Years ago, when I was contemplating a cross-country move to pursue my dream of stock car racing, a wise friend gave me this piece of advice, “don’t ever look back.” What he meant was, once you make a decision, don’t second-guess it. Don’t waste your time over “what-ifs”. Own your choice, and follow it through. And that’s very good advice. But there are times when it’s good to look back.
Earlier this week I found myself slipping into a funk. Getting up each morning had become increasingly more difficult, because I’d lost faith in my current project. Or maybe I never had it to begin with. My WIP is a sequel to a book I haven’t sold, a book that may well be too far out of the mainstream to make it in this difficult market. So every day, I’d been feeling guilty for squandering my time. But worse than that, I just hadn’t been able to connect with the story. I didn’t care about the characters or the tragedies that were about to befall them. I felt like every word I wrote was drivel, my prose filled with that insidious “was” and too sentimental to ever make it in the edgy world of YA fiction. The only reason I kept with it was that I didn’t know what else to do with myself. The new book idea I’d come up with hadn’t yet ripened enough to harvest.
Then I read a couple of chapters to my husband, something I do to catch typos and places where the prose isn’t smooth. I use him as a guinea pig because reading out loud to myself or the cats is boring, and I like to be able to ask for feedback, even though Bob’s comments rarely go beyond, “yeah, works for me.” The chapters I read were some I’d written in mid-December, long enough ago that they weren’t fresh in my head. And the amazing thing was, I liked them. Sure, there were some rough spots—it is a first draft—but there were also plenty of great metaphors, snappy bits of dialog, and realistic emotions. I even earned a, “well, you really embarrassed the hell out of Jess,” (the protagonist) from my normally monosyllabic husband. This simple, accidental exercise renewed my faith in the book, and for the first time since I started writing it, I felt a real bond with my characters. Since then, I’ve been tackling chapters like the Energizer bunny on an espresso bender.
The lesson in all this is that sometimes we tend to look at what we have left to accomplish, the long hike ahead that seems way too difficult to tackle. We don’t give ourselves credit for the miles behind us, the obstacles surmounted and difficulties overcome. In a world where productivity equals respect, we tend to focus on that next goal, rather than patting ourselves on the back for the last success.
The next time you find yourself overwhelmed, faithless, and buried by what you haven’t yet mastered, take a peek over your shoulder. You may be amazed to see how many miles are behind you, and how many people are watching, marveling over what you’ve accomplished.