By Jennie Jarvis
I’ve been writing since I was really young – and by really young, I mean REALLY young. I can remember writing little stories in elementary school. I’m pretty sure I wrote my first full length play in the sixth grade. But, needless to say, as long as I can remember, the art of storytelling was always an important part of my life.
One of the most important stories of my youth was written on a class field trip to Washington D.C. during middle school. We loaded up a school bus full of rowdy 13 and 14 year olds and headed north on the long drive from Jacksonville, Florida to our nation’s capital. During the trip, I decided to write about our adventure. Since reality was pretty lame, I added a big plot point: that our bus was taken over by escaped prisoners who threatened to kill us.
Everyone who was on the bus in real life made it into the story, and I chose a pretty and popular-yet-kind girl named Lindsay as the lead. It took me most of the trip to write the harrowing adventure that was (spoiler alert) all a recurring dream in the protagonist’s head. When I finished, I showed the story to Lindsay. She had nothing but positive things to say, and soon the entire bus wanted to take a look at it. Llittle old nerdy me loved the attention, and for many years, I thought that short story was the greatest thing I’d ever written.
Years later, I came across that story while looking through a file of old work. I’m a hoarder and keep everything. While it was a strong piece with lots of action and a twist ending (written long before twist endings were a thing, I’ll have you know), it wasn’t the powerhouse of fiction I once thought it was. The characters were stereotypical shells of the real people I wanted to capture, and the dialogue felt stilted and on-the-nose. I could see where novice me tried to succeed but didn’t quite make it.
Looking back, I can see a lot has changed about me as a writer. Yes, my understanding of craft has improved due to years of reading and study, but it’s more than that. There is a maturity that age – and age alone – can bring you that is reflected in your writing. I sound like an old schoolmarm, I’m sure, but it’s the truth. The older you get, the more complex and varied your view becomes of the world around you. As a result, your writing begins to include those detailed layers. I’m sure that, as I grow even older, this maturity will deepen even more.
My school bus hostage crisis story was limited, not just by my lack of craft mastery, but also by my limited view of the world around me. I wrote with a very narrow understanding of how the world operated. This made for a very plot-driven and shallow writing experience.
Understanding how my own immaturity has limited my work in the past has led me to making some big changes. In my current work, I always try to have a deeper, emotional layer to my stories. The events can’t just be about what happens; the narrative has to be about the implications of what has happened. I can’t just have plot – I need character and theme.
This probably all sounds extremely obvious, but there is a little secret that this self-reflection has revealed to me. In understanding how my view of the world may have been limited by my lack of maturity in my writing, I have also realized that my view of my writing career has been limited too.
Growing up, I had a very specific view of what it would mean to be successful as a writer. I assumed I would need to sell a screenplay, a novel or a short story in order to prove that I could “make it” as a writer. For me, the most important thing about being “successful” was to have something tangible I could point to as evidence of my success. I needed to be PAID (with cash or awards) to be considered a success.
As a result, any time I would write something, I would turn around and send it to as many contests as possible – not publications that paid nothing, mind you. Contests. Preferably ones that had a lot of notoriety and cash prizes. If the story or script didn’t place, then I just threw that work away. If it wasn’t good enough for the contests – it must not be good enough, period.
I wanted that quick instant gratification form of success. I wanted a certificate or an award or a check that I could show to the world as evidence of my skill as a writer. Today, I recognize that this urgency to be “Successful” (capital S on a showroom floor) came from a lack of maturity that was narrow in its vision of what it means to be a writer. I wanted validiation. I wanted the popular kids complimenting me on my story and patting me on the back.
Don’t get me wrong. Acknowledgement is great. We all need those “’Atta boy”s from time to time to help keep us inspired. But if that is all we seek, then we can never be truly happy. I say this because I’ve been there. I’ve won the awards and got the publications. As soon as the thrill of each “win” worn off, I was right back to where I was before – anxious to get the next thing sold, published or placed.
Looking for those instant forms of gratification leads to instant forms of depression and let down.
We get what we want, and then we have to want something else to replace that fulfilled want. We are always chasing the next thing, never feeling fulfilled in our journey.
I know I haven’t reached my full maturity as a writer – I don’t expect to until the day I die – but today, I do my best to look at my writing career in a much more mature way. I can’t just fight for the superficial wins like a single publication, award or sale. I have to look at the greater picture.
I try to think of my writing career more like a marathon than a sprint. Each pat on the back (publication, award, etc) is simply me passing a marker on the track and not reaching the finish line.
This means looking at the long term things I need to work on like building relationships, developing a social media presence, and turning out as many works as I can. I can’t let myself get too emotionally caught up in any one narrative I’m writing or one contest I enter. I have to keep writing and find a way to be comfortable in my own life and not expect some miraculous change in my career to “make things better.”
Being mature in my writing career also means setting my yearly goals on much more accomplishable items. I don’t set a goal of “winning an award” or “publishing a book.” I set awards like “Write two books this year,” “Get at least one book into submission with your agent,” “Attend two writing conferences,” and “Connect with at least six industry professionals.”
These are things I can control. They also keep me much more focused. I’m not looking for someone else to validate me, like I so desperately needed in my youth. I’m looking for ways to push my career forward: not because I intend to reach a finish line, but because that’s what a mature writer needs to do.
What goals did you set for yourself this year? Did you accomplish them? If not, did you set an unrealistic expectation that required outside validation?