How to Cope With Clueless Questions, Crass Comments, and Crazy Conjectures

Note: I'm re-upping this one from 2013, as it seems a useful follow-up to the Robert Caro post. Also see this piece on Advice for Academic Couples (excerpted from my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.) - Best, Hillary Oh, the things people say to writers! “What do you do?” “What do you write?” “Is there any money in that?” “Where have you been published?” “How’s the book coming along?” (Alt: “When will you be done with that thing?”) “Why don’t you just sit down over a weekend and just finish it?” “You should write like Stephen King!” “You should put a vampire in it!” “Why don’t you just go on [popular TV show]?” And, the ever popular, “When are you going to get a real job?” These are the kinds of (often, but not always) well-meaning questions, comments, and conjectures that bedevil writers. A little planning can help a lot in terms of coping, however. Below are strategies for: (a) increasing your tolerance for difficult questions; (b) maintaining conversational … [Read more...]

Biographer Robert Caro on How It’s All About Perspective

Most books (and many theses and other projects) take years to produce, and that's a simple fact. And yet, the "When will you be done?" question can bedevil new writers in particular. (Even worse when it's phrased disrespectfully, as in: "What? Are you still working on that thing?") That's why this anecdote from Caro's autobiography Working is so satisfying: "I was bothered, too, by the length not only of the manuscript [The Power Broker, about New York City "master builder" Robert Moses], but also of the time I had been working on it."That was the thing that made me doubt the most. When I had started, I had firmly believed that I would be done in a year, a naive but perhaps not unnatural belief for someone whose longest previous deadline had been measured in weeks. As year followed year, and I was still not nearly done, I became convinced that I had gone terribly astray."This feeling was fed by the people Ina and I did know. I was still in the first year of research when friends and acquaintances … [Read more...]

A Big Part of Time Management is Learning How to Decline Unwanted Invitations…

...which writer Harold Pinter knew how to do LIKE A BOSS. … [Read more...]

Nope, “Perfectionism in Moderation” Isn’t a Good Thing

Writer Lindsay Ellis recently tweeted about imposter syndrome (where you think you aren't up to the task, have everyone fooled, and are destined to be revealed as a horrible fraud). Unfortunately, she gets it wrong. She writes: "Because the thought patterns that lead to imposter syndrome need not always be a net negative - on some level, it is a form of perfectionism, but perfectionism can be harnessed as energy to create better, more thoughtful work. Perfectionism in moderation need not be destructive." You won't be surprised to hear that I emphatically disagree with that last sentence. My responses below. As someone who specializes in helping writers and others overcome #perfectionism and procrastination, I have to respectfully disagree. I believe perfectionism is always harmful because it disempowers you.... https://t.co/I4mzUPwx4t — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) March 1, 2019 Perfectionism's main tools are harshness and coercion - including imposter syndrome. They are inhumane and thus immoral … [Read more...]

The Conversation You Have With Your Work

Creative / scholarly work is actually a conversation between yourself (your ideas, emotions, perceptions) and your materials and influences. Or, as glass artist Davide Penso recently put it in an interview in Glass Art Magazine: "I didn't and don't presume to work in glass, but to support it and assign it the task of molding me. Glass enhanced my best characteristics and emphasized its own. In silent agreement, with respect, we use each other." It's probably the best encapsulation of the creative mindset I've read. Perfectionism can get in the way, however. If you start... trying to control the outcome ("I'd better do fabulous work!") rushing ("It's going too slowly!"), or instrumentalizing (seeing the work as a means to an end, as in, "This should get me an A," or "I really want this to be the Great American Novel.") ...then you derail the whole process. Now it's true that we often do want to do great work, meet our deadlines, and impress our audience (teacher, editor, gallery owner, … [Read more...]

