Fiction writers are obsessed with a story’s ending. We’re wired to believe that those middles, while containing the core narrative substance, are really just meant to transport a reader from an engaging start to a satisfying finish. For some of us (myself included), this misguided belief can taint the entire writing process. Can’t find an agent for your completed manuscript? That sounds like an unsatisfactory end to a long journey. No time to write a self-imposed limit of 1,000 words per day? Why bother beginning that short story if it’s going to take a month to finish. Nobody is buying your self-published book? I guess it’s time to call it quits.
Creative endeavors are full of those questions and doubts. The essence of creativity demands that the results be shared with the world, and an audience of readers is required for writing to reach its full potential. Criticism, feedback and praise can even change the nature of a story, and without it the author is subjected to quiet dismissal — the end. I’m here to tell you as we approach the end of 2022, it doesn’t have to be that way. This isn’t an admonition to start new in 2023, or to set smaller goals or even change your writing routine. This is your encouragement to embrace the adventure and put the focus back on the middle.
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Rethink Reward Systems
The first step is to eliminate rewards as the primary motivation for writing. If no editor pays you to publish your short story, is it still worth writing? When you share your serial fiction on Substack, but are met mostly with crickets, did you gain nothing in the process? There is a neurological pattern associated with this thinking and it’s based upon our increasing reliance on positive feedback loops that come in the shape of a reward. Neuroscientist and Stanford Associate Professor Andrew Huberman, discusses this research on his YouTube channel and in other videos.
“When we receive rewards, even if we give ourselves rewards for something, we tend to associate less pleasure with the actual activity itself that evoked the reward.”
We need to train our brains to release dopamine while writing. In order to do this, an intentional focus must be put on the craft itself. Finishing is a welcome byproduct to the act, but the reward we’re given is not the goal. Future motivations to write are more powerful when they are intrinsic (self-directed) versus extrinsic (other-directed). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate accomplishments or even the rewards we receive. It means we need to be aware of the personal purpose behind our writing and develop a growth mindset.
Build a Growth Mindset
Stanford University Professor, Dr. Carol Dweck, who authored Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, discusses the growth mindset in her Google talk.
“Ultimately, this led to our discovery of the mindsets. And what we found is that some people believe their talents and abilities are just these fixed traits — you have a certain amount and that’s it. But other people believe talents and abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies, good mentoring from others. Through years of work, we found that having a fixed mindset led you to be afraid of challenges that might unmask your deficiencies, made you withdraw in the face of difficulty because you felt stupid… Whereas having this growth mindset, the idea that your abilities could be developed, made you think, why waste my time looking smart when I could be getting smarter? And I do that through taking on challenges. I do that through seeing them through.”
The growth mindset isn’t simply about positive thinking. It’s about rearranging our writing process around difficult to master core constructs like storytelling, grammar and sentence structure, tense, and finding your voice. Similar to the study of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the writing process involves problem solving and a growth mindset is critical. Learning to create a character arc and a coherent plot takes practice. Write consistently on a timeline that works for you, seek feedback, embrace failures and be persistent. This is how you grow as a writer.
Enter the Flow State
Several years ago, I focused primarily on another creative endeavor. I pursued a long-time dream of illustrating a comic book. I held no doubts about writing the story, but my cartooning, character design and page composition skills required significant improvement. Over the next five years, I spent every day drawing, and some weekends drawing every spare moment that I could find.
I joined Instagram, found a great community and stuck with it. Eventually, I enjoyed a good deal of success, creating commissions and even working with some fun intellectual properties. When the timing felt right, I wrote and illustrated a four-page black-and-white short comic that was published in an indie anthology. After struggling to reach my goal, and putting in considerable time and effort, I no longer felt that I could pursue art with the same passion.
The driving force, being rewarded for my output, no longer sustained me. Creating a comic book, while a proud accomplishment, did not prove to be satisfying. After discussing with other artists and a bit of handwringing, the decision to draw less and write more came down to a single factor — my relationship with flow state.
The flow state, flow or as it’s known colloquially, being in the zone, is an energized focus on an activity that results in the transformation of one’s sense of time. As a software engineer by trade, I spend a good deal of time absorbed in a flow state. It’s why I know with certainty that my primary vocation will always involve programming. It’s a physiological connection and it happens with writing, although to a lesser extent. It barely, if ever, occurred with art.
The flow state is a powerful signal because you can still find an activity, like writing, to be difficult, all the while lost in the process. This is what makes the psychological phenomenon different from mere fun or excitement. Instead of paying attention to the rewards and outcomes, embrace the flow state, understand how it works in your own writing process, and listen to what it says.
Sustaining yourself in the middle is only possible if you can invoke states of flow during extended periods of growth. All of us at Fictionistas wish you the greatest growth in your writing, right where you’re at — in the middle.
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This is so great. Really hit me at the right time. I’m in the middle of many things now, in a grind, and struggling to embrace the adventure. Thank you for the encouragement and support for a stronger mindset 🤙🏼
Writing doesn’t take me there every time, but when it does it’s really great.