How Writers Can Learn to Cope: 6 No-Fail Strategies for Achieving Mental Toughness

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Writers don’t tend to be tough people—but unfortunately, we’re in a tough business. We’re by nature a sensitive lot.  We’re more tuned-in than most people—a necessary quality for our craft.  But being open to stimuli also means we’re more open to hurt. How do we cope?

It’s a lot like learning to play guitar. You’ve got to build up some callouses in order to play in the band. The callouses are as important as learning to play the right notes. And you have to build them slowly--there are no shortcuts. That’s one of the reasons a first time writer shouldn’t immediately jump into the publishing fray. 

It’s not just about learning to write well. It’s about learning to fail well. (See my post on “Three Questions to Ask Before You Jump on the Indie Publishing Bandwagon”.)


By Ruth Harris

These are a few of the everyday, predictable set-backs that each and every writer is guaranteed to face:

Unfortunately, it’s part of the job. Comes with the territory. Better get used to it and better figure out How To Snap Back.

That’s where mental toughness comes in. Not tough like Clint Eastwood packing heat and snarling, “You feeling lucky, punk?”

But tough like the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the best reliever in baseball.

The New York Times explained:

“If a thick skin is the most important attribute a baseball closer can have, then Rivera is made out of leather. He holds the record for most career saves, has won five World Series titles and is thought by many to be among the most mentally tough athletes in baseball history. Nothing sticks to Rivera. Poor pitches are forgotten immediately, crushing losses go out with that day’s sweaty jersey. Rivera, long the Yankees’ safety net, is a master — the master — at moving on.”

The mental toughness that makes Rivera “the best” is a necessary quality for relievers—and for writers. If you get blocked or stymied at rejection, if you melt into a tearful/incoherent puddle at every bump and bruise, you need to develop a much tougher attitude.
The qualities I’m talking about include:

whatever the it is: your editor leaves & your book is stranded/orphaned, your agent fires you, your publisher goes bankrupt and everything you looked forward to—the ads, the TV appearances, the reviews, the copies in stores—ain’t gonna happen. No way Jose.

Solution: Think like Mariano. You blew the save? You gave up the game-winning home run? You walked in the winning run? In Game Seven of the World Series?

Remember the old Bud ad: Let it go, Louie.

One way or another, you need to regain your focus and move on: write the next book, think of a new ending for the old book, revise, rewrite, redouble your efforts.

2)  TENACITY & FLEXIBILITY. Call it stubbornness or stick-to-itiveness but, if you think you’ve got a good idea, don’t give up. If your book doesn’t work as a mystery, maybe it will if you write it as a comedy. If your screen play doesn’t find a home in the movies or tv, maybe you should turn it into a novel—which is exactly what Lee Goldberg did. (He's the creator of the great TV series Monk--A)

In his essay about the writing of KING CITY, recently published by Thomas & Mercer, Lee, details the long, obstacle-strewn path that led—finally—to success:

“KING CITY began as a TV series pitch that I took all over Hollywood four or five years ago. It generated some interest but ultimately didn't lead to anything.  So I put it in a drawer and moved on.”

But the idea nagged at him and Lee didn’t give up. He rewrote, revised, cut, expanded, outlined—and then he did it all over again. You can read his detailed account of the process here.

3)  FOCUS.  Mental toughness also means the ability to concentrate and to lay down rules.  Mariano Rivera did not allow himself to be distracted by crowd noise, an umpire’s bad call, shouted advice from leather-lunged fans or all the woulda’s-coulda’s-shoulda’s. Laser-like, he concentrated on the next pitch, the third strike and the last out.

Nora Roberts takes a similar approach: She was quoted as saying that her family knows that when she’s working, there are only two reasons to interrupt her: “blood or fire.” She’s one of the world’s best-selling writers, the author of 200 books and someone who obviously has a few good ideas about productive working conditions!

4)  MISTAKES, BAD DECISIONS & TUITION. Not someone else’s screw-up but your own. 
If the cost of your own poor judgment is financial, think of the price as tuition.

You’ve certainly learned something, most of all about yourself and also about the sharks and incompetents to beware of. The cost of that expensive knowledge is financial loss. It’s the tuition you paid to learn a valuable lesson.

5)  HUMOR. Sometimes all you can do is laugh it off. Definitely a sign of mental strength. As a friend of mine—she’s a bestselling writer—once said when a guy she wasn’t even that crazy about dumped her: “Sometimes you can’t even get what you don’t even want.”

Black humor works wonders so don’t forget that looking through a noir lens can be a jolting brace of reality-adjustment (aka mental toughness).

Analyze the problem rationally and figure out coping strategies. You’ll feel much better.

Cozy mystery author Elizabeth S. Craig explains: “I’ve gone a step farther, too. Besides looking for data from reader emails, I’ve sought out and read my stinky reviews online…and analyzed them for a common thread. When I saw something mentioned repeatedly, I made a note of it. It’s not too hard to get past any hurt feelings when you’re being analytical—easier than it might seem, actually.”

Bottom line: Don’t wallow. Analyze!

Winston Churchill, who led England to victory in World War II, knew something about mental toughness: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Also from the Brits: Keep calm and carry on.

You’re tougher, more resilient and flexible, more able to laugh at yourself and the world around you than you might think. After all, as Carlos Castaneda said,
 “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

What about you, scriveners? Have you been able to develop mental toughness? Do you have any tricks to share with your fellow writers who might not have been around long enough to build those callouses on their souls? 

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