Writing, Reality, and the Mountain Top
I got my first freelancing rejection today. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. Because it’s real.
In a sense I’ve just started freelancing. I’ve been “working on it” for over a year. Most of that time was spent reading and learning and not doing anything. For awhile that was great. When you know next to nothing about a subject you can expand your knowledge at an amazing rate. The first few days it grew exponentially. It’s intimidating and inspiring. You dive in and learn how much you don’t even know about the vast amounts you don’t even know. The more open your mind, the more intimidating and inspiring it is. Those first few days I flashed from moment to moment between “what am I getting myself into” and “I can do this!” and “wow, this is complicated.”
The rush doesn’t last. It doesn’t take long before you can’t ignore the fact that learning isn’t enough. You have to do something. This terrified me. I was scared about showing anything I wrote to anyone. No, scared doesn’t get anywhere near it. I was mortally paralyzed. How could I go from that to writing professionally? The gap seemed impossible to cross.
Because it was. If you are scared of climbing a ladder you can’t learn to climb a mountain. That is an impossible goal if your fear of the ladder is absolute. If you think about the mountain you’ll just curl into a ball so tightly it will crush your bones. Instead you need to think about the ladder.
So I started a blog. It was very, very difficult psychologically. But of course I had nothing really to worry about. The fear was exactly as artificial as it was real. Within a month of starting a blog it was hilarious that it ever frightened me. I started a blog to make writing a habit and to get used to communicating with others.
It took a long time to move to the next step. Of course it did. Sure, I could write for myself. But that didn’t matter. Writing for other people was still impossible. I couldn’t do that! It was mortally paralyzing.
But I did it. After months of planning and strategizing and learning, all in circles, I started to write for content mills. Most of the professional advice says “don’t do that!” But they are speaking to your career. They are speaking to people who can make themselves write. Who aren’t paralyzed. They are providing career advice, when what I needed was immersion therapy. The content mills provided that therapy. It was a low stress way to do something enormously stressful.
My writing for the mills was successful. I would say phenomenally successful. It was a low bar, and my performance was far above it. Everyone loved what I wrote for them, it was always accepted, and it got huge compliments.
Then I stopped. I stopped because I fell into a funk. I stopped because this kind of writing was too easy. I was good enough to move past it, just like the pros told me I would be. That was encouraging, but I was wasting my time here. It isn’t lucrative, but more to the point it was so easy it wasn’t real. I was on top of the hill, but the mountain loomed. I felt no closer to climbing it than I had months before when I was staring at a ladder. It was time to take the next step.
But the next step was terrifying. Paralyzing. I had to cold call? I had to do blind pitches to business and big time blogs? They were going to laugh at me. I didn’t know how to do that kind of writing! Of course, no one does. Everyone starts somewhere.
I spent a few months not doing much of anything.
But now I’ve started. Finally, as of last week, I’ve started. I didn’t go back to the mills. I took a few steps up the mountain. I started to pitch to nonprofits to get samples. I reached out to friends. I pitched a guest post to a contest on a major writing blog. I wrote letters of introduction to trade magazines. I did more in a week than I had in the last year.
The friends I reached out to were excited to work with me. Why was I so scared to do that? The pitch to the blog contest—which I almost deleted because I saw some counterexamples to my idea in a book on blogging—won third place. Why did I ever hesitate? I haven’t heard back from the non-profits yet. I need to do more of that, but they can be slow. I’m not worried, because I’m actually doing it. If none of them reply I haven’t lost anything. I know that most of my pitches and queries won’t go anywhere. That’s the game.
But one of the trade magazines replied. They rejected me. It wasn’t personal. The editor with the scary picture on their website replied and told me politely that they don’t use freelancers. She told me to try some of the sister magazines within their company.
I’m overjoyed. Yes, I had an emotional sting from the rejection. Of course I did. Rejection is painful, and I’m not used to it. But mostly I’m very happy. This was my first professional failure. The important word there is professional. She told me they don’t use freelancers. She didn’t say “little boy, who are you fooling?” She didn’t say “that was a really bad LOI; have you considered remedial writing lessons?” Of course she didn’t.
That would have been ridiculous.
Every step makes it a little more real. That is the key. All of my fear comes from a very specific belief. I don’t I realized that until recently. The belief is this:
Becoming a professional writer is a fantasy. Like becoming a superhero. It’s not a real thing that people do. It’s certainly not a thing that I could ever do. I can’t climb mountains! Those things are huge! There’s no oxygen at the top and they’re covered in snow!
What do you mean hundreds of people climb Mount Everest every year? What do you mean some of them are elderly, and some of them are missing a leg? What do you mean lots of people make a living as freelance writers?
Of course I can do this. I’m smart, dedicated, and a damn good writer. I just got my first professional rejection. It’s not going to be effortless. Good! Nothing real is effortless. Not even breathing. And you know what? It isn’t effortless for Spider-man, either.
That’s how you know it’s real.
