The other day I came home to find the men I hired to build my patio sitting in my backyard looking at a stump. This was not a normal stump. This was a giant. Paul Bunyan, Big John kind of stump. I sat down with them and I, too, considered the stump.
“George had to get his chain saw for that sucker,” one of them finally said.
“Took two hours to get it out,” another offered.
“I think it broke George’s saw,” the first chimed in.
“Why didn’t you leave it in the ground,” I asked. “You know, pour the cement around it?”
“We thought about it,” the third said. “It wouldn’t have been right.”
They told me that they had managed to cut it up into the piece we were looking at but that it had been twice as big and buried deep in the ground; a remnant of a primordial tree. Their task had been Herculean. They told me that if they poured the cement over the stump, the darn thing could rot and my steps would fall in, and I would be upset with them because they had poured cement over a stump the size of San Francisco.
“It looks petrified,” I said. “How many years do you think it would take to rot?”
The first guy shrugged, “Twenty. Thirty years.”
I shrugged back. I would probably be dead by the time the stump rotted and my stairs fell in. I guess it was the principal of the thing. They would have known the stump was there.
We sat in the hot sun a while longer. Someone suggested carving the stump into the likeness of the contractor. I liked that idea but no one knew how to carve. I thought we could make it into a table. Eventually, we all stopped looking at the stump. The men moved it out of the way and started work again; I went inside to make dinner.
That stump has now been in my backyard for months. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. But, like all things that are hard to get rid of, it eventually served a purpose. It taught me a few lessons:
1) Everybody has a stump. It might be in your real backyard, your professional backyard or your personal backyard, but it is undoubtedly there.
2) What you do with your stump will tell you a lot about yourself. Either you will dig it up and deal with it, or you will leave it to rot.
3) If you’re stumped and need help there is always someone willing to work hard with you to take care of it as long as you work as hard as they do.
4) You can never go through a stump but don’t panic. You can go around them, over them and sometimes even under them but that takes the longest.
5) Sometimes stumps are not as big as they look and sometimes they are bigger. Size doesn’t matter. Stumped is stumped.
6) Removing a stump but choosing to keep it as a reminder of what stood in your way is a good thing. When you look at it, you will always know that when it came to you against the stump, you won.
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I’m taking a page from Michael Hyatt’s playbook and trying to write ALL my blog posts for the next week or two in ONE day. Whew! The good news is that I get to write all day! Haha! The other good news is that with my brain focused on one thing, I’m writing better blog posts, though I’m not sure if it’s taking me any less time. (Maybe if I do this regularly it will go faster, but not yet.)
The other interesting thing is that my posts are becoming somewhat thematic as I write them all today. Everything I’ve wanted to write has to do with encouragement in one form or another. (Due to the luck of what day the 9th fell on this month, because that’s my blog day here, I have three posts hitting three different websites today!)
From a writing perspective, I want to encourage you to keep asking “Why?” John and I went to the East Valley Authors annual writers retreat last Saturday and had a great time. But on the way home, one or the other of us would start muttering, “Oh damn…” Laurie Schnebly Campbell taught two workshops on character motivation for the whole day, and it was startling to suddenly realize what you thought was your character’s motivation was just your author reasoning. It was a great day and Laurie gave everyone a lot to think about.
It also made me reconsider my own motivations. Why am I doing what I’m doing? And as Laurie said, “And why is that? And why is that?” After some work, you get another “sudden” revelation about the real why. Whether it’s for your character or for figuring out yourself, it’s good stuff.
When you are feeling tired or disheartened about your writing career, I want to encourage you to ask yourself why. The initial answer might be, “I write so slowly, I’m not getting many books out.” Or “I’m published but not selling many books.” Or “I self-published to make more money and I’m not making much.” Whatever the first answer is, ask yourself why about that. Why do you write slowly? Why aren’t you selling many books? Why do you have these expectations about money? And why is that? And why is that?
As you keep going deeper into the “why?” follow-ups, you may find your deepest motivation is something entirely different. Maybe it’s not money or fame that drives you, but a craving for respect from a significant person in your life who values money or fame. Maybe it’s not storytelling that drives you write, but the need for an inexpensive creative outlet. Who knows? You won’t even know until you start asking these questions.
I’ve learned some difficult things about myself over the years. Not having financial success makes me feel like I haven’t moved away from my poorer, other-side-of-the-tracks roots. I do write to tell the stories in my head, but I mostly write for the same reasons I teach – to connect with others and share what I’ve learned and entertain them in the process.
Knowing these things helps me understand why some advice from other writers works for me and some doesn’t. For instance, the “write every day” advice or the people who say “I have to write every day because I can’t not write” – that doesn’t inspire or motivate me because I can get the same high from teaching, and I can write every day for weeks, then not at all for a month or two, and I’m still quite happy. Up until recently, I felt guilty about that! I thought I had to feel the way “everyone else” feels in order to be “a real writer.”
I hope this helped you think about your career from a new perspective. If you’re interested in a more spiritual bit of encouragement, check out my “7 Steps to Building a Great Business and a Great Life” post on my author website. And if you’re giving some thought to quitting your writing, read “If You’re a Writer in Need of a Cheerleader” on Writer Entrepreneur Guides where I teach and share on writing topics.
