No Cure for Cancer — That’s Okay. No Book Yet — HOW DARE YOU!

When I was a high school senior, I eagerly took an Advanced Creative Writing class. By graduation, I had written a full-length novel — my proudest accomplishment as a young writer; I’d pulled the only all-nighters of my high school career to get it done. As a result, my teacher gushed that it was the “best” project she’d seen in the several years she’d taught the class.

My parents were thrilled to hear that my book was the “best.” To them, that meant I should start writing query letters and looking for an agent. Forget revisions and re-reads — it was ready.

After ONE draft.

I truly appreciated the praise, though I think when my teacher said “best,” she meant “finished”; apparently, it was rare that students formally completed their projects. Regardless, until I started college, I was bombarded with one question from family and friends alike: When are you going to get published?

Several years later, I completed my Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, and the same question followed, though much more fervently — urgently. As though not publishing my graduate thesis, regardless of its quality, was an item to be checked off on a list ASAP.

Now, part of why I never published my senior year project was because I was afraid to take the step. I wasn’t lazy or unmotivated: just a teenager scared of rejection. But also, every time I revised, my critical eye got sharper and sharper. And I enjoyed it. Knowing that each revision made my work better was a comfort — that I was growing as an artist.

But still, the question kept coming: When are you going to get published?

Every writer faces varying degrees of pressure to actually publish. It can be just an idle pondering, or a serious inquiry as to where your hard work will go.

It is no secret that writers are their own worst critics. But it leads observers to think that writers want to achieve perfection in their creations. In extreme cases, perhaps. But the one thing every writer wants to achieve is emotional resonance. They want their work to make people feel and think — at the very least, they want people to connect with their work. And that is frustrating because, nearly all the time that they spend creating, they’re floundering in the dark.

“But,” a well-meaning outside observer might ask, “what about all those formula books on writing great fiction? Hmm? Surely there must be some formula for creating a young adult fantasy or an urban espionage thriller! Hmm??”

I think of writing formulas as over-the-counter medicine. Some, like ibuprofen, can cover all kinds of genres and storylines. But others, like melatonin, can only cover one or two. Sometimes, in order to achieve your writing goals, you have to come up with your own home remedy. And that is freaking hard! The amount of trial and error that comes before you make the slightest breakthrough is astounding!

Scientists trying to create new medicines do the same thing: they work with what’s at their disposal, trying over and over to see what will work. They always grow their knowledge and experience so that the next try will be better.

As a creator working with your own knowledge and experience, you are your own kind of scientist. Scientists don’t get flack for not having yet found the cure for cancer, so no one should give you flack for not having yet achieved your goals, in spite of your hard work.

As Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It doesn’t matter if you find 10,000 ways, or even a million ways, that don’t work — you stay conscious of your goals and always use your failures to push you. You’re doing your best, with the tools and experience you have, and don’t ever let anyone undermine your work just because you haven’t checked it off yet. You’ll get there in time, just like the next scientific breakthrough.