The Procrastination Trigger
Everyone thinks they are a procrastinator, because everyone sometimes puts things off until later. If you get into a conversation with someone about procrastination, nearly everyone will say “oh, yeah, I’m a terrible procrastinator!” Even the guy who started his own business, works 80 hours a week, has 3 kids, and still manages to go mountain climbing every weekend and run a website that rates the most hilarious beer-bottle logos from around the world.
“Really?” I always want to ask this person, whose name may or may not be Steve. “Have you ever put an important task or phone call off five or six times a day, for an entire week, to the point that every moment you aren’t distracting yourself with video games or jello shots you so stressed about it you can’t focus on anything else? Have you ever put off a minor and fairly easy task for an entire year, even though not doing it had a serious negative effect on your life?”
It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t rational. But to the True Procrastinator, those of us who could put things off for England, it doesn’t matter. We can’t explain it or justify it any more than those people who are always late to things for absolutely no good reason. Man, I hate those people. One of these days I am going to write a big long rant about how much their lateness inconveniences the rest of us and send it to them. But not today. Definitely not today.
To the True Procrastinator, procrastination is nearly an end in an of itself. The act of putting something off isn’t passive. There is a moment where you decide not to do something, and it floods you with the same sort of rush as a smoker who takes that first drag after three hours stuck in an elevator with an old nun wearing a respirator.
Just the other day I noticed a component of my own compulsive procrastination that I never noticed before. I call it the Procrastination Trigger. The best way to explain it is by example.
For the last year I’ve been in regular email correspondence with my oldest friend. We’ve known each other since 9th grade, and like most length friendships we’ve fallen in and out of regular communication over the years. A year ago he had a baby–or maybe it was his wife, I’m not clear on the details–and since we don’t see each other as much as we like, we instead send each other long and heart-felt emails about stresses and difficulties and everything else on earth.
Whenever he sends me one of these emails I want to respond right away. But much of the time I don’t. Sometimes I put it off for weeks for absolutely no reason. During those weeks, I sit down to respond every single day. But instead I check Facebook. Or watch an episode of Adventure Time. Or fiddle with settings on my phone for 20 utterly wasted minutes. Sometimes he sends yet another email before I get around to responding. When I do respond, I always start with “Sorry it took so long to respond!” Even though I know he doesn’t mind. He sometimes takes a long time to respond, too.
Yesterday he sent me an email. My previous email had been one of those late responses with the obligatory apology. His reply included the following phrase:
I don’t think anything of it if it you don’t reply, maybe because I explicitly set out in the charter that I was “using” you as a more lightweight form of journaling.
I haven’t replied to his email. Not because I haven’t wanted to, but because of that phrase. I sit down to reply, and my brain screams at me. “What are you doing, you idiot! He gave you an out!”
I have no reason to procrastinate, but I have an excuse. I have an opportunity to put something off and get away with it, guilt free! How can I resist? It’s like walking past a quarter on the street and not picking it up. Sure, an extra quarter will make no difference in my life. But I will feel like an idiot for not taking advantage of the opportunity.
That is the Procrastination Trigger. When life gives the True Procrastinator the chance to procrastinate without consequences, it is much, much more difficult ignore the urge and just do the task. It’s the same mechanism as when you have a bill to pay, but you don’t pay it because there are other bills that are due sooner, which makes it feel silly to pay the first bill when really it shouldn’t be at the top of the priority list. It’s a form of justification that is subtle, powerful, and dangerous, because it makes you put off tasks you might otherwise complete right away.
But this isn’t entirely pessimistic. If you know about the Procrastination Trigger it weakens its effect on you. If you admit that you are under its thrall, if you keep a constant eye out for it, it is easier to resist. It isn’t effortless. It will never be effortless. But there is power in admitting that you put things off not because you have a good reason, but because you get psychological satisfaction from the practice of procrastination.
If you are a True Procrastinator, the Procrastination Trigger might be an enemy that lives inside your brain. An enemy that you might not have realized existed. The first step in warfare is to Know Your Enemy. I’m not sure who said that—Gandhi, maybe—but it’s true. It will take a lot more than just knowledge to overcome the Procrastination Trigger.
But it’s a start.
These Are Not Your Friends
I have terrible handwriting. Just god awful. If you compare my handwriting to that of a dyslexic eight year old, you’re likely to come out with a new respect for dyslexic eight year olds.
It sounds like a terrible thing. A character flaw that negatively affects my life. But it really isn’t. Having bad handwriting is great! It has gotten me out of so many jams over the years.
When I did bad on spelling tests in school, it wasn’t a reflection of my intelligence. Sometimes the teacher read my answers wrong, because I had bad handwriting.
Sometimes in my old job at the sandwich shop, the guy that normally wrote the trivia on the blackboard was sick and someone else had to do it. It was time-consuming and annoying and everyone was busy. But I never had to, because it had to look good, and I had bad handwriting.
So you see? Bad handwriting isn’t my enemy. It’s one of my oldest and most reliable friends. There have been many obstacles in my life that would have challenged and frustrated me. But instead of having to deal with them, I had a note from my friend, bad handwriting. All I had to do was whip out the note, and then I didn’t even have to try!