Tuesday, April 23, 2013

All Ate Up: Five Humble Precepts for Writers

All ate up.

I’m told this is an old Indiana expression, used to describe someone who’s consumed by something. She’s all ate up, you might say, for instance, of a writer who’s obsessed by results.

In one sense, writers have to be all ate up. Goals and optimism and perseverance and dedication – these are essential to your work. But it’s ever so easy to get all ate up over results – not your work, but how your work is received. When you think no one’s looking, you’re checking your Amazon rankings, your earnings summaries, your Twitter follows, your Facebook likes, your BookScan sales. When grants and awards and fellowships are announced, you’re wondering when your turn will come.

Last week it was announced that Eowyn Ivey’s book The Snow Child was one of two Pulitzer finalists in fiction. Knowing Eowyn, I doubt this was a result she in any way expected. Besides being a fine writer, Eowyn is gracious and kind. At every opportunity, she’s thanking and acknowledging others for her success. She wrote the best book she could write, and now she’s on to the next one.

I started thinking about other authors I know who’ve won national or international recognition. Debby Dahl Edwardson, National Book Award Finalist for My Name Is Not Easy. Melinda Moustakis, Flannery O’Connor Fiction Prize for Bear Down, Bear North. David Vann, Le Prix Medicis Etranger for Legend of a Suicide. Joan Kane, Donald Hall Poetry Prize for Hyperboreal. Seth Kantner, Milkweed National Fiction Prize for Ordinary Wolves. (These, by the way, are only a few highlights from among the many awards this distinguished group has collectively received, and – not to slight anyone – other writers I know have received prizes and awards not mentioned here.)

I doubt that any of these writers expected the particular recognition they received. They aren’t people who obsess over winning or results beyond producing their best writing, day after day. They aren’t “all ate up” over the many aspects of publishing that are beyond their control.

Pondering what I admire about these prizing-winning authors, I’ve distilled out five precepts to help all of us keep from getting “ate up” over the wrong things:

·        Writers control products, not perceptions. When building a platform becomes a whole lot of striving, it’s time to back off.
·        Though some claim it’s motivational, envy is distracting at best, destructive at worst. Cultivate joy for writers who achieve recognition, and don’t fret over when you’ll get yours. Keep producing the best writing you can, and keep making it better.
·        When results do come, acknowledge your team. Increasingly, it takes a village to grow a book.
·        Cultivate gratitude, not gratification. Be aware of how social media can mess with your mind.
·        Cultivate grace. It will serve you in a wide range of matters beyond your control.