Climbing the Wrong Ladder: The Worst Mistake A Writer Can Make

ladders
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I’m probably a little early in my mastery of writing to be doling out much in the way of advice. Yet I’m also an experienced human, and that can teach the odd lesson worth sharing. And my experience includes the worst mistake someone who longs to write can possibly make: I stopped.

I started writing as a young teenager and I was quite earnest about it. I read all the books. Did writing exercises. Read and re-read positive exemplars both literary and genre. Studied the markets. Got all the newbie mistakes out of my system. From eighteen I was getting the odd personal rejection from the major SF magazines, and that year was inordinately cheered to receive an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Then I sold my first two stories, to the Australian SF magazine Aurealis, and began to grow some confidence.

Prior to that I’d not been over-endowed with confidence. Writing was not well-regarded or well-understood in my family. My father once sat me down to gravely explain that writing was lying and real men didn’t lie. He was suspicious of all the reading involved and saw education as the root of all sorts of degeneracy. I was stubborn and refused to believe him, but that sort of thing seeps in. My writing dreams far outstripped my cultural capital and my cultural competence in the literary domain, and that is not a recipe for confidence.

When, not long after my first sales, I got a job that pleased me in an organisation that suited me, it seemed to me that writing couldn’t come to much anyway and I’d be better off putting my energies into the job. Practical, secure, well within my capabilities.

I stopped. For years.

Everyone’s heard some variant of the axiom Stephen R. Covey rendered as: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” It could not be truer if it were uttered by a burning bush.

For many years I felt an almost constant itch to write and just as constantly I forced it down and poured my energy into my job. Sometimes I essayed a little writing at night, but I was usually exhausted and unmotivated and it was exceedingly rare for anything to result. To evade the resulting cognitive dissonance I assured myself that the time for writing would come. My writing resided in a perpetually shifting future: when things settle down at work, after I finish this training course, after the next busy period, when I get well—always the day after tomorrow and never today.

And then, after many years, the organisation decided it had no further use for me and my job was gone. I’d climbed the wrong ladder and then discovered it has been an imaginary ladder all along.

Suddenly unemployed, it became achingly clear to me that I’d allowed self-doubt and social convention projected through the skewed lens of my father’s fear, exacerbated by years of my own diligent excuse-making, to take me far from the thing that I actually loved doing. When I returned to writing and found all my old skills rusted and my old knowledge redundant and the time left in my life for achieving dreams so foreshortened, I realised the awful magnitude of the mistake I’d made. Oh, I rolled my sleeves up, recommitted to my writing, and got to work, and I’ve managed to sell a story since and that is magnificently heartening. Nevertheless, I am never far from regret.

I’ve since enrolled at university, studying towards a BA (sociology/criminology), and I’m doing very well, thank you. But I’ve kept writing. A portion of each morning is allotted to writing and I defend that time. I’ve found ways to incorporate writing into my study. I do what I can to make sure that writing stays with me in the now and never drifts off into some soft-lit future that never comes.

And, when people ask me for writing advice as they do from time to time, I’ve urged only that they tolerate no delay from themselves. There is a need to work day jobs to house, feed, and clothe yourself, yes. But never let life’s sleight of hand make your dreams disappear while your eyes are elsewhere. Do what you have to do. But do it on the right ladder.

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