The Best Writing Advice That No One Ever Listens To

It seems to me that you start getting a particular line of advice from a very early age.   Not just about writing, about everything:  focus on the process, not the outcome.

I remember a grade school teacher very early on instructing us, “Don’t ask each other what grade you got on the test, ask ‘what are you learning?'” The idea being, she wanted us more concerned with the learning process, and less concerned with the outcome.  Naturally, we ignored her, though maybe we kept our voices a little lower when we turned to each other after each test.

Similarly, when I was a kid playing soccer, my coach (like every kids’ soccer coach ever) told us something like:  ‘it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’  Naturally, we ignored him, too.

I think there are at least two reasons this advice is so universally ignored:

a)      They obviously don’t really mean it.  If our math teacher didn’t want us to care about the grade we got on a test, why bother grading them? (Instead of just, say, telling us what we did right and what we did wrong on each question).  As far as playing soccer, honestly, if it’s just about how you play the game, why do people keep score?

b)   Even more importantly (as a reason to ignore this advice) is it’s so darn hard.  It’s so much easier to care about the outcome than to focus on the messy, painful, process.

The thing is, as a writer I’ve found that I have to dig up that stupid advice and listen to it.

It didn’t come up much before I published THE PATH OF NAMES.  I liked writing, so I wrote. The outcome…  Well, there wasn’t any outcome aside from the writing itself.  Sure, I occasionally published a short story, but the money and attention I got for that were so miniscule that they didn’t ripple my writing stride.

After publishing a novel, though, suddenly there were all these outcomes out there.  People were buying and reviewing my book. THE PATH OF NAMES has received generally good reviews, but not quite good enough for me (e.g. I haven’t been acclaimed the new genius of middle grade literature).  I got some attention for it, but not quite enough (e.g. I wasn’t immediately offered a three movie deal).  Worse, when I sat down to write my next book, I had a lingering concern about how people would receive my new work.  It didn’t exactly get in the way of writing. More precisely, it got in the way of enjoying writing.

So I have had to gently nudge myself back into focusing on the process, and not worrying about the outcome too much.

I’m not aiming to achieve the Buddhist ideal of detachment.  (Although, listen, that would be awesome.  Forget writing, people would come study at my feet.  I’d probably be on Oprah.  If Oprah still had a show.  Forget Oprah, I’d have my own talk show.   Yeah, and a line of magazines.  And look, here’s a picture of me standing on my head.  Could an unenlightened person do that?)


See, what I mean?   It’s hard to stay focused on the process.  But you pretty much have to try.  And you don’t necessarily have to stand on your head.  Though, I don’t know, it probably doesn’t hurt.

p.s.  Oprah fans — please understand I was just joking when I wrote ‘Forget Oprah.’    Never forget Oprah.

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