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Why We Write...Even When It Hurts

The writer's life is tough. What keeps us going? Insights--and other "aha" moments--from my favorite writing conference.

· Sci-fi and Fantasy,Writers Life,Pep Talks

I have a hangover.

A conference hangover. Not because I went overboard at the cash bar, but because there were so many incredible workshops and inspiring speeches at the 2016 Colorado Gold conference that I'm still trying to process it all. It will take a while for it all to sink in. But I can already say that, after five years of attending, this was the best Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference yet.

Just because I'm not quite ready for the conference excitement to end, I thought I'd share my favorite takeaways from this past weekend. I left with a renewed sense of purpose, and a clearer answer to one of the questions we writers sometimes ask ourselves: Why exactly am I doing this?

Write Your Own Review

Renowned science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer taught a class on writing sci-fi from a thematic approach. It was a master class in science fiction. But some of his insights would apply to any genre. Mr. Sawyer reminded us that if you want to make it as a writer, you must make writing a high priority. You have to make sacrifices. (Yes, we've all heard similar things before. But Sawyer's no-nonsense way of speaking really made it click for me). You have to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses.

How to go about it? Mr. Sawyer suggested that we all write the book review we'd most like to receive. Whether it's, "I couldn't put it down!" Or, "This book changed my mind about a difficult issue." "The writing was breathtaking." "This book got me through a dark time." Whatever it is, your answer will tell you what kind of writer you really want to be.

Then it's time to be brutally honest. You have to take a look at your work, and see if you're measuring up.

At the end of each day of writing, look at what you've accomplished, and ask yourself if you've earned that dream review. Keep trying until you get it right, and don't be satisfied with anything less. And don't just hope the glowing reviews will somehow miraculously roll in if you haven't done the necessary work.

Learn from the Masters

At this year's conference, I took several classes on suspenseful writing and effective plotting. Despite my copious notes and the skills of the instructors, I realized quickly that there's only so much one can cover in a 2-hour workshop. It's really just a starting point. Where to go next? To the sources!

During the workshops, many instructors referenced classic authorities on writing. Certain names kept popping up again and again, names like John Gardner, Robert McKee. Many of these authorities I'd heard of before; several were new to me. Some are already waiting (unread) in my Kindle library! That's going to change.

Some of the books now topping my to-read list:

Know Why You're Here

A question that came up several times at the conference--both in the classes and in the halls--was, "why do we write?" This might seem like an easy question, and there are some obvious answers. We write because it's fun. We write to understand the world and ourselves. We write to get us through the day. We write because we love books more than (most) anything.

The decision to write is deeply personal, and it's not always clear even to us why we're putting ourselves through all this. We might not realize writing's true meaning in our lives until we stop--either because we choose to step away, or because we're blocked. As award-winning novelist Ann Hood's address on Sunday showed us, rediscovering writing can also bring us back to life. At its best, writing heals the soul.

But writing hurts, too. Think of Hemingway's famous quote (also referenced by Ms. Hood): "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Why do we keep doing this when it's so hard to finish writing a novel, even harder to get published, and no less brutal for a published author trying to stay relevant and make a decent living? Why do we keep coming back, rejection after rejection, again and again?

I've been pondering these questions a lot this year, actually. I'd had some writing successes in 2015, as well as some disappointments. But I found myself dwelling way too much on the negative--usually while I battled anxious insomnia at about 3:00 am. More and more, I dreaded the day's writing session. I had to admit the unthinkable: I didn't want to write anymore. I took a break. I did a lot of thinking. I slowly got back into my work in progress, still unsure of myself. Luckily, this year's RMFW conference came along at just the right time.

In any good writing workshop, you'll hear a lot about "stakes." Your story will only come alive if the reader knows what's at stake for the main character. Well, this is true for us writers as well. Know what's at stake for you if you don't write. This weekend at the conference, I had a chance to step back and finally see what's at stake for me. When I stopped writing, I let self-doubt silence my creativity. And I lost an essential way that I connect with my family, with the universe, with myself.  

The writer's life is not for the faint of heart, or the easily discouraged. But we keep on writing because there's too much at stake to do otherwise. As many an author has said, we write because that's the only way we can live--in the highest, best sense of that word.

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