Tuesday, July 27, 2021

What My Literary Heroes Taught Me about Writing

By Rochelle Melander, @WriteNowCoach

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: We can learn a lot from other writers. Rochelle Melander shares things that have made a difference in her writing, as well as her writing life.

Rochelle Melander is a speaker, certified professional coach, and the bestselling author of twelve books, including Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination and Increase Productivity and the forthcoming children’s book, Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing. Through her writing and coaching, she helps writers, creatives, and entrepreneurs overcome distractions and procrastination, design a writing life, turn their ideas into books, navigate the publishing world, and connect with readers through social media. She is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop that supports teens in finding their voice and sharing their stories. 

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Take it away Rochelle…

Who taught you how to be a writer? Who taught you the discipline of tracking your ideas and characters, setting aside time to shape those rough starts into stories, reviewing and revising your drafts into something others might want to read, and then figuring out how to sell them? And where did you learn how to manage your mindset and energy, so that you could persist through rejections?

As an author and coach, I’ve spent my career studying writing productivity. I’ve examined the practices that help and hinder our ability to write. I’ve read academic articles, how-to books, and more on the science of procrastination and productivity. But I think I’ve learned the most from reading about how other writers have done it.

This past year, I had the privilege of researching and writing a book about people whose writing changed the world. Mightier than the Sword profiles leaders from a variety of disciplines who wrote poems, stories, laws, and protest documents that impacted their communities. I learned about their habits: how they made time to write, mastered their mindset, and more. Here are five lessons I learned from the people in the book:

Know Your Why

Knowing why you write will help you persist when things get tough. Ida Wells was already a successful journalist when she learned about the lynching of her friend Tom Moss. That event gave Wells a new mission: to educate people about lynching and help eradicate it. She said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Researching and writing the story of lynching wasn’t easy. While she was interviewing sources, an angry mob burned down her newspaper’s building. But Ida Wells persisted—because she had a purpose.

Your turn: Why do you do what you do? Your why does not have to be a social cause. It can be as simple as entertaining or educating readers. Whenever you get stuck or afraid, connecting to your purpose will help you persist.

(Here’s more with One Key Question to Ask Before You Start Writing)

Make time

Because of the pandemic, my quiet home office became the household hub. My husband and college student children stopped by multiple times a day to check in. (When are you going to be on Zoom? What are we having for dinner?) I longed for a quiet space where I could be alone and think.

I was surprised to learn that James Baldwin struggled with similar issues. Baldwin spent much of his youth caring for his younger siblings. When he wrote in a corner of the apartment, the noise distracted him. When he wrote at a cafeteria, he felt guilty about not helping at home. A friend told him that if he kept this up, he’d be miserable (and resentful). Baldwin moved into an apartment and took work as a waiter to pay the bills. Being free from caring for children helped him be more creative.

Your turn: You don’t have to ditch your family and move out of your house to write. Schedule when and where you will write. Set boundaries with your family around that time. If you struggle with accountability, check in with a friend before and after your daily session.

(Here’s more with Finding Time to Write)

Master Your Mindset

Most of the writers I coach worry they’re not good enough. They struggle with “putting themselves out there.” And they imagine that successful writers don’t have the same doubts.

But they do. Octavia Butler’s family did not support her writing career. She took on many jobs to pay the bills while she tried to sell her stories. She said, “Writing is difficult. You do it alone without the encouragement and without any certainty that you'll ever be published or paid or even that you'll be able to finish the particular work you've begun. It isn't easy to persist amid all that.”

Octavia Butler wrote short, positive statements* and posted them around her house:
  • I shall be a bestselling writer
  • This is my life. I write bestselling novels.
  • I will find a way to do this. So be it! See to it!
*Note: you can see these sayings in a photo of Butler’s notebooks on this page.

Your turn: Mastering your mindset takes time and practice. To start, take a persistent negative thought and create a one-line mantra to replace this thought. When the negative thought shows up, repeat the new mantra. For example:
  • Instead of I’ll never finish this project, try One step at a time.
(Here’s more with Battling the Doubt Monster: Ignoring Nellie the Naysayer)

Get Paid

You deserve to be paid for your work. But the uncomfortable truth is this: it’s going to be very hard to make a living writing what you love.

When Noah Webster graduated from college, he wanted desperately to spend his days reading and writing. Webster tried teaching but disliked it. After he married and had children, Webster supported his family through various jobs including running a magazine, editing a newspaper, and serving at the Connecticut House of Representatives. But he didn’t give up on his writing dream. While he researched and wrote his dictionary, he started a funding campaign, asking professional friends and acquaintances to contribute money to his work in return for a copy of his dictionary. The first edition of the dictionary was published in two volumes in 1828 with 70,000 entries.

Your turn. Webster wasn’t the first to “crowdfund” his writing and wouldn’t be the last. How can you get paid to write? How else can you support your writing habit? One coach encourages her followers to list 100 ways to make money. Try it!

(Here’s more with On Crowdfunding and Patronage)

Practice Persistence

The writers I profiled in my book refused to give up. After the paper’s offices burned down, Ida Wells got a job at The New York Age, who published her work on lynching. James Baldwin had to overcome self-doubt, writer’s block, and lack of money to write his autobiographical novel Go Tell it On the Mountain. Octavia Butler said, “At last I began to say that my most important talent - or habit - was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It's amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.”

Your turn: Where do you need to persist in your work? What or who would help you do that?

(Here’s more with Authors: What to Do When You Want to Quit)

Who’s your hero?

Do you have a writing hero, someone whose career you’ve followed and used as a model for your own? Share your favorite hero and writing tip in the comments below.

About Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World Through Writing

Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing is a middle grade social justice book that tells the stories of historical and contemporary writers, activists, scientists, and leaders who used writing to make a difference in their lives and the world. The stories are accompanied by writing and creative exercises to help readers discover how they can use writing to explore ideas and ask for change. Sidebars explore types of writing, fun facts, and further resources.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I will forward it to my young writing friends and Advanced Writing students who want to "write someday." Thanks!