Treat your dream like your job, even though no one’s paying you
Imagine it’s Monday morning. You slept horribly, your room’s cold, and it’s raining and miserable outside. You have a lot to do at work today, again, because that’s the way it’s been for weeks now, and you’ve had enough. So you think ‘fuck it’, and you turn your alarm off and roll over. You’ll catch up on all that work tomorrow.
But around 9.30, your boss calls. She’s wondering where you’ve got to. You’re straight with her: you’re noping out today and that’s that. Obviously, she’s a little taken aback because, I mean, it’s your job. She’s paying you for it. There are people relying on you. She says you’ve got an hour to get to the office or they’ll be repercussions. But there’s an easy fix: you turn your phone off for the rest of the day, and her four more calls go straight to voicemail.
When you check your phone on Tuesday morning, there are also a couple of messages from your friend Jeff. He wants you to go see a movie with him. You tell him you can’t, you have to go to work because you’re in deep shit as it is. But Jeff says you work too hard, that it’s okay to be easier on yourself sometimes, and you think ‘Jeff knows’, so you blow off work again and go to the movie. Maybe you get some dinner too. By the time you get home that evening, your boss is losing her shit. There’s a formal email in your inbox, summoning you to a disciplinary hearing the next day. If you fail to attend, the email states, you will be automatically suspended without pay for two weeks. Well, fine. Sounds cushty.
You have a swell two weeks. All your work friends – the ones picking up your slack – are on you round the clock, trying to find out what the fuck’s going on with you, but no matter. Your boss eventually schedules another meeting with you at the end of your suspension to talk about the next steps. You, like, really need to go to this meeting. The buck has well and truly stopped, and your career hangs in the balance.
But you don’t. So they fire you.
Now, imagine it again, except at around 9.30 on Monday, when your boss calls you up, she doesn’t. When you and Jeff go to the cinema on Tuesday, she’s cool with it. You check your inbox when you get home, and there’s some spam from thetrainline.com and ASOS, and that’s it. You decide to take two weeks off anyway, because why not? Jeff’s right, you do work yourself too hard. Your boss signs off on this too. You don’t get fired, you don’t piss anybody off, and the slowly building mountain of work – the stuff you need to do to get where you’re trying to go – will wait for you.
If scenario B sounds familiar, you’re probably writing a novel.
It’s not easy to get shit done when no one’s paying you, no one’s counting on you, and no one’s riding you to put the hours in other than you. Unlike me, the chances are you’re working a real, paying job too, or raising a family, or juggling some other first priority that makes it that much harder to listen to your boss (that’s you in this metaphor) when she tells you to show up, or there’ll be consequences. If you’ve ever wondered why so few people ever write the novel we supposedly all have in us, then this is why.
Self-motivation is an elusive thing at the best of times – but this is my second novel. The first was whittled at slowly over five years, in between shifts and studying and other priorities. I started it for the love of writing, but somewhere along the way I got giddy over the idea of seeing it in print, of having strangers read it and even – dare I dream? – enjoy it. It hasn’t worked out that way (yet; I hope to release it as an eBook sometime this year). Somewhere in the region of twenty agents turned it down. So, I started again. I had another idea for a story, and I’m about halfway through a first draft.
You tell yourself a lot of clichés when you’re grappling to succeed. One that I love and hate equally is this: ‘believe you can and you’re halfway there’. I love it because it’s true: halfway might sound like a long way for something as simple as your state of mind to carry you, and it is. No one’s trying to tell you the second half of the journey isn’t a frickin long way, but that second half starts way up in the mountains. Think the Fellowship digging through snow on the Redhorn Pass. You’ve got to elevate your mind.
And I hate it, also because it’s true: however soul-destroying it is to have to question whether you can even string a sentence together; however many agents turn you down; and however insurmountable the task of starting right back at the beginning may seem, if you don’t believe in yourself (yack. I should probably mention I’m sponsored by Disney) then there’s no point ever picking up a pen. It’s the catch-22 of this whole ‘ambition’ debacle: you have to set yourself up for the fall.
It could be worse. I could be surrounded with people who don’t take me seriously. Because there is no way in heck I’d have written that first line if my family and friends scoffed and laughed and told me to do something worthwhile and profitable instead. But, for the most part, they’re the closest thing I have to colleagues. They ask about my progress; they listen to me moan about my work day; and they offer [often hilarious] narrative solutions when I start into the nitty-gritty of whatever problem I can’t solve. Sure, every once in a while I have to put my foot down and tell them ‘no, actually, I can’t come to the pub because I’m working’, or ‘I know you mean well, but I’m not calling it a day just because it’s taking so long’. If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people, then believe me when I say that, when it’s done, this novel will have your infinite support to thank for its existence.
So I have two nuggets of advice. The first is to surround yourself with people who get it. You need colleagues. They’re no substitute for a real taskmaster, but even the most self-confidant of us can get a vital boost from a loved one telling us to soldier on.
And the second is this: toe the line. Listen to your boss. You’re her favourite, after all, and she wants to see you go far. Those deadlines she sets, the whip-cracking and the missed movie trips – they’re for your own good. Because when you took the job, you told her you wanted to hold your published novel in your hands. You told her you needed that giant dose of the feeling you only get when somebody’s reading something born in your imagination. And you never know, work hard enough and she might give you a raise*.
*lol, she won’t