Writer’s Craft #108 Blaze your own trail
J.R. Johnson is a writer, cook, archer, social scientist, and unlicensed librarian. She finds fantasy and science fiction appealing because she likes the idea that there is more to the world than meets the eye, and that the human race has a future. She now lives in Ottawa, Ontario and on the web at jrjohnson.me.
One terrific part of being a writer is the opportunity to blaze your own path. You get to decide where to go, what to focus on, and how fast or slow you want to travel. That’s an amazing experience, or it can be. But when you are the one breaking trail, how do you know that you’re heading in the right direction?
In the largest sense, most of us don’t “know.” We hope. We plan. We analyze, speculate, triangulate. We consult our inner compass. Then we risk. For writers, one of the biggest risks is that of rejection.
No matter how good you are, writing for others is awash with rejection. That’s ok, that’s part of the package. In fact, I kind of like it. Rejection isn’t my only guide, but it’s a useful one. It lets me know that I’m doing what needs to be done, producing work and sending it out for others to see. It’s both depressing and inspiring by turns. “Look, Ma, I’m a real writer, I’ve got the rejections to prove it!”
In 2012, Neil Gaiman said that he likened his goal to a distant mountain, and would judge decisions based on whether they would take him closer to or farther from that mountain. It’s a great idea and a lovely speech, full of useful stories and funny advice. I watched the video and felt inspired. In fact, I should probably watch it again.
That’s the thing. Blazing your own trail also means adding your own signposts: “Beware of Bad Television,” “No Internal Editors Allowed, Next 2,000 Words,” and “Coffee Break, Next Right.” Feedback from others also helps, I find, as external perspective can be invaluable.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that when you blaze your own trail, internet access is a godsend. As Google will be happy to tell you, you aren’t the first to confront the challenges of rejection, of self-direction, of uncertainty. Thank goodness. I’ve dealt with them. You’ve dealt with them. Famous, thoughtful, and successful people have dealt with them.
At one point in her 2008 speech at Harvard on the benefits of failure, J.K. Rowling said that after hitting rock bottom she was able to use it as a foundation on which to build the rest of her life:
“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.… So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.… Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”
I found her realization to be admirably perceptive. Failure, by this light, can help provide a clear view of who you are and what you want to achieve. That sounds damn useful, if not exactly comfortable.
Failure, of which rejection is one form, isn’t something to be avoided at all costs; that’s impossible. It is something to be used. It is the feedback that keeps us going, motivates us, lets us know that we are on the path, and when we are straying from it. The rumble strip of life, if you will.
How do you judge your progress? Whether you’re a full-time accountant with a writing habit or a full-time writer with your own table at the local cafe, how do you know that you’re on the right path?