Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Success, comfort, and other confusing things.

Sometimes I feel like the Rip Van Winkle of writing.

My first RWA national conference was 20 years ago, 1987 in Dallas. . . and I came away from those tumultuous four days with the distinct impression that everybody in this business knew more about it than I did. I had already published two books, but the newest pre-pubbed members seemed to know more about publishers, contract terms, and editor/agent relations than I did. And that was without mentioning the technical aspects of writing. . . story arcs, conflict, voice, research, scenes and sequels, "beats," and POV. What the hell was "POV?"

Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

This year-- 20 years later-- I came home from Dallas with a Rita and a delirious feeling of accomplishment. Which came crashing down around me like a leaky Macy's parade float the minute I opened my current WIP and realized how much I still have to do to make it presentable. Even so-- I'm still smiling. And for today, I feel like a success. Which is a feeling I intend to hang on to for as long as possible.

Which of course led me to ponder "success" and all it's ramifications. The most immediate of which is this blissful feeling of well-being that makes me want to do NOTHING! I want to sip champagne or Snapple and lounge around in the sun like a lizard. Which may be the karmic reason success never lasts too long for me. . . it wouldn't be good for me. I'd probably never write another word. I have discovered that discomfort is actually productive for me. Go figure.

Okay, I'm not talking buying size 8 1/2 shoes despite the fact that I wear a 9. . . just because they were out of my usual size. . . and then getting blisters. I am talking about the trap of emotional and mental comfort. Being too comfy to move. Or grow. Or create. The Comfort Trap.

I knew for some time that I needed to kick the writing up a notch and get back to the place in me where I really ENJOYED crafting stories and putting ideas on a page.

"The Book of True Desires," which won the Rita, was that book for me. While writing that book, I rediscovered what I truly love about writing. And it was glorious. I couldn't wait to get to the computer each day. I wrote pages and pages without a halt. At the end of the day, I felt totally satisfied. That, I said to myself, was WRITING. And I wanted to feel that passionate, that involved, that creative with every book I write. At the end of that book, I felt energized in a way I hadn't been in years.

That lasted about a month.

Until I started on my next project, and then another, then another. . . none of which seemed to be right somehow. I was comparing them all to the "success" of writing True Desires. Hmm. So I took a risk and decided to do things differently: I got a critique group.

My only real complaint about writing as a career is that it's so isolating. So why didn't I think of this before? I had a process-- big, sprawling, messing, sometimes incoherent, but mine-- and I didn't want anybody messing with it. Having critique partners meant I'd have to listen to them. And maybe change things I wrote. Out of my comfort zone. Clearly. But I was in real need of some productive change and this seemed. . . do-able.

As we get to know each other better and learn how to work together, we're really enriched by each other's ideas and perceptions. And I'm feeling less isolated and I'm forced to actually make pages for my partners to read. Sometimes I struggle with whether or not to take their advice, but I know when they really like something that it's good. It's just enough "discomfort" at the right times to keep me on my toes.

Maybe that's the key to an enduring career. . . challenging yourself to grow beyond your usual. . . never being too comfortable to look for better ways to do things. Because when we get too comfortable, the market will change, the "next new thing" will outpace us, and we'll be in Jurassic Park before we know it. As exhibits.

Now my hairstyle. . . that's a comfort I don't intend to let anybody mess with. Not even in the interest of growth. Oh, yeah, and the clunky Clark's shoes that Rex says make me look like I shouldn't be trusted with scissors. And of course those elastic waist shorts. . .

What about you? What areas of your life does your comfort zone rule? What do you do to keep yourself current and involved? What is your reaction to success? Do you ever get too comfortable for your own good?


Adam Grow said...

I have to say that I love this article. This blog has been so simple and has a lot more features than other blog articles. The layout and design is great. I will continue to come back here for every articles! Thanks a bunch. Cool blog...... .

Betina Krahn said...

