The Wisdom of the Grind: It’s Always Darkest Before a Breakthrough

Writing three books last year was an exercise in grind. While there may be many people happy to write 4, 6, 12 books a year, I am not one of them. A big part of my process is the research involved in worldbuilding and the deft untangling of what makes character relationships compelling, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of brain space. The more brain space I put into other things: worrying over my sick dog, puzzling out a day job problem, considering the world descent into fascism, noodling over whether or not we are well-positioned for climate change, head-desking over ancillary projects, the less brain space I have for building worlds and stories.

Spending too much head space in the The Dark Teatime of the Soul isn’t good for anyone, and I’ve been opening up Twitter less and staying on it for shorter periods, in addition to pretty much muting every Dark Keyword and many Negative Pity-Party-Wallowing accounts that feel they must vomit their misery into the ether. I am there with you, friends, but I am full up on that brand of dark. My goal is to get my news/social check-in on Twitter down to about 20 minutes a day. I’ve already removed TV and radio from my life, so I only hear the constant fear-mongering now when I go to waiting rooms that have TVs on (and what is it with places that do that? I don’t need to listen to screaming heads on CNN prophesying our doom while waiting at the doctor’s office).

Doing this helps me get back the head space that I was giving over to stuff I don’t have any control over. And yes, there’s been studies done that show that it is being put into situations in which we feel we have no control that cause the most stress and depression. This explains the four years of my life that I spent at a day job that laid people off every 4-6 months. I hung on for a long time, but the stress was constant, and I dealt with it in unhealthy ways. I jumped right from that job into another, even crazier one, where eveyrthing was constantly in flux. Where I’m at now is much more secure and stable, but wow, I had five years of awful stress there for awhile, and I’m still figuring out how to come down from it.

Paired with my crazy day job history was (and is) my crazy publishing history. Talk about an industry where you feel you don’t have a lot of control… as I’ve noted before, sure, writing a good book and marketing it well can keep you in the midlist, but breakout books take something more, and as yet no one has figured out how to actually manufacture bestsellers from unknown writers yet. Though they keep trying.

And then outside of all that, of course, is the uncontrollable world. And while each of us individually and together are working hard to enact change, the way it’s reported (if at all) isn’t under our control. It’s in the media’s best interest to serve us the most vile and hate-mongering stories, because those get the clicks. They show us a world that’s rampaging out of control, a world we can’t change. Even knowing, intellectually, that that’s wrong, the crazy outside world can contribute to that feeling of overwhelming, ongoing stress and depression that keeps you soaking up tears in your cornflakes.

I make note of these outside factors because I’ve had a rough time getting control over – or feeling that I have control over – a good many things lately. I’ve spent the last five years at a hard grind, pushing for a breakout book that was always the next book or the next book or the next book… and though there are certainly plenty of successes I can point to (coming back from the implosion of my first publisher was a huge win in and of itself. Not many of us who debuted there were able to do so, and many have disappeared completely from the field), I am always aiming for more, and bigger, and better. At this point my reasonable goal is to be able to write and freelance full time by the time I’m forty. That’s very reasonable! But I can see the hard grind ahead of me, and I admit that some days I do not have the gumption to look it in the face.

My focus continues to be on becoming a stronger writer. Not just at the prose level, but at the all-important story level, too. That involves sitting down and doing some research, too, and breaking down existing stories. Me sitting around writing the same book over and over doesn’t help me level up as a writer. Note the full depth and breadth of Le Guin’s work. She didn’t get to be a great writer by writing one endless fantasy saga. And while I would love to be able to write an endless fantasy saga that paid the bills, what I want more than that is to be an excellent writer. When your work is selling all right, but hasn’t broken out yet, you just gotta keep banging on story. But yeah, it’s not always fun. And yes, I realize that Le Guin didn’t have to make a living via her writing, which did probably free her up to write a lot more of what she wanted to write. But there are writers like Gene Wolfe who had day jobs their entire careers and wrote plenty of transformative work, so there’s no hard and fast rule here.

Lately I’ve been in one of those rough periods where I just want to quit for six months or a year and travel around the world and refill my creative bucket. Cause right now all I can see down there are beer dregs. The truth is that every profession will try and squeeze out of you as much as it can get. While I’d like to be mindful of how much I give it, I also recognize that in order to get to where I want to be, I’m going to have to give it everything. This is a marathon, yeah, but I don’t indeed to have anything left for the way back. This is it. The older I get, the rougher than knowledge is, though: knowing I have saved nothing for the way back. There is only forward.

When it gets dark like this as I sweat over the next book and start putting together ideas for pitching a new series, I remind myself that sometimes it’s the very bleakest right before a major breakthrough. These are the long plateaus in skill and ability that we have to push through to level up. Once you get to the pro level at anything, your effort/skill ratio flips. You no longer see huge gains with minimal effort. There’s a reason you can get 2 years of skill leveling up out of 6 weeks of Clarion. You tend to be newer to the craft. You’ve got more to learn.

My next big level up is taking a lot longer to get to – several books, many stories. While I have recently seen some rise in my short story skill level due to all the grind I’ve been doing on Patreon, and all the study I’ve done on story, I’m not seeing it as clearly in my novels. Creating interwoven storylines with multiple characters is difficult for any writer, but I have the added bonus of insisting on portraying weird, weird worlds as I do it. It’s a grind.

Oh, the grind.

Nothing in life or business is fair, but even when you know that, it can be difficult to accept it when the fairness doesn’t seem to be on your side. When things get especially bad I will mutter aloud, “Life is pain, princess,” and push on. I once read that to the ancient Greeks “happiness” meant being free from pain – physical and emotional. If you think about it, you were spending a whole lot more of your life sick or mourning friends and family than you do in many parts of the world now. We run around thinking that there’s something wrong with us for not being “happy” but if you aren’t currently grieving or suffering from an illness, well, you’re doing pretty well by ancient Greek standards. Ok, well, I DO have a chronic illness, but it’s not generally painful… So I have that going for me.

Which brings me back to expectations. I often think I should lower or adjust mine, but I’m not convinced this would change my drive to be the absolute best at what I do. What concerns me is that the path I’ve laid down to get there – the writing grind – is incomplete. With debts and day jobs came a lack of head space to do anything at all but writing outside of those things I need to do to live. While this sounds great – read any book about grit and active practice and it will remind you you need to work harder than other people if you want to compete – the trouble is that I keep pretending like I’m everyone else. I pretend like I don’t have a chronic illness. I pretend like I can get by without significant amounts of exercise. Hell, there are days when I think I can eat carbs without regretting it. But none of those things are true, and I have to build a life around who I am and what I need instead of what I wish were still true.

While I have survived stressful day jobs and publishing implosions and career death several times over here at the ripe olde middle-age of 36, I’d like to hope there’s another 30 years in me still to go. It’s tempting not to be able to see that when you’re this deep in the dark grind, but I know it’s there. I know it’s always darkest before everything breaks open. The hope is that you can survive the darkness long enough to get there.

We fall down seven times. We get up eight.

We get up.

We get up.

We get up.

 

 

 

Support Kameron

If you’ve read and enjoyed my work for free – whether that’s the musings here on the blog, guest posts elsewhere, or through various free fiction sites, it’s now easier than ever to donate to support this work, either with a one-time contribution via PayPal, or via a monthly Patreon contribution:

Patreon

Other Titles by Kameron Hurley