As other bloggers have discussed at my MG blog, Smack Dab in the Middle, creative work is really tough to measure. Sure, when you finish a book—or better yet, when a book is on the shelves of a library or B&N—and you’ve got something physical to point to as you say, “This is what I’ve been doing for the past two [or four or—ahem—ten] years,” people respond positively. They’re impressed. During that decade when you’re sitting in a pair of ripped jeans, ponytail hanging crookedly from the top of your head as you stare for hours into a computer screen, people who don’t know better tend to treat you as though you’re not doing much. Or—as often happens when you’ve nixed the idea of any kind of employment in order to pursue writing full-time—they tend to look at you the same way Kevin Costner’s neighbors did in FIELD OF DREAMS when he plowed up his corn. Like they can’t believe you’ve just thrown away something so incredibly valuable.
I’ve heard it all in the eleven years since I became a full-time writer—all sorts of unthinking reactions to what I do with my days, especially during periods when I didn’t have something physical to point to as I said, “This is what I’ve been working on.”
The thing is, though, some of the harshest words a writer can hear about how hard they’re working can often come from his (or her) self. I’ve certainly gone through periods when I put myself through the wringer, especially when my rejections were piling up, or when I didn’t quite meet my own self-imposed deadlines or word count goals.
Not too long ago—maybe a year or so—I freed myself from my own internal nagger. And I did it by counting everything.
For example: It’s so easy for me to get tied up in my daily word count (especially when drafting). But I no longer count simply the number of new words I put in my manuscript. I count everything. Notes to self down margins. Post-it scribbles. Emails to my editors or agent.
Ditto for time limits: After eleven years of full-time writing, I’ve got a pretty high endurance level. I can work for eight to as many as twelve hours a day on my current project. But when I say that, am I only pounding out chapter after chapter on my computer? No. I’m writing outlines in longhand. I’m researching. I’m bouncing new ideas off on my mom—who has always been my first reader on any new project. And, when a book is nearing release, I count time spent on my promo work—whether that’s putting together a new print ad, scheduling a video chat, or writing up a new guest post for a blog tour.
It’s become my new mantra: It all counts.
The thing is, there are always going to be people who fail to recognize just how much work goes into a creative job. (And creative jobs really are some of the toughest around…I always say that writing a novel is every bit as exhausting as building a house.) But I’ve learned that you can’t go looking for happiness outside of yourself. Happiness is internal. And if I take the time to recognize and respect the strides I’m making (even if those strides are internal and not measurable by a word counter or an impressive new advance), if I’m taking the time to be satisfied with and proud of my own progress, the voices of those who might try to talk about how I “plowed up my corn” always tend to fade right into the background.