This is a repost of a piece I wrote quite a while ago. I just watched Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech again (for the I-don’t-know-how-many)th time. And this taps into some of my thoughts lately on writing and priorities. So I just wanted to share for those of you new to the blog.
I’ve been thinking about goals lately and about what I want out of my writing career. I’ll tell you that, personally, I know quite a few writers. I count many as friends. Some of them you’ve never heard of, and some of them I’m fairly positive you have. Most of these people are working at different levels in their career. Writing their first book. Writing their twentieth. Looking for an agent. Looking for a film deal. Looking for the internal fortitude to take the next step, whatever that may be.
Wherever we are, we’re all working and creating and taking the same journey, though in completely different ways. We’re all working toward our personal goals.
I’ve talked here before about Neil Gaiman’s exceptional commencement address to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Honestly, if you are a creative person of any kind, you need to watch or read it here. In that speech, Gaiman talked about how he saw his goals as a writer.
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.”
I don’t think that you need to write down a detailed list of what you want to accomplish as a writer or an artist. You certainly may if that is what motivates you, but if you’re like me, you may not have specific goals, only general ones:
- I want to tell stories.
- I want to write better every day.
- I want to be able to pay my rent and buy groceries.
- I don’t want to be bored.
Being a writer is my mountain. My goal. And as I continue on in this very busy, very noisy world, I have to ask myself, “How I am going to get there?”
“And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”
Is the next step you’re considering going to take you closer to your personal mountain? Or further? It’s very easy to be distracted. There are personal and family obligations that are not optional. But there are many, many social or professional obligations that are. How much time to you spend reading blogs? How much time do you spend on social networks? How much time do you spend studying about writing when you could be actually writing?
“I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”
See, for a long time, I spent many hours a day trolling through the internet, reading excellent blogs or journals, finding those writers who had been on this publishing journey before me. I was learning. I was gleaning the information from this source and that experience. I had a list of sites that I checked, some of them daily, so that I could keep up with current publishing news. At that point in my journey, those things moved me toward my mountain.
Then, I published my first book. And most of those sites told me that I needed to maintain this blog presence or build that audience or promote in that community. And I did some of that. And those efforts (with varying success) moved me closer to the mountain.
So, I published my second book. (And it was no less nerve-wracking than the first.) And then I published my third and my fourth and my fifth. And through those months, I learned that, when things got too distracting, too overwhelming, or simply too complicated, I turned back to advice I heard from this man when I first started my journey: Focus on writing the next thing.
Because writing more will always lead me closer to the mountain. Though I took a degree in English, I never studied creative writing formally. Like Gaiman, “I learned to write by writing.” So how do I get better? I write more. And I keep writing.
Soon, I found that I wasn’t reading as many blogs or websites or journals because… they were no longer moving me toward my mountain. In my own body of work, I struggle with the idea of going back and re-editing my first book, A Hidden Fire. There are things about it that I know could be improved and, as an independent author, I could update the file easily. It’s tempting for my own ego, but I’m not sure whether it moves me toward the mountain or is just a distraction. (I’m still debating this, by the way, so feel free to weigh in with your comments.)
In conclusion, ask yourself today: Are the steps I’m taking in my journey moving me closer to that mountain? Or are they a side trip? A distraction? And don’t be afraid to say yes, but I’m going to do it anyway. Some people prefer a more meandering path, and that’s your prerogative. If you’re smart and observant, you’ll learn things either way.
But don’t stray for too long. Keep moving toward your personal mountain. Keep working. Keep learning. Mostly, keep writing or creating. Gaiman said it better than me:
“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”