I think there are plenty of parallels between alcoholism and writing (really, any ism and writing). Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think when a writer is really being a writer, they are generally ignorant of other people, they are self-centered, and they are obsessed with the drunkenness of getting those words on the page/screen.
It’s easy to become addicted to certain steps of writing–not that I want to say the two are equal in regards to danger or risk, but being a writer does come with a certain amount of abandonment of a normal life. You spend hours (hours each day, hopefully/sadly) working on something that is only meaningful to you, and generally draws you away from the other aspects of a healthy life; including but not limited to family interaction, bathing, or seeing the sun.
And it’s here that I bring in the Serenity Prayer, which I learned through my father due to the exact reason you’re thinking. It goes (for those who aren’t initiated):
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
While this has been useful for many recovering addicts, I’d like to filch it for application to the writing life.
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
I get rejections all the time. I have stories that are waiting to be rejected (there’s that positive attitude!), and have been waiting for months and months. I have stories that are out which are published but I wish weren’t. I have days where I don’t write because I’m lazy or busy or simply not in the right frame of mind to work.
Likewise, I have days where I write for hours and come away with nothing but a cramped hand and wasted ink.
These are the things that I cannot change. They come with the business of writing, and should be accepted as such. Waiting for acceptances or rejections is part of the landscape. Wasting your own writing time is just another element of the larger picture. These are the little things that they tell you in an MFA or “how to write” book, but you really don’t grasp it until you’ve been spending unbelievable amounts of time refreshing your Submittable page hoping that one of your in-process entries will disappear and you’ll switch to refreshing your email over and over (I never look at the alternate options in Submittable: only “in process” or “received.” I like to thrill myself).
In the same way, I’ve spent so much time worrying about the stories that I have published–how they are received and how they impact the perception others have of my ability and work. I’m positive I have stories out that do nothing to help people along in thinking me worth their time, and there is relatively little I can do about it. After all, it’s work that at one point defined me in one way or another. I need to accept that I cannot change it.
The courage to change the things I can
All of that being said, ours is a flexible life. Last week I found myself hung up on a story–rewriting the same scene over and over almost every day. This week, I presented the story to myself in another way, and now I feel like I’m on track with it.
Likewise, I’ve mastered the ability to talk to editors when I have a question or concern. I have the courage to challenge those gatekeepers that, in years past, seemed much to important to bother.
Actually I thank Twitter for this, primarily.
Writers sometimes fall into the trap of thinking there are only a few ways to be a writer. You must work on a typewriter or you must use storyboards or you must feel guilty or overpowered or brilliant or whatever. Hokum. You must do what makes you stronger and productive as writer, nothing else. This is why I bought the MFA vs. NYC book but don’t care about what the arguments are, necessarily, between the two sides. You should do what makes you stronger as a writer, and that’s very rarely what makes someone else stronger as a writer. Everyone’s a unique little rainbow snowflake.
And the wisdom to know the difference
This is the most challenging part. Oftentimes I want to have complete control (I think all creatives do, to some extent), when honestly we have very little near the end of the process. You have complete control, more than likely, during the creating part, but that slips away more and more as you send out your work/have it accepted/edited/published/trashed by critics.
Even less control if you’re simply rejected. No matter of blood pressure raising and wishing will make an editor change their mind.
So understanding this: that there are moments you can control (setting a schedule for writing that you stick to, making sure to actually revise, challenging yourself) and moments you can’t (editor’s decisions, critic’s opinions, your own constantly nagging self-doubt) helps keep you a bit more grounded. It’s impossible to feel like you’ve done everything you can, but it is possible to understand that you’ve done all you can for now.
Next time you find yourself sweating over a submission that is taking longer than you expected to hear back about or find a typo in a story that was published last year online or get a story you’re really proud of soundly rejected by everywhere you send it, say the Serenity prayer to yourself and try to work out whether it’s something you can’t change, something you need courage to change, and whether you’re able to tell the difference.