It was a hot Spring evening.
I was surrounded in a small studio room by actors, young and old, along with part-time writers. I was in attendance at a popular New York stage reading group. Tonight was special though. It was my premiere showcase night.
Just the day before, I slaved over the finishing touches of my very first TV pilot. And now, in my trembling hands, were stacked copies of a completed script. I thought maybe they would like my work. You never know.
I cringed as actors stood to perform my piece, sliding to the back of the room to hide my anxiousness. Forty-five minutes later, my fear dissipated. What at first was intimidating turned into pure bliss. The group’s feedback was pure praise, and even anticipation for future show episodes. I left with an unbelievable euphoria.
In the following days, naturally I grew more eager to step up and finally submit my work to popular writing contests. Particularly, the celebrated Austin Film Festival.
But, something was off. I wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t ready. Deep down I knew my pilot needed more revisions.
But the clock was ticking. I didn’t have time to doubt myself. You only live once; I had to at least go for it. Because if I didn’t show up to the party, certainly I couldn’t win. But that was a mistake. In that subtle moment of anxiety and doubt, my admirable ambition transformed quietly into arrogance.
And thus, an unfortunate series of events was set forth.
“Why Missing a Big Deadline is Great for Your Writing Career”
A month later, as the deadline approached, I had nothing ready for submission. I flat-out neglected doing the hard work required to upgrade my TV pilot to a professional level. The post-deadline blues I went through are still indescribable. It wasn’t quite defeat – I did finish 45 pages of story! – but dropping the ball was still a heavy blow. And to my budding career – the biggest one yet. But I don’t understand, my ambition told me I could do this! Sadly, my time management and prioritization proved otherwise.
No writer likes the feeling of missing a deadline but here are some thangs I learned…
How successful can you be if you’re winging it?
If we’re winging it, our progress is confined to the small corners of our minds. It’s a dangerous place to be in.
“Writing is disciplined dreaming”
But oh, discipline. What does that even mean?
My own story development process is half navigable, half mystery. Haven’t exactly discovered the sure-fire to write an academy award winning story every time I sit down. (I’ll let you know when I do.) So with that, I’m forced to do a lot of trial and error in my pre-development phase.
I mention this because it’s something that left me susceptible to losing control of my productivity level. Too often I winged what should’ve been intense, disciplined periods of writing and problem solving. Because I didn’t have all the answers for my writing process, I didn’t think I could plan my writing success. But that’s bull. The reality is you have to, or it might never come.
When the demands of life pour in, a lack of vision can sink you fast. It certainly sunk me. It hit me that vague goals and lazy assignment dates was counterintuitive to my ambitions. A writer with a concrete how-to plan amounts to much more in life than by just having a vision or dream. Grasping onto a tangible roadmap is crucial to our success. Writing is disciplined dreaming. Have a playbook that goes pass point A to B and can carry you on to C through Z.
Do you have to make sacrifices?
Life happens in small choices; incredibly tiny, minuscule choices. Down to the coffee you drink and the phone call you decide to pick up or decline. It all matters. Yet, most of us refuse to master the practice of incrementing our progress into small, digestible bits.
In my case, I wasn’t making any small sacrifices to get myself ahead. I found myself booked up on production work for an entire month and didn’t think sparing 30 minutes here or there to write would add up to anything. I also didn’t write down any weekly goals. Or plan out an inkling of my precious spare time. I thought that since I’d be mostly preoccupied, why bother?
That oversight is what allowed my writing deadline to come and go. I thought the writing would magically get done. That at some point, I’d figure it out. What a lie. I just didn’t believe in working in increments to attack my assignments.
What happens when your full-time passion gets sabotaged by part-time commitments?
Our time and attention are constantly sabotaged. Whether with family, work, friends, media or just the loud man next to you on the train. Everyone wants a piece of your day.
And maybe sabotage is subjective and isn’t the right word. The point is that, on a daily basis, life has a lot on its menu to offer. But writers, like many creatives, have an interesting lesson to learn. If we want to be true professionals, we must master the art of prioritizing.
Completing a novel, blog posts, pilot episodes, or even writing a stage play takes an incredible amount of time. And any distractions during this process can end up severely sabotaging your project. Hence, the reason for this post.
But maybe you don’t believe me. Maybe you confuse distractions with being exposed to inspiration. The two are not the same. Even inspiration has to respect your time and arrive only as needed. When it’s just inspiration, for the sake of stunning you, leaving you breathless and adding nothing particularly useful to your current project at hand… it’s a damn distraction.
Something I came to grips with is that nothing in this great big world, and I mean nothing, other than writing itself, is worth the distraction. Our lives work in such incremental ways that every decision we make impacts us in the long run.
Coming to terms with that can really help one see the time already available to advance your writing career. Yeah, I might enjoy the drinks and laughs with friends or rendezvous trips to the park but damn it, it’s not worth it when I’m in the middle of a project. I just can’t make up for the lost time. The time is too precious.
Except for maybe kids or spouses, external noises have to be silenced.
Again, this might sound extreme. But what are your other options?
It took diligent practice not to feel terrible about saying no to going out, or making too many phone calls in one day, or looking at my email for more than 5 minutes. The more commitments I made to the outside world, the more out of whack my writing schedule became. And you should definitely have a writing schedule. And protect it like an unborn child. Essentially, that’s what our stories are anyway.
So I went back to basics. The blank page became my best friend.
How time translates into currency
One week, there was a particularly long hangout I had with a friend. They bumped back our scheduled time twice. It pushed back my whole afternoon. It didn’t help that I didn’t even want to go out to begin with. But, I didn’t have the backbone to say no. The unexpected part was how it went on to sabotage my entire week of productivity, becoming a nightmare. Those few missed hours sent me into a snowball effect of playing catch up for the rest of the week.
That’s when I learned time is currency.
My personal currency translates to the time I have available for others. My sacrifice is practicing an anti-social life. Sounds like a steep price tag. Maybe for some, it is. But how else will I taste consistent productivity?
Sure, our sacrifices all look different. Some professional writers (usually the more successful ones) manage to find a balance. But for me, my time management is still too vulnerable. So vulnerable that until its fortified, I’m making the sacrifice to basically not share my time with anyone. Not even Mr. Hulu or Netflix. It’s torture some days but, too much of anything else conflicts too heavily with my productivity.
A hard lesson is that our ambition can usually only deliver on one project at a time. It’s not ADHD or lack of discipline on our parts; it’s just not practical to spread yourself thin over more than one major assignment.
Unless one has already mastered the art of productivity, without fault, it’s just asking for trouble. My ambition to enter a writing contest was insane considering the other projects and commitments I had on the table. I didn’t leave myself enough room for success. Even if the heights of my ambition sounded feasible to everyone else.
When it comes to producing work, writers have to start assessing their daily churn rate. Which is not about how much we do but, how much of it matters to our end goal and how consistently we can create it every day. We could try to do everything but quality is usually the cost.
As much as it burned to miss one of the year’s biggest writing festivals, it did wonders for granting me clarity on what it really takes to be a professional writer. I now understand the purpose of a writing schedule, how time adds up and how ambition can either get you ahead or sink you fast.
My hope is that other writers can figure out what they really want from their writing careers and what they’re willing to give up & sacrifice for it. I wonder how many others treat writing as a leisure activity rather than the true passion it is.
Currently, I have a growing list of friends who resent me. That’s my own sacrifice. But I have a good feeling that after a few published books and lunch on me, they’ll forgive and come to respect my hustle.
Here’s to hoping we all prioritize and protect the time it takes to enter greatness as a writer.
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