You know what you want. Your heart yearns for it like nothing else. But it's a long shot. There are so many people further down the path than you. How will you ever make it? Or maybe you got started, but abandoned the journey at the first hurdle because… what's the point? Ella Bourke shares her own story and a powerful exercise to help you move forward.
I want to be a writer, and let me tell you: there are plenty of people who will tell you that it's impossible.
"No one makes a living as a writer these days", they say. "Do something else. Do anything else."
And yet this wanting, this desire – it's persistent.
So persistent, in fact, that in mid-2014, I banked a voluntary redundancy payment from my employer and ramped up my writing efforts, with the goal of publishing a collection of short stories.
I enrolled in an online short story clinic. I submitted to magazines and competitions. I read at a local writers' meeting. Rejections rolled in, but I didn't care. I was doing it, writing regularly, reaching out and getting better. I even started to receive some positive feedback.
But, after a couple of months, I started to lose momentum as my doubts reasserted themselves. So what if my teacher liked my story? The chances of publication are minuscule! Why don't I study something that will lead to a 'real' job or at least focus on writing that pays? My dream started to feel incredibly far away. On the days when my mood was lowest it felt downright impossible.
I jumped into copywriting, relishing the validation of sending out an invoice. I became a recalcitrant student, working on my fiction assignments at the last minute. When I did write fiction, which wasn't often, I wrote as if it were a chore, with irritation and reluctance. I stopped submitting to competitions and magazines. I even stopped reading short stories – they only reminded me of what I wasn't doing.
You know when you definitely won't succeed in having a short story collection published? When you haven't written one.
If this is what I wanted, why was I resisting the actions required to work towards it?
"We're always either moving towards possibility, or away from it." – Dani Shapiro
Philosopher and writer Dr. Catherine Collautt found that when we are stuck, it's often because there is unresolved conflict between our conscious goals and our subconscious beliefs. In my case, this was definitely true.
My conscious goal: Publish a collection of short stories.
My subconscious beliefs: Impossible! The chances are minuscule! I'll never be good enough! This is a waste of time and money.
To dissipate the tension that keeps us stuck and prevents us from taking action, Dr. Collautt recommends challenging subconscious beliefs by seeking out 'exemplary examples'.
The idea is to demonstrate to your subconscious that what you want is possible. Not easy. Not even likely necessarily. But possible. And that this kernel of possibility is enough to get you unstuck and working towards your stated desires.
"By far, our greatest processing powerhouse is our subconscious mind... Your subconscious can and will do anything that you tell it is possible. If you tell it something is impossible, it will make that true for you too... So you want to find examples – exemplary examples – [that] let your subconscious know that what you want – all of what you want – is possible... The more examples you present, the more you encourage and reinforce the idea 'this is definitely possible', and let your subconscious know [what] it's working towards."
I realised that although I knew a lot about the work I admired, I knew very little about the lives of the people who produced it
You know what I found?
George Saunders, acclaimed short story writer, professor of the MFA program at Syracuse University and recipient of a MacArthur 'Genius Grant', started his career as a field geophysicist and worked as a technical writer for seven years before his first story collection was published. He also worked as a doorman, a roofer, a convenience store clerk and a 'knuckle-puller' in a slaughterhouse along the way.
Raymond Carver, widely recognised as one of the most influential writers of the contemporary short story, came from a family of sawmill workers, turned down a fully paid education to become a pharmacist and had a C+ grade average in his college writing course before seeing any of his work in print for the first time.
Then there's the woman who began studies in English and Journalism at university before marrying, opening a bookstore and raising four children. She had her first collection of short stories published some 17 years after leaving university and also worked as a waitress, a tobacco picker, and a library clerk along the way. That woman is Alice Munro – Nobel laureate for literature.
You might be thinking: "Sure, this sounds good and I know the career I want – but I'm drawing a blank. How do I find my exemplary examples?"
Start looking at the top. Look for industry awards and publications. Who is being recognised? Whose work is making waves?
The best way to find people and work that inspires you is to immerse yourself in your desired field. Are there industry events you could attend or online spaces such as discussion groups or blogs where industry insiders are active?
Ask people in the industry whom they most admire (whether current or past practitioners). Dive in and follow your nose!
Then again, maybe you don't know exactly what you want to do. If so, you can still use 'exemplary examples' to move forward by identifying themes that are drawing you to career change.
For example, if the theme of 'helping others' resonates with you, get into the habit of taking notes about people doing work that makes you think "Hell yes!" You might find your notes cover everything from a doctor performing lifesaving surgeries in the developing world to a banker running a micro-lending scheme for low-income women in London.
Find out as much as you can about the people doing work you admire and listen to your gut – if you start to get bored reading about someone's career, it probably isn't the field for you.
Here's what I learned
- There's no one 'right' way to get where you want to be. Even some of the most accomplished people have had haphazard and incredibly circuitous life and career experiences. It doesn't matter that I didn't study the 'right' degree or spent years in a completely unrelated career. The universe doesn't disqualify you from going after your dreams just because it doesn't make 'sense' on paper.
- All of my 'exemplary examples' continually invested in the possibility of what they wanted to achieve, even when it looked incredibly unlikely that it would pay off. There's no way, before they started to gain recognition, any of them could have predicted if, when or in what form their breakthroughs would come and how their careers would develop afterwards. Big unanswerable questions are no reason not to take small actions.
After reflecting on my 'exemplary examples', I felt expanded, unleashed and free to keep trying, to keep taking action, no matter how improbable eventual success seemed.
Instead of calculating the odds of publication, I now think about every story I finish or send off into the universe as an investment in the possibility of one day publishing a collection.
You don't have to want a creative career to feel like what you want is impossible. I don't know whether what you want is possible. But, maybe, neither do you.
Find your 'exemplary examples'
- Who has a career and life that makes your heart ache with envy? Aim high; the idea is to bust your sense of possibility wide open.
- What can you find out about their lives, particularly before they reached the top of their game? Look for the important transitions and periods of exploration.
- If your 'exemplary example' is someone you know or can get in touch with, reach out and ask them whether there were times when what they were aiming for seemed impossible? What did they do to keep making progress?
What changes for you when you start discovering your exemplary examples? Let me know in the comments below!