Thanks, Adam! You're welcome anytime!

lois greiman said...

Betina, I just love it that you won that Rita. If I could choose anyone to have one...that's not me...it'd be you. I've always admired your work so much.

But yeah, I think you're right, even a limited amount of success can make us really complacent. And as artists...if that's what we are...we need to ache a little bit.

Huge congrats. And thanks for being you.

Michele Hauf said...

I love that you recognize when you've become too comfortable, and know it must change. I think it's great if we continue to try to challenge ourselves. Otherwise, yeah, we'd be slumps sitting before the keyboard, day in, day out.

I once read a definition of success that I really liked, though I don't remember who said it, but here it is: Success is the gradual realization of your dreams.

I like that, because it doesn't mean when you've acheived one thing, you're a success, and that's all there is. It means you can be a success, and then continue on that path, gaining more success as you also realize dreams.

You've motivated me to do my BIAW goal for today, Betina!

Debra Dixon said...

Betina-- Great thoughts and I love that pic you put up. It just seems so joyous.

I so totally believe that we have to remain relevant if we want to be taken seriously. It is so easy to sit back and say, "I don't want to learn something new. I'm happy with the way things have always been."

It's true in a career. It's true in life.

I'm blessed to be able to say, "What haven't I done?" and then generally I'm able to focus on that, devote time and energy to new things. Like writing the YA fantasy short story for DAW.

However, first I have to spend lots of time avoiding facing the scary dark void of not-knowing nothin' about the "new thing." I moan and say, "Why am I doing this?"

Then when it's done I realize how important it is to keep doing those new things.

Betina Krahn said...

Thanks, Lois, Michele, and Deb for being you and for being a part of another whole "new thing" for me-- this blog.

Michele, I like the "gradual" part of that definition a lot. I think the lasting changes and successes are the ones that come slowly.

And Deb, the learning curve is pretty daunting when you try a new thing. Especially if you're comfy where you are. It take a lot of strength to step up and say "I have more in me than that and it's time I put it to work."

Kathleen Eagle said...

Betina, you tapped into the wrestling match I've been having with my own worst enemy. That would be myself. I don't know that I've ever spent much time in a comfort zone, but the closest I've come was probably getting the contract that felt "big" to me. I didn't know what to do with it. I started doubting myself bigtime. Is the idea worthy, the proposal, the book?

I've never tried a critique group, but teaching classes at the Loft has been just the ticket for me. I love students, no matter what the age or skill level. It feels like back to the future because it's all about learning. Much like critiquing--kicking ideas around and getting excited about the possibilities. And getting your hands and face all sticky in the writing. Yum!

Helen Brenna said...

I'm not sure I have comfort zones. And I think I'm too much a perfectionist to believe in success. There always seems to be another hurdle to jump.

Hmm. Can you say type A?

Love that picture, Betina. Such beautiful colors and so flowing and peaceful.

C.L. Wilson said...

I totally agree with you about basking in success having a tendency to be a danger. Because after all that hard work, it's nice to sit back and enjoy the glow of accolades for a while. The scariest thing in the world is staring at a blank page and thinking...now what?

As for the critting - having to produce pages for critique is a little like knowing you have to step on the scale at Weight Watchers. "THEY" will know if you were cheating last week! it provides an impetus to actually site down and put words on a page.

For me, having other eyes on what I write is generally helpful because I have a tendency to get too close to the story (not seeing the forest for the trees and all that). It's nice to have someone fresh, who doesn't know what I *meant* to say and can only read what I actually *did* say. And it's nice to have other eyes on a chapter just to get a different viewpoint. Crit partners think of all sorts of things I don't. I don't always take their suggestion, but I ususally find my writing better and my story richer because of them.

Cheryl Wilson

Betina Krahn said...

Hey, C.L.! Great to see you here!
And yes-- readers (and crit partners!) can only see what you put on the page-- not what you intended the reader to get from what you put on the page. Did that make sense?