One Year, Two Books, Three Cheers

Well, okay, that might be the corniest title I’ve ever written. But you know what? I’m just gonna go with it. Sorry not sorry! Anyway, moving on…

As my corny title might suggest, I wrote two books in the span of a year. TWO BOOKS. From start to finish. For a turtle-paced writer like myself, that qualifies as a bona fide big deal. I have short stories that I’ve been working on for over seven years, so these two books feel like a giant leap forward.

I didn’t do it alone. Both books were client projects; my co-authors were the subject matter experts and I provided the writing craft. One book is called Project Sponsorship and the other is Mosaic Garden Projects, which is forthcoming from Timber Press in 2015. (I’ll talk about both projects in future posts, so I won’t get into them here.)

As for the “three cheers” part, I want to chat for a minute about the concept of celebration. Up until about a year ago, I wouldn’t have given much thought to celebrating. I would have turned in the manuscripts, breathed a sigh of relief, and treated myself to a nice meal and a couple whiskey-sodas.

And then I would have sailed right on to the next thing on my never-ending to-do list, without taking more than the slightest moment to reflect on a job well done.

Ugh. How grim!

I don’t think I’m alone in this habit, but even if it’s common, it’s certainly not healthy. For me, it leaves me with a depressing feeling of being dissatisfied with my achievements no matter how many of them I rack up. (And even now, I’m tempted to make a self-deprecating comment about not having racked up many. But no, I’ll abstain.) I used to think dissatisfaction was a byproduct of ambition. “Yes, I got a story published in a small lit mag, which is great and all, but I can’t really be happy until it’s a story in the New Yorker.”

And on and on goes the stingy, no-fun internal monologue, unwilling to savor a small victory because then I might “rest on my laurels” (as my dad used to warn against; and if you think I use too many old-timey turns of phrase, blame him!). I guess the idea is that if you’re happy with what you have or what you’ve done, it’ll extinguish your motivation to do more or do better?

Well, I’m calling bullshit on that.

For me, motivation doesn’t work that way. First, because the desire to create comes from a divine, mysterious well that is untouchable by outside circumstance. I know that sounds totally woo-woo, but I honestly feel like trying to pinpoint the source of the creative drive is like trying to locate where the soul lives in the body. Good luck.

Secondly, when I celebrate an achievement, I feel GREAT, and the positivity gives me a momentum to tackle the next challenge. Dissatisfaction doesn’t actually motivate me. It diminishes my motivation by making me ask myself, “Why am I doing this if it doesn’t make me happy?”

So, in my experience, the act of celebration isn’t extraneous or self-indulgent. Celebration is a vital piece of the creative process; it’s what keeps me going and helps me avoid despair and burnout and crippling perfectionism.

I’m a big fan of neuroscientist Rick Hanson. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, he outlines a process he calls “taking in the good.” In a nutshell, you can create a sense of well-being just by having (or remembering) positive experiences and taking them in—really absorbing them. This act trains your brain to orient itself toward positivity (or at least neutrality) rather than stewing in the crock o’ shit afforded to us by our inborn negativity bias. (I’m paraphrasing, if you couldn’t tell.) As Hanson says, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” Meaning, we naturally hang on to the bad stuff—Ugh, I had a shitty day of writing yesterday; my writing group hated my last story; I got rejected by ten literary agents this month—and we diminish or gloss over the good stuff. If you practice taking in the good, you can level the mental playing field.

“Taking in the good” is a simple mindfulness practice and I’ve found it useful in my quest to celebrate my writing. I’ve been practicing for probably six months or so, and I can honestly say it’s helped. No matter how big or small the accomplishment (“I wrote a book!” versus “I wrote a blog post!”), I give it its due celebration. For fifteen or twenty seconds, I really let it sink in. Wow. I wrote a blog post today. I was really busy and I didn’t want to do it, but I powered through. And that feels awesome. And maybe someone will even read it if I’m lucky. Hell yeah! I’m proud of myself. I deserve chocolate. Much chocolate.

And it really does help. Mindfulness + celebration + writing = a powerful combination. Each practice feeds and sustains the other. For me, it makes it easier to approach my writing with a sense of ease and joy, and to maintain momentum from day to day. And if I can do that, I can create small wins, and the small wins add up to big ones.

That’s definitely something to celebrate.