Inspiration from Michael Jordan and Garry Kasparov to Start Your Work/School Year

I hope everyone had a fantastic summer! Let's get the work/school year going with a great quote from Michael Jordan:             I quoted chess champ / democracy activist Garry Kasparov saying something similar in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: "Years ago, I was fortunate to hear one of my heroes, former world chess champion and current Russian democracy activist Garry Kasparov, discuss important lessons he had learned from chess. Here’s how he began his talk: “I have won hundreds of chess games, and lost thousands. You have to have the courage to fail." The courage to fail. What an amazing phrase—and coming from a hypercompetitive chess champion it takes on a special meaning. Kasparov probably hates failure more than just about anyone—in fact, as his use of the word “courage” implies, he probably fears it—but he had to develop a tolerance for it to reach his goals. That he chose to begin his talk with this point only underscores its … [Read more...]

You’ve Got Time…

Our society tend to fetishize early success, but lest we forget... Toni Morrison: 40 Mark Twain: 41 Marcel Proust: 43 Henry Miller: 44 JRR Tolkien: 45 Raymond Chandler: 51 Richard Adams: 52 Annie Proulx: 57 Laura Ingalls Wilder: 65 Frank McCourt: 66 Harriett Doerr: 74 Harry Bernstein: 96 No, you’re not too old to publish your first book. — Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir) August 19, 2018 Perfectionism is impatient, but it's never too late to start a project that's important to you. My number, by the way, is 48. (And thanks to D. for sending me the tweet!) … [Read more...]

Why an Anime Girl (or Raccoon!) Might Be Your Next Productivity Buddy

Back in Cambridge, MA, where I used to live, a group of writers used to meet regularly to get some work done. After a quick hello - no chit chat, latte ordering, or other delays - they all sat down and started working. It was so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop, and everyone got tons done during those sessions. That's all it takes to do your work, in many cases: someone sitting next to you doing theirs. They don't even have to be doing what you're doing. Someone could be sketching or doing their travel receipts while you're writing or studying and it's all good. While it's okay to check in with your buddy once in a while, or gently offer advice and encouragement if they're stuck, mostly what you, and they, are providing is presence. My theory about why this works is that we're such intensely social creatures that, for many of us, the solitude needed to do our work is itself an obstacle to productivity, raising feelings of isolation and even abandonment. Add to that a bit of resentment--as … [Read more...]

Productivity Secrets of a “Supergenius”

A friend was discussing her fears around her writing, and, in particular, of taking on bigger projects than she could handle, when she came up with a great comparison: "I feel like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off the edge of a cliff. Then he looks down and realizes he's gone too far, but it’s too late, and down he goes." She was conveying a real sense of fear. (Falling off a cliff, even in a cartoon, is scary!) And yet...something about the comparison felt off. I thought for a moment, and then pointed out: "But he always survives the fall, doesn't he?" She paused. "Uh, yes. I guess he does." "And then he goes on with the chase?" “Yes!” I think it's fair to say my friend's attitude shifted at that moment. In fact, her comparison was more apt than she realized. As a creator, it's actually your job to “run off the cliff”—i.e., take risks. And that, by definition, means you’ll fall (a.k.a., fail) a lot. It's essential you not overreact to those failures when they happen. Even better, stop … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk About “Situational Perfectionism”

“Situational perfectionism” is when something causes your perfectionism to spike above its usual levels. (Which usually, in turn, causes your procrastination to spike!) It’s a common phenomenon, with many causes. Here are a few: A prior failure. Often, when we perceived we’ve failed, we get more afraid of future failures. (The solution is to not make such a fuss over failure.) But, paradoxically... A prior success can also do it! That’s because you feel (often rightly) more scrutinized. Second Novel Syndrome is a classic example of this type of situational perfectionism, and even J.K. Rowling experienced it after the success of the first Harry Potter book: “For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block...The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.’” Fortunately, she got over it, but many writers and others, alas, never do. Labels can be a problem! Labeling your project “urgent,” “important,” or “difficult” … [Read more...]

Does Writer’s Block Exist?