Good luck! You can do it!
1.Stop Reading: After a long day of writing, the last thing you want to do is pick up someone else’s book – do it anyway. It will help you relax and keep you motivated – not to mention you might pick up a few literary tricks along the way
2. Rely on Inspiration: Inspiration is a contact sport. Pound the keys, search the web for topics that are compatible with your story, be proactive about inspiration.
3. Veer From Your Genre: So you want to write the first science fiction, erotic, mystery, romance? Don’t do it. If you want passionate and engaged readers make sure your book can be defined.
4. Get Boring: If you’re bored writing your book chances are that your readers will be bored reading it. Take your book to the top and then go over it. Conflict moves stories.
5. Default to Perfection: Men are fearless, women are sexy and everyone is just too cool for school. Readers want to relate to your characters – imperfections, shortcomings and all.
6. Lose the Through Line: Remember what story you’re writing. If you started out writing about a girl torn between her family and a soldier she loves, don’t go off into political discourse about war.
7. Be Afraid to Cut, Cut, Cut: Cut close to the bone and let the reader see the skeleton of your book instead of burying her in unnecessary description or dialogue. Let a reader’s imagination fill in the rest.
8. Throw in the Towel: The easiest thing in the world is starting a book; the hardest thing is finishing one. The cool thing is that you can do it with just an ounce more determination and patience. Yes, an ounce.
9. Don’t Do it Alone: For some writers a critique group works. For others it’s one trusted voice cheering them on. Writers may live with their fictional characters, but they thrive with a friend(s) who believes in them.
10. Beat Yourself Up: The book isn’t shaping up the way you want? Someone read a chapter and didn’t care for it? Feel like jumping off a cliff? You can spend your time beating yourself up, or beating the keys on your computer. Beat the keys and show the world what you’re made of. We’re all waiting for your book.
The day I stood in the choir loft surrounded by my fourth grade peers I had no idea that I was about to learn a lesson in suspense, terror, fear, retribution and resolution that would lead me to a career as a thriller author.
The day was hot, air-conditioning was unheard of, and we wore our itchy, ugly, brown wool Catholic school uniforms year ‘round to save our parents money. I was a very good girl. I never drew attention to myself, folded my hands with fingers pointing heavenward when I prayed, picked up trash on the playground and helped pass out papers in class. But that day, I made a blunder that put me in Sister Carmelita’s crosshairs. As she raised her arms and positioned her baton in anticipation of another rousing chorus of a hymn I have long forgotten, I rolled my eyes. Yep, I rolled them to the back of my little ten-year-old head in frustration and exhaustion.
Sister Carmelita cut her own my way. I realize now that she had mastered the art of eye cutting because she couldn’t move her head given her the box-like wimple. Everyone stopped breathing. No one knew what I had done, only that I had done something very, very bad.
“Miss Forster.” Sister Carmelita’s voice was modulated appropriately for God’s house. “Wait after choir.”
My stomach lurched. I felt light headed. I was doomed.
Sister Carmelita is long gone. During her time on earth she faced changes in her church and her life, but I doubt she ever knew how that day changed me. So, if you’re listening, Sister, I want you to know that, 30 years later, that moment sealed my fate. I spend my days writing thrillers, trying to recapture the exquiste sense of suspense I experienced that day. Here is what you taught me:
1) Less is More: Your understated notice of me, the glitter in your eye, the sound of your voice was more intriguing, more compelling, more enthralling than screaming, railing or ranting.
2) Timing is Everything: All 29 of my classmates knew I was in trouble. I knew I was in trouble. I even knew why I was in trouble (disrespecting you, God, choir practice, country, family and all living creatures with a roll of my eyes), yet you didn’t nip things in the bud with a mere instantaneous admonition. My comeuppance was exquisitely timed. You threw in an extra hymn to extend practice, studiously ignored me, meticulously folded your sheet music as my classmates silently went down the stairs. You waited until the door of the church closed, clicked and locked us together in that big, shadowy church before you turned.
3) The Devil’s in the Details: You were taller than me (back then almost everyone was taller than me), but that wasn’t why I was afraid. It was your whole package, the details of your awesome being that were so formidable. Covered head to toe in black, your face framed by your wimple (which, by the way, looked like the vice used during the Spanish Inquisition), your hands buried beneath the scapular that fell in a perfect column to the tips of your shoes, made for quite a package. But there was more: The scent of nun-perfume (I think it was soap, but it smelled like nun-perfume to me), the clack of those huge rosary beads attached to your wide belt, the squish of your rubber soled shoes. I saw all this, I heard all this, I smelled all this and each sense was heightened because of the hush surrounding us.
I remember your methodical advance into my personal space. I remember you lowering your eyes as I raised mine. The suspense was heart-stopping, the anticipation of my penance almost unbearable. Quite frankly, you were terrifying.
But here’s the funny thing: I don’t remember how it ended. Did you scold me? Did you show mercy and forgiveness? I only remember being terrified. Like the brain of the seven year old Stephen King swears gives him inspiration for his horror books, you, Sister Carmelita, inspire every sentence I write in every thriller novel I pen. For that, I can’t thank you enough.
I also want you to know, I have never rolled my eyes at anything since then .
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