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Lessons in Writing That Work For Your Life Too

In his half-autobiography/half-instruction manual On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King notes that Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life. In these few words, he voices what many writers intrinsically understand after going through the process of completing a draft—the lessons gained from writing are in many ways, life lessons, as well. Here are five lessons in writing that will work for your life, too.

The lessons gained from writing are in many ways, life lessons, as well.
The lessons gained from writing are in many ways, life lessons, as well. Photo by Muhammad Haikal Sjukri on Unsplash.

Persistence is important

Any writer who has been doing it long enough has experienced the dreaded blank page and absence of inspiration. Especially if you are a writer by profession, the combination of a blank page and looming deadlines can make the creative process even more difficult, which is why it's important to keep going—to keep writing—even when the going gets hard.

Octavia Butler, noted African-American science fiction author and multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, put it like this: You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

Even when inspiration is hard to find or rejections you get back from potential publishers have piled up, persisting in your writing will eventually pay off. This might include sitting back down with your manuscript and reworking it (or as Stephen King puts it, Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings.) Or, it might include starting from the beginning with an entirely new story and putting your rejected manuscript to the side to self-publish.

However you decide to persist, remember that life (as with writing) will have its difficult moments. There will be times when you want to throw in the towel and be done with it, but hard times are what teach us to be the best version of ourselves. So quitting is not an option if you want to grow—as a writer and as a person.

Set a goal every day and stick to it

For Stephen King, a daily writing goal is one of the ways he has found success as a writer. In his On Writing, he speaks of the mornings being the best time for him to write, and the time of the day when he feels like he gets his best work done. The goal he sets for himself is about 10 pages a day (or approximately 2,000 words. His afternoons are reserved for naps and letters, while his evenings are for reading, family, revisions that can't wait, and Red Sox games on TV.

Although 2,000 words might not seem like very much, it equals out to approximately a million words within a year and a half. One glance at King's extensive work that has been published and you'll see that his daily writing goal has played a large role in helping him write and publish prolifically.

In life, as in writing, setting a daily goal for yourself does several things. First, it helps you accomplish larger tasks by breaking them down into much smaller chunks. This helps alleviate any overwhelm you might feel in needing to get something accomplished. For example, if you want to eat healthier and lose weight, setting a daily goal of healthy calorie intake and exercise is how to make that happen. This goal might be as simple as exercising for 5 minutes a day and cutting back on sodas, chips, and other unhealthy snacks but the important thing is sticking to it daily, for as long as it takes until you've reached the goal you set for yourself.

Sometimes, you just need to sleep on it

If you've ever written something well—so well, in fact, that you're immediately ready to submit it as a draft of your work—don't do it! Why? Because sometimes, you just need to sleep on it, and looking closely at your writing is one of those times.

You've likely heard the advice to not edit as you write and it's good advice to follow. When you write, you are using the right side of your brain to create. When you edit, you are using the left side of your brain, looking at the words on the page in a logical, rational, analytical, and objective way. Separating these two processes by a good night's sleep does several things. First, it "resets" your brain, allowing you to look at your work with the eye of an editor versus the eye of a writer. Second, it gives you a fresh perspective, potentially allowing you to see things you missed when you were in "writing mode."

The same is true for other facets of life—sometimes, especially if you're overwhelmed by work, family, relationships, and deadlines, you just need to sleep on it and approach the topic with a fresh perspective in the morning. Whether through dreams or simply time to allow your brain to rest, sleeping on it can provide the "reset" you need to make more sense of a situation that looks a little less cloudy or convoluted after a good night's sleep.

Be honest

No one knows your truth better than you and no one can write the story that you are uniquely qualified to write. Neil Gaiman puts it like this:

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there'll always be better writers than you and there'll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that—but you are the only you.

Tarantino—you can criticize everything that Quentin does—but nobody writes Tarantino stuff like Tarantino. He is the best Tarantino writer there is, and that was actually the thing that people responded to—they're going "this is an individual writing with his own point of view."

There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better - there are all those kinds of things, but there's nobody who can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.

Neil Gaiman

When you consider writers like Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, and Cormac McCarthy, the best and most memorable writers of the present and throughout history are those who have told the truth and were honest—sometimes brutally so—in their work. These truths are part of what makes their novels or poetry so easy to read, because in them, we find words of wisdom that only honesty can produce.

This lesson of honesty goes beyond the act of writing and applies to our lives, relationships, and personal interactions, as well. Honesty is an attractive quality in anyone and is one of the easiest ways you can have influence on others around you. People are drawn to honesty and integrity because we live in a world that, unfortunately, experiences a dearth of both.

Writers such as Charles Bukowski have always been known for their honesty in writing.
Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Charles Bukowski have always been known for their honesty in writing. Photo by Joshua Coleman on Unsplash.

Learn to appreciate criticism

In his movie, Midnight in Paris, writer and director Woody Allen resurrects Ernest Hemingway, who holds a conversation with the main character of the movie, Gil (who is also a writer). In one memorable scene, Gil asks Hemingway to read his script:

Gil: Yah, it's like 400 pages long and I'm just looking for an opinion.

Hemingway: My opinion is that I hate it.

Gil: You haven't even read it yet.

Hemingway: If it's bad, I'll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it's good I'll be envious and I'll hate it all the more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.

Midnight in Paris

While Hemingway's reasoning for not offering criticism is witty, Gil was on the right path by looking for feedback for his work—particularly from someone whose opinion he respected. Feedback is useful for any writer and the right kind of criticism can help you sharpen your skills. While you probably don't want to solicit feedback from just anyone, receiving feedback from professional editors and others who know the industry well can help you hone your writing and cut out the unnecessary parts (or "kill your darlings").

The most important part of being open to honest feedback—both in your writing and in life—is to avoid over-reacting when you receive criticism. If you've asked the right critic to help you, you could find his or her advice to mean the difference between success and failure in getting your work published.

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