Last year I wrote a couple of posts about what I’d learned so far about being a freelance writer.
As expected, the one where I listed my faults got more traffic than the one where I paraded my triumphs (perhaps my “I’m a klutz” personal branding thing is proving a little too successful). But it was a fun exercise, and it was good to find out what I thought I was doing.
A year later, I have a few other points to make – for freelance writers in particular, but also for anyone attempting anything creative.
Whatever you’re doing with your life, I suggest you don’t do these things.
1. Don’t Fail
Failure isn’t the pain of rejection. It’s not when you screw up, not when you pluck defeat from the jaws of victory or when you’re knocked on your ass by a mightier opponent. It’s not when the thing that keeps your heart warm at night suddenly turns to ice and you can’t imagine enjoying anything ever again. All these things are awful – but they are not failure, because that story is ongoing while there’s still life left in you, so you haven’t failed yet. Sometimes the world takes your best efforts and tosses them around for a while, out of sight, long enough for you to lose all hope of seeing a return on your efforts, until someday something smacks into the side of you and you turn and hell, there it is at last. Nothing you attempt is ever truly dead (especially online). Everything is worth re-examining, giving a poke to see if there are roots under it – and everything you attempt shapes everything else you attempt afterwards.
When Total Flop Plan A is really v0.1 of Massive Success Plan B, where’s the failure? I can’t see one.
Real failure is refusing to even start. You talk yourself out of trying, you allow your insecurities to guide you, you decide or someone else decides it will never work…however it happens, the result is the same. It stays within your head, unspoken, never acted upon, unborn, unrisked, never even given a split-second to get out there and have a life of its own. That’s all it needs. An escape route, built by you – and once it’s free, it will do everything it can to repay you.
Failure is the process of keeping the very best of you locked away until it dies of neglect, utterly unrecognised and utterly alone.
2. Don’t Starve
My friend Shannon heard Danielle LaPorte hammer this home to attendees of last year’s World Domination Summit, and it’s stuck hard with me because for a lot of 2009 and 2010, I was starving. Not in terms of food. In terms of covering my bills.
When you are stressing because you’re not making rent, or you’re panicking because there’s a bill in a few weeks and you still don’t have the cash…you would be dumb to do anything other than seek the money to cover these things. Furthermore, your brain knows it. Try to do long-term legacy work without covering your basic running expenses first? If you’re like me, you’ll be a jittery self-doubting mess. Your work will suffer – and you’ll be twice the basket-case when it’s the end of the month and you need to pull money out of thin air.
This is not the kind of uncertainty that cattle-prods your creativity into a useful frenzy. This is the kind that kills it.
Some risks are not worth taking.
3. Don’t Plan
Choose your direction – absolutely.
Break projects up into steps and give yourself deadlines – it’s the only way to go.
Plans have a habit of breaking every time something changes. They’re great in the abstract, where all variables can be controlled, and next to useless in the chaotic, messy, flux-torn real world we make our ways through. Plans are too brittle for normal life.
I much prefer Neil Gaiman’s approach.
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.
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. 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.
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
Neil Gaiman’s Keynote Address to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia
4. Don’t Hide Your Flaws
Vulnerability is power. If you can live with it without artifice, without wallowing self-pity, not only will your work be more engaging to its audience, you will (paradoxically) make yourself tough enough to deal with any challenge.
But don’t just take my word for it.
5. Don’t Believe A Word
Wherever I am with my career right now (answers on a postcard to the usual place), I wouldn’t be anywhere without a lot of terrific advice and invaluable help from people I’ve met along the way. They’re a large part of why I’m doing what I’m doing. And it all comes down to belief – and the fact I’ve never really had any.
This isn’t a point about Faith, which I both respect and know so little about that my opinion would probably be less than useless. This is about making sure everything that enters your ears and eyes also goes through your brain.
(Any neuroscientists reading? I’m being figurative. Thanks).
It doesn’t matter how much you trust a source’s suggestions, it doesn’t matter how hard-won someone else’s advice for you is – the bottom line is you are the one who is thinking of using it. For that reason alone, it is always worth questioning (which is part of the great intellectual process of exploration, not just a way of tearing things to shreds). Question, try on for size, play with, blend with other ideas to see what happens, blood-mindedly circumvent, or simply play-test until you’re absolutely sure it feels right for you in every way and is giving you the results you need…
And hope all you like. That’s totally OK.
But never believe.
If you believe that something designed for a complete stranger is going to be an exact fit for you in every way, and if you act on that belief, you will lose the ability to deal with the situation when something goes wrong, as it undoubtedly will at some point. Your survival skills will be reduced to zero. You will be defenceless when the world turns out to be imperfect.
Question everything, blindly accept nothing and cobble together a way of running your life that you know is probably flawed but that you also know works for you.
(Side effect: you’ll become “weird”. But that’s OK – all the best people are).