Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gimme an A for Effort!

The romance writing community is an extremely supportive place for aspiring writers. I highly recommend joining organizations like Romance Writers of America, Romance Divas, and other writing groups for the camaraderie and sharing knowledge. The purpose of the Ruby website and their current winter writing festival is exactly that kind of support...

But...

There is a difference between support and blind cheerleading. Have you ever watched the cheerleaders at a football game? More often than not, they have their backs to the action. They are bouncing and tumbling and waving their pom-poms to rile up the crowd, but do they actually impact the action in any way? Do they really have anything to do with the guys scoring touchdowns? Not so much. What we need, as writers, is not cheerleaders. We need people on the field with us, playing the game. We need writing cronies who will be blockers and passers and coaches who advise us (and tell us when to kick a field goal because we aren't going to make that touchdown on 4th and 17).

No professional football player finishes the game and makes a beeline for the cheerleaders to thank them for all they did to help them win the game. It's the coach who gets doused in gatorade. And the coach is not going to tell you that you really caught that pass when you didn't. The cheerleaders may shout "good effort" but the coach won't. He doesn't have to say a word. The receiver knows it was his job to catch that ball. And he knows he didn't catch it. He knows he won't get a pat on the back until he catches the next one.

Yesterday, I was in a chat room doing some writing sprints. (Essentially a bunch of writers hang out and egg one another on to write in timed, focused 20 minute blocks.) I returned to the room after one 20 and declared my sprint to be a "total fail" because, quite honestly, I hadn't accomplished jack shit in that 20 minutes. I was then told, by no less than three people in the chatroom, that I hadn't failed. I explained that, no, I really had. I'd gotten no words written and made no progress on plotting or any other writing-related task. It had been 20 minutes of pointless circles and thinking about how freaking cold I was and wouldn't it be nice to take a hot shower and maybe I'll take a break and take a hot shower and come back refreshed and then I'll have focus and be really... oh, shit, time's up. I'd failed. But these women insisted I hadn't. They refused to believe me. They told me that because I had been sitting there trying that I had succeeded. One woman even went so far as to demand I stop beating myself up (being honest is beating yourself up now?) and informed me that I couldn't expect it to be easy as I was developing this "new habit" of writing every day. I tried to explain that this wasn't new to me, but she told me I was wrong about that too. It was new to me. Because I was having to train my brain to write even when I wasn't in the mood. Now, I don't know this chick, but even more importantly, she doesn't know me. Why the hell is she assuming all this crap about me? I've never been the kind of person who requires a mood or a muse to write. And I don't give up just because it's work. I know she was trying to give me a pep talk, but she forgot the first element of being supportive. Listening.

I'm all for enthusiasm, but in a supportive writing community I am not looking for the cheerleader who can "Woohoo!" the loudest - whether I deserve a woohoo or not. True support is someone who kicks you on the butt when you need it, talks through your issues when you need that, gives you a stirring pep talk when you need one, and pays enough attention to know what you need when.

Blowing smoke up someone's ass when they haven't accomplished anything just engenders the belief that achievement is less important than effort and (while I don't think effort should be totally discounted) that just isn't true. Results matter. "You tried to write a book! Good for you!" isn't going to get you to the New York Times Bestseller list.

I am sick of people who think support is just telling someone how awesome they are regardless of whether or not they deserve the praise at that particular moment. I failed in those 20 minutes. I needed "Okay, take that and use it as motivation to do better next time." I got "No, you didn't fail! You tried."

Trying is not the same thing as succeeding. And I am so freaking sick of this entitlement culture where the two concepts are handled like they are one and the same. Everyone gets a trophy for participating! Everyone gets a ribbon for trying. We're so worried about bolstering self-esteem that we are undermining the value of real achievement.

The team that goes to the Super Bowl isn't the one who put in a really great effort every time they dropped the ball. The winner is the one with the most points. The one who executes. How have we as a culture lost sight of the importance of execution? Not to say effort should be ignored, but doesn't execution count for something?

Support is the coach who helps you execute. Cheerleading might be nice for your ego, but it isn't ever going to get you where you need to be. And sometimes, it's just annoying as hell.

5 comments:

Brenda Hyde said...

I think that's why I haven't found a writing group yet. I know myself and know that although I need some encouragement I also need honesty about my habits and my writing. Over the years I've found out that some people aren't like that--they need a different kind of encouragement like the people you mentioned. It's kind of like how some people don't get sarcasm. Do you know what I mean?

Carly said...

This makes me think of the Amy Chua WSJ op-ed on Chinese mothers. I'm so glad that my mother never told me I was "garbage," but she definitely was honest and upfront when she believed I wasn't giving schoolwork or housework or whatever my best effort. And she was usually right. There's something to be said for pushing your kids hard and not accepting excuses for laziness but you also have to know your own kids (or writing friends) to be able to tell when it's laziness or thwarted effort.

Slightly off topic, but as a reader this is how I sometimes feel about the quotes on book covers. Hooray, the friend of a well-respected author wrote a novel! And yay, the well-respected author is supporting her friends! But please, don't slap a "sparkling wit, rousing romance" on a dull book that needs several more rounds of editing. /rant.

KELLY FITZPATRICK said...

There is a time for sprinkling sugar or BS or whatever you want to call it and there's a time for honesty. If I want sugar, I turn to my hubby (the enabler). Always on my side. If I ran down the street naked and beat the first person I met to death with a copy of my RWA magazine, hubby'd bail me out of jail and tell me I was under a lot of pressure and hadn't slept well. It was bound to happen sooner or later. The way to get me to write is a competition, a challenge. I'll stop cleaning, cooking and shopping in order to decimate everyone else (nicely of course). Don't let me pick my own goals based on my lifestyle or I'll play Wii bowling all day and do the minimum writing.

I agree Carly. Don't tell me the book is good if it ain't, because I believe it. Then I'm pissed. I've got a book in my head right this moment and all the authors who promised me it was good. It wasn't.

Vivi Andrews said...

Dude, thank you guys so much for getting this. I felt a little bad after I posted - like it was inappropriate to have a hissy fit on my blog - but it's so amazing to have people understand what I'm getting at. Y'all rock. Thank you!

Now back to the salt mines.

Anonymous said...

LOL!

Okay, okay. I'll be the former cheerleader that lays it on you. You suck! You should have pounded out a scene. Plotted the next one. Or went through looking for incorrect pronoun usage!

There.

I totally agree with you. There is a fine line between encouragement and harrassment. I'm pretty good at both. Just ask my kids. I like to tell them that they may have to enter therapy when their in the 30s because they had a mom who pushed them to hard, but they'll drive a maserati to their shrink's office.

Rant away, sister!

Liz Talley