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‘The writing life’

‘Remember what’s really important’.


Adapted from Your Writing Coach, Jurgen Wolff


The Writing Life

“There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and, after that, to enjoy it. Only the wisest of mankind achieve the second.”

—Logan Piersall Smith


If you’ve worked your way through the material shared on The Future Bookshelf you will now have figured out what you want to write, how to write it, and how to approach getting it published. I’d now like to share with you some strategies for establishing and sustaining a successful writing career.


Keep setting and reaching goals

Motivation guru Brian Tracey tells the story of his life-changing experience: He was traveling across the Sahara with friends when their Land Rover broke down. They were low on water and they knew that if they couldn’t fix the car they’d die. Tracey says:


“That’s when something locked in. I realized I was responsible for my own life. I stopped blaming my parents, my teachers, other people. I knew nothing in my life would ever change unless I changed; I knew a person in this life must be a proactive agent in his life rather than a reactive agent.”


Here is Tracey’s prescription for being effectively proactive:


 “You must be clear about the goals you set, flexible about the process of achieving them, and then continually learn all you can in every way possible.”


The best way to stay on track is to review your goals monthly. If what you’re doing to move toward that goal isn’t working, decide what you can do differently, and identify what would be helpful for you to learn in the coming month.


Stay flexible

Although I believe strongly in setting goals, it’s also important to keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities. Sometimes people get so fixated on a specific goal that they don’t even notice that something else, which might give them just as much, if not more, money and satisfaction, is available for the taking.


Traditional approaches to setting and reaching goals say you should focus so much on your goal that you filter out all other possibilities, but in a chaotic and unpredictable climate this may be exactly the wrong strategy. One way to maintain flexibility is to make sure that when you review your progress toward the goal, you also ask yourself whether it is still important to you. Otherwise you may find, as one executive said, “I spent years climbing the ladder and finally got to the top… only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.” Also, when a new opportunity comes up that clashes with your goal, carefully examine whether it might be worth pursuing even if it means delaying or discarding your current goal.


Expect obstacles

Some writers assume that once they have had their first breakthrough, for example having a novel published, their troubles are at an end. I have a favourite Zen story about people and problems:


A farmer went to see the Buddha about his various problems: The weather was either too hot and it dried out his crops, or too wet and it caused floods, and his wife didn’t understand him, and his son was ungrateful and rebellious.

The Buddha said he couldn’t help because all human beings have 83 problems. A few may go away, but soon enough others take their place. So we will always have 83 problems.

The farmer was indignant. “Then what is the good of all your teaching?” he demanded.

The Buddha said, “My teaching can’t help with the 83 problems, but perhaps it can help with the 84th.”

“What’s that?” the farmer asked.

“The 84th problem,” the Buddha said, “is that we don’t want to have any problems.”


The reality is that every writing career, just like every other career, has ups and downs. You can have a great success and then something happens that throws you off. Maybe an editor or producer who loves your work gets fired, retires, or dies, or the production company that wanted to make your movie goes bankrupt, or a magazine folds without paying you for work you’ve already done (I’ve experienced all of these). Of course, you must take sensible precautions, but some things will always be out of your control, and if you accept that you will find the setbacks easier to take.


Remember what’s really important

As much as I hope that you will make a lot of money from your writing, it’s possible that you will encounter some lean years.


There may be times when you wonder whether you should go back to the day job that you didn’t enjoy but that brought in more money. Here’s a thought-provoking passage written by someone who goes by the name of Psy, in an issue of Reclaiming Quarterly magazine:


“Imagine that a rich relative left you an inheritance. There is enough money that you never have to work again if you keep your expenses low by sharing an apartment with roommates, using the bus instead of owning a car, cooking your meals at home, and so on. What would you do with your time? Would you work at all? Learn to play the piano?… Be a full-time parent? Where do your passions lie? Why aren’t you following those passions right now? Why aren’t you living that life? Is your path in life more important than living a lifestyle that obscures it? Can you make some changes to your lifestyle to rebuild your life around your passions? Will you?”


If writing is really important to you, it could be worth making some sacrifices in order to allow yourself to keep going with it. As well as deciding how to spend money, it’s vital to be aware

how you’re spending your time. It’s something you were encouraged to think about at the start of this process, but it’s so important that I want to reiterate it, because it’s easy to lose sight of it when we encounter other time pressures.


Here’s what top executive Nandan Kilekani (CEO of Infosys) told Fortune magazine about his attitude to time: “I have a saying— I am generous with my money and stingy with my time. I

think time is the most important asset I have.”


All too often, we count our pennies but waste our minutes (or hours). If you begin to fall behind in your writing, ask yourself what you could stop doing, or pay someone else to do, in order to have more time to write.