Everyone wins.) If you see the opportunity to network, you should. Find good people; collaborate with them. Give them what you do best and let them give you what they do best in return. Almost no one is capable of doing great things alone--even if we had time to wear all the hats, our skill sets mean we're probably not as good at some as we are at others.
One caveat: this is a symbiosis. People aren't there to be used. Give back. Parasites have a hard time once they're recognized for what they are, and the writers who populate the world around you are probably more observant than most. Don't use people. They'll know.
7- Even as a writer, I am not isolated. Writing might feel isolated when you're clacking away at book six of your Dragonspleen Saga, but once you need a reading group to give you feedback and especially once you get into the business end, you will not be alone by any means--even if you desperately want to be. One of the biggest problems I see is people who expect everyone to be interested in their art when they make and take no interest in others'. Everything is interconnected. Form bonds and hold them tight. Work with people. Pimp your friend's shit--especially before you ask them to pimp yours. Read friends' fiction (even if they never even thank you). Who knows when you'll make friends with the next Random House editor whose opinion will tip a book into the "Let's give them a chance!" pile. Circle of life shit, you know. Be one with the universe. All that crap.
8- How can I benefit from this? At some point, something is going to suck. And not in the good way. Something won't go your way. Some shit will hit some fan somewhere. How will you respond? Will you find a way to turn the situation to your advantage or at least learn a valuable lesson (which is trite, I know, but....it became a cliche for a reason). Or will you just complain ad naseum about how unfair life can be and on how X situation prevented you from doing Y. We all hate the asshole who responds to someone getting laid off with that "This is an opportunity in disguise crap." Oh yes we do! We want to find that person and punch them in their pancreas. You don't have to be chipper when things go wrong. You just have to look for a way to turn it around. Look for a way to make every shitty thing that happens into a benefit and you will find a few. Because the sad fact is that here's what happens if you don't look for a way to make the best out of a bad situation:
(See what I did there?)
9- Hard work and tenacity may not merit out, but nothing else ever will. Believe it because it's true. We live in a world of instant gratification and shortcuts so this is really hard to be patient enough to have faith in grandpa's tired old wisdom, but it's true. Yeah, you might have to face the music that your door-to-door pickled hotdog van idea isn't taking off like you thought it would, but with most art, and certainly writing, you have to give it an ungodly amount of work before you start to see even a sliver of success. Just don't forget that it is work. Sitting around and dreaming for 15 years isn't really tenacity. (Trust, ol' Chris on this one.)
10- When I am ready, the master will appear. The student/master adage is not one about surreptitious masters hiding out in the shadows and waiting for the day some wunderkin student almost perfectly performs the Vendrizi maneuver and becomes worthy. It is about the fact that masters are everywhere, at all times, always, and once someone has the frickin humility to admit that they have something to learn, the "student" will begin to see masters everywhere. Many teachers will tell you that they learn more from their students than they did in college. Once you stop being too good to learn from everything and anything around you, the world will rise to that opportunity and teach you things that you can't even imagine you don't know. Also...you can take university courses online for free and shit, yo. Master that, ready studentface!
11- I embrace failure because it rocks. If you fail at something, take the lesson, look for new opportunities it may have provided and move on. If it was something huge, take a night to nurse a scotch, pout, and THEN do all that other stuff. Your life will be defined not by your successes, but by how you handled your failures. Failure is the single greatest crucible for progress in all of humanity. Learn to cherish it.
12- I won't take it personally. You're in for some pretty epic rejection if you're serious about being a writer. You're going to get some scathing criticism. You're going to get enough form letters to wallpaper a room. And don't think going the e-pub/self-pub/blogging way is going to get you out of that either. You should see the anonymous letters I get in an average week. I have one here suggesting that I eat powdered glass and drink ammonia because of my grammar. You just have to remember that as much of your soul as you're pouring into that writing, the rejection is about the writing, not you. And the criticism is about the writing (or about the circumstances of the other person) and not about you.
13- I know it's only for now. Rough patch? It'll end. Cascade of failures? It will end. Horrible turn of events and criticism that makes you question your worth as a writer and whether or not you should even turn on the computer each morning. IT. WILL. END. Only the leechingly pessimistic of the world think that a bad situation will go on forever without getting better. Imagine yourself coming out the other side of the tunnel. It will end. (Actually, this is sadly untrue with social injustice, and I know I'm glossing over that dynamic of life to make a point about relative circumstances. Please understand that I know racism or sexism won't just go away if you sit around and wait.)
14- I want to be refined and improved. Hate to bring some buzzkill juice to this positivepants party, but you're not perfect. And even though most people sort of intellectually grasp that. ("Yeah yeah, I'm not perfect. Of course I'm not.") Most people sort of kind of think they are about as good as they can reasonably be expected to get. Fuggedaboutit! Seek opportunities to be better. Both in your craft and as a person. You can always get better. Always. Shakespeare was not that good at plotting or pacing, and he is pretty much THE best writer in English. He had room to improve. You surely do too.
15- Don't be too quick to close the doors. You don't have to forgive your abusers or work with people who take blatant advantage of you, but the publishing industry is a kind of incestuous little clique. Even in non-traditional publishing, a reputation can matter. Nothing will knock your risk vs. reward out of balance quite like having to go way upriver to cross because you burnt the local bridge. Alot your grudges sparingly.