I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful writers over the years. One thing they all seem to have in common is a certain mental toughness. They don’t let the small stuff get to them and they have an ability to persevere in the face of incredible obstacles. Even when dealing with horrible things unrelated to writing (like the death of a loved one, a financial crisis, or chronic illness, for example), they seem able to “Keep Calm and Carry On” like few other people I’ve met.
I always figured this strength had something to do with the crucible of rejection, criticism, and constant raising and dashing of hopes that all writers must endure. That constant pressure will either toughen you up or kill you. Writers (at least those who’ve stuck with the profession for any length of time) have passed through the fire and come out stronger on the other side. That was my assumption, anyway.
It appears, though, that a writer’s mental strength goes deeper than this. I recently had the pleasure of reading an article by Amy Morin. In it, she discusses thirteen things that mentally strong people don’t do. Every single item on her list is something that writers (again, those who’ve stuck with the profession for a while) do not do. I don’t know whether writers are born this way, whether writing makes them this way, or whether it’s some combination of the two, but it’s interesting to see that writers share the traits of people who are mentally strong, generally. So what are those traits and how do writers exemplify them? Here you go. Mentally strong people do not…
- Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves. A writer who wants to succeed can’t waste time moping about their latest rejection, or how their publisher went bankrupt right before their books’ release date. They understand that $^%& happens and they move on. Sure, there might be a moment of disappointment, but it doesn’t turn into a month-long festival of wallowing in bad TV and ice cream. Writers put it behind them and move on to the next project.
- Give Away Their Power. Successful writers don’t let other people dictate how they should feel or respond to situations. They don’t get caught up in thoughts like, “The system is rigged against new writers so I’ll never make it,” or, “That agent rejected me so I must suck.” Instead they think, “New writers are published every single day. I’ll get there.” Or, “Rejection isn’t personal, it’s business. I don’t suck. That agent just wasn’t the right fit.” They determine how they respond to situations and they don’t let other people make them feel “less than.”
- Shy Away from Change. Any writer who avoids change isn’t going to last long. Writers have to embrace constant changes in technology, publishing, markets, promotional strategies, and even the genre or field in which they write. Embracing change is the difference between a successful writing career and having to find another job.
- Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control. Writers can’t afford to waste energy on things they cannot control because pretty much everything (beyond the actual writing) is beyond a writer’s control. Expending energy fretting would leave us all exhausted in a gutter somewhere. Whether or not you land an agent, get published, become a successful freelancer, or get hired as a reporter is largely out of your control. Sure, you can do some things to improve your chances, but much of what makes for a successful (defined as “lucrative”) writing career is beyond the writer’s control. Focus on the writing and the things that might improve your chances and let everything else go or you’ll burn out in a hurry.
- Worry About Pleasing Others. There’s a reason writers are told to, “Write what you love.” That’s because chasing trends, trying to write something your mother will love, or taking on a freelance project that you know you’ll hate will almost always lead to failure. Writers quickly learn how to say no to jobs and ideas that just don’t suit their temperament, time available, or skill level.
- Fear Taking Calculated Risks. Writers tend to be very good at weighing the pros and cons of a situation and taking calculated risks. Whether it’s deciding to self-publish a book, to sign with a newer agent or publisher, or to freelance full time, writers have the ability to evaluate the likely benefits to their careers against the potential negatives. If the odds seem to be favorable, they don’t shy away from taking the risk.
- Dwell on the Past. If writers dwelt on the past and let it stop them, there would never be another book written. Our pasts usually give us plenty of reason to hide under the bed. Rejection, criticism, a book that didn’t sell at all, a book that hit the bestseller list followed by two that didn’t… There are plenty of bad things to dwell on. Successful writers don’t look back and lament what was (or wasn’t). Instead, they move on to the next book or project.
- Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over. Writers learn from their mistakes and usually avoid repeating them. If a marketing idea didn’t work, they try another one. If an article or book didn’t sell, they figure out why and make the next one better. A bad experience with a client becomes a learning opportunity so that it doesn’t happen again. A writer who refuses to learn from her mistakes and make changes will never progress.
- Resent Other People’s Success. Yes, it’s hard not to get jealous when others in your writing group are getting published and you’re not. But successful writers don’t dwell on it for long. They know that hard work will eventually lead to success and they redouble their efforts. They take inspiration from the success of others and are genuinely happy when someone else succeeds.
- Give Up After Failure. A writer simply cannot give up after failure. One rejection or one trunked novel means nothing in this business. That stuff happens to every writer and if you give up that easily then this is not the career for you. Successful writers fail hundreds (or thousands) of times, yet they keep going until they succeed.
- Fear Alone Time. Writers revel in alone time and silence. Most of us want to be alone more than we are because the best writing gets done when there aren’t any distractions. Silence is a writer’s friend, not an enemy.
- Feel the World Owes Them Anything. Writers know that success comes from hard work (and a little bit of luck). It doesn’t happen because you feel entitled to it, because you have money, because you got a special degree from a special school, or because your parents are influential. Writers know that the work has to stand on its own and that they have to make their own opportunities.
- Expect Immediate Results. Anyone entering the writing profession and expecting immediate success clearly hasn’t done his or her homework. Even the “overnight success” stories often have years of hard slog behind them. It takes time to develop the skills needed to become successful. (And those skills go beyond “mere” writing. You have to master editing, revision, marketing, etc., as well.) Besides, publishing moves slower than a snail stuck in honey. A book you send out today may not be accepted or rejected for months (sometimes years). It takes time to see the results of your efforts.
People tend to think of writers as weak, overly sensitive artist-types who can’t hack it in the real world. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Writers are some of the mentally toughest people you’ll ever meet. I’ve always known that writing is not an occupation for the weak. Now I know why.