A coupla tweets for your delectation: Lookee here! Another guy--and they almost always seem to be guys!--claims #writersblock doesn't exist. They seem to come out of the woodwork every once in a while. https://t.co/Eb5deQQdG1 — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) May 7, 2018 "Writer’s block is a delicious myth" How callous and condescending, not to mention, #clueless, can you get? #writersblock #writers — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) May 7, 2018 Here's the full quote from the original article: Writer’s block is a fiction. That’s not to say I always feel like writing, or that I have some big idea percolating. I don’t know if you can force out good sentences or great ideas, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write. You can always write garbage; goodness knows, I write plenty of that. Sure, there are days I don’t feel like looking at my computer or picking up a pencil. Such days, I read; reading is inextricably linked with writing, so you can grade yourself on a curve and say that counts. And there are … [Read more...]

Stuck? Lose Your Label!

Here’s a useful piece by Austin Kleon on How to Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Chaotic Times. I like #3 a lot: “Forget the noun, do the verb.” Calling yourself a “writer,” “artist,” "activist," "scholar," “entrepreneur,” or any other label can invite procrastination if you use that label perfectionistically. For example, if you think of a writer as someone who is supposed to: write many hours every single day sacrifice everything else to one’s art happily starve / live in a garret be smarter about all things writing-related than anyone in the room (or anywhere!) write fantastically all the time, and, enjoy writing all the time Then you’re inevitably going to fall short, and feel miserable about it. Here are some other labels that get people into trouble: “good parent" (if you think "good" means you must sacrifice everything for your kids) and “dutiful child" (if you think "dutiful" means you must do everything your parents ask). In these cases, you should forget … [Read more...]

When a Success Leaves You *Less* Able to Do Your Work

I use the term "situational perfectionism" to describe circumstances that cause your perfectionism to spike. A failure (or perceived failure) can do that, but so, paradoxically, can a success, especially if it causes you to feel more visible or scrutinized. J.K. Rowling experienced this after the exceptional success of the first Harry Potter book, but fortunately was able to move past it. Other writers aren't so lucky. From this week's obituary of writer Bette Howland: "In 1984 Ms. Howland received a MacArthur Foundation award — the so-called genius grant. But her literary output dried up. Jacob Howland sees the two things as related."“I think the award may have sapped her confidence,” he told the website Literary Hub in 2015. “If people don’t expect great things from you, it’s easier to please them. But people expect great things from a writer who has won the MacArthur.”" It's always best to approach projects with a "clean mental slate," as free as possible from past history and future … [Read more...]

What’s the Right Number of Drafts?

"What's the right number of drafts?" Meaning: how many drafts does it take to produce a polished piece of work? When I ask that question during workshops, people usually reply between two and five. (People who are familiar with my work and think they know where I'm heading usually answer with a higher number.) But if there's a journalist, or former journalist, in the class, they always give the right answer: "As many as it takes." I guess journalists are taught this by their teachers and mentors. I was reminded of this by a recent article on writing by the brilliant Rebecca Solnit in which she mentions, "I’ve seen things that were amazing in the 17th version get flattened out in the 23rd." I imagine some readers were all: "Wait--what? 17 drafts?! 23 drafts?!!!" For me, 17 is nothing. I probably rewrite every word of my books two or three dozen times. Even "simple" blog posts like this one get rewritten five or ten times. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But it might not be as much … [Read more...]

Why Email Overload is an Overgiving Problem

Email overload can be regarded as an overgiving problem. Sure, you get too many emails each day, and they take too long to answer. If you’re like many people, however,  you’re reluctant to face the problem by: (1) leaving some (or many) emails unanswered, and (2) answering most of the remaining ones tersely. (Many people write multi-paragraph emails when a simple “Sorry – can’t do it.” or “Great!” or “See you at 8!” will do.) This isn’t all your fault! Here are some factors that make email so tricky: We get a lot of emails. If you get just twenty a day and spent just three extra minutes on each one, that’s an hour lost each day! When you’re flooded with emails you’ve got to be super-efficient in dealing with them or they’ll bury you. Email occupies a weird middle terrain between the formality and permanence of written communication and the informality and impermanence of spoken communication. You’re getting many different types of emails thrown at you. That makes it harder to deal with them … [Read more...]