Are You Paying Attention to Your Progress?

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Are You Paying Attention to Your Progress?

The above banner picture is one I took from the summit of a mountain peak in Colorado last week, a hiking trail called the Crags near Pikes Peak.

As stunning as the view was from the top, what struck me most during our two-hour ascent to 11,000 feet was how good I felt all the way up, despite the elevation this Texas-flats girl isn’t used to. My legs felt strong, my footing sure on the granite and loose scree. My breathing was deep and steady overall, though at the steeper inclines my heart rate increased and there were moments when I was a little winded, but recovery times were swift and I never felt short of breath.

If I’d made this same hike three and a half years ago, the story might have been different. Historically on my visits to the area I’d get uncommonly winded from the altitude even climbing a flight or two of stairs, my heart racing, sometimes a little lightheaded.

What changed?

For the last three years I’ve been working with a personal trainer. Nothing major—my gym and trainer (Fixed by Fitness and its owner, represent!) are focused more on real-life fitness: developing and maintaining flexibility and balance and strength as the body ages; building physical abilities and fitness for everyday tasks and interests; increasing my cardio capacity and recovery time; moving without pain.

That means that I work like a tortoise, not a hare: I’m not trying to “get buff” or bulk up; I just go twice a week for an hour and work on all these areas, little by little. I’ve been exceptionally consistent—especially for a woman who has never considered herself athletic and has historically truly loathed gyms and working out.

I simply show up and I do the work. Over and over and over and over.

And while I’ve noticed that I have much more energy and stamina, more muscle definition, and have even lost a little weight, it’s nothing drastic.

I didn’t really notice how far I’d come, fitness-wise, till I paid attention to how I was doing on this hike.

How This Relates to Writing

Like exercise, writing is often not made up of giant, sudden measurable strides forward in achievement or ability. Rather, you strengthen those muscles much as you might your physical ones: day after day, being consistent, showing up and doing the work.

Writing is often not made up of giant, sudden measurable strides forward in achievement or ability. Rather, you strengthen those muscles much as you might your physical ones: day after day, being consistent, showing up and doing the work.

Again and again and again.

Read more: “The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career”

How to Be a Working Writer”

That regular work—whether it’s daily or a few times a week or any other consistent schedule—isn’t always easy, and it isn’t often glamorous (you should see me huffing and straining at many of my training sessions).

And it isn’t always immediately satisfying or even appealing: More often than not I look at my workout days as something to get through that I don’t always enjoy doing, even though I’m always happy afterward to have done it (sound familiar, authors?).

And while I sometimes have personal-best days on lifting weight, for instance, most days I don’t really see or feel a difference from the previous workout as far as progress. Exercise, like writing, has incremental payoff, usually by small measures at a time.

But…if we learn to take the time to step back now and then and notice—how we’re feeling, how challenging a certain area is for us compared to how it used to be, the caliber of our work—that’s when we really see the progress we’ve made.

I think it’s important to do that—in any area, but particularly in creative pursuits, where progress is so often gradual, not sudden; steady rather than dramatic.

Otherwise it can be easy to feel disappointed, get frustrated…even give up. I remember just a few weeks ago feeling disheartened that I had deadlifted only 110 pounds, when several weeks before that I’d managed a lift of 125—and my current goal is 140.

But, my trainer pointed out, I’d deadlifted the higher weight only once, and I did four sets of the 110-lb. deadlift. And a few months earlier I was lifting only 85 pounds. When I started I could barely do 60.

Training is incremental—and it pays off when you find yourself able to do things you couldn’t have done before: like when I recently helped my husband lift our washer and dryer up onto pedestals. (Oh, yes, I felt like a badass, indeed I did.)

Writing is hard, and it’s a struggle more often than not. When you’re trying to wrestle a plot, or do the hard work of character building, or scythe a path through weeds so tall you feel you can’t see your way out, it’s easy to wonder whether you’ll ever actually get good at this writing thing. Whether you’ve learned anything at all…whether you even know what you’re doing.

But instead of focusing on what you can’t do or haven’t yet done, take a step back for a moment and take in what you have already achieved, how it compares to what you might have done a few months ago, or a year, or decades.

  • Perhaps you haven’t yet signed with an agent or publisher, but have you completed a manuscript…or two…or more? Remember when you started that first one and wondered whether you could actually manage to finish a whole story?
  • Are you struggling through your first full-length manuscript, perhaps, and wondering if you actually have the chops to finish it? Remember when you’d never even tried before and dreamed of doing it? Remember looking at that blank page when you first started? How far have you come since then?
  • Are you facing disappointing sales of your book, or lost an editor or publishing contract, and are worried about the future of your career? Remember when you’d have given anything to get published…to reach readers…to get reviews…to do all the things you have already accomplished?

Read more: “The Books in the Drawer (or Why Some Stories Take Longer Than Others)”

Training Your Writing to Behave

Why You Can’t Rush Your Process

Writing isn’t a journey with a destination or clear finish line. It’s a continuum, just like physical fitness. There will be ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, but if you are consistent and persistent then the arc will always bend toward progress.

Make sure you take time now and then to notice how far you’ve come.

Over to you, authors—do you ever take time to appreciate all you’ve learned and accomplished to this point in your career? Do gauge your progress as a writer by what you’ve achieved, or by what you feel you still lack? Do you consider your skill and talent against others’, or by how you continue to hone and develop your own? Do you encourage and support your writer friends by the same standards to you apply to yourself?

10 Comments. Leave new

  • Ken Guidroz
    June 16, 2022 3:59 pm

    Perfect, perfect, perfect analogy. And one we all get.

    Well written. Love the first part and the pic.

    I’m hip deep in my first effort to publish a memoir. And its a slog and sometimes I think at 62 I’m finally discovering that I have OCD. I’ve got to stop obsessing over this thing!

    But then again, maybe it’s just diligence, not obsession. Dunno.

    Reply
    • Thanks! You know I love me an analogy, Ken. 🙂 There’s a fine line between diligence and obsession in creative pursuits, isn’t there…? It’s always hard to let a story go–it never really feels “finished,” and it rarely matches exactly the vision we had in our heads. I think that’s one way we grow as writers though–being willing to let something go at some point, even if it isn’t “perfect” (is there any such thing?) and move on to something new.

      BTW, I have a free downloadable guide for assessing when it’s “finished” that might be helpful, on the Resources page of the site, the Self-editing Checklist. This is pretty common. 🙂 Nice to see you here, as always!

      Reply
  • Loved this post.

    I have a 2.5′ X 4″ piece of yellowing newsprint tacked over my desk. I think I took it from the Times, maybe ten years ago. On the left is a series of up and down lines, W’s but tighter, closer together. The squiggle is about an inch and one-half long. Under it is the caption ‘Activity.’ On the right is a curve Similar in length, much like the lower right arc of an O, that is, it curves gently from lower left to upper right, but much more gradually than a circle. The caption under that is ‘Results.’ If I had any computer skills, I’d reproduce it rather than try to describe it. It illustrates your point, “Consistently practiced activity is a reliable route to growth.” It helps me remember to keep my butt in the chair, write, and learn.

    I envy your discipline and its result in physical activity. I’ve experienced it, but recently haven’t had the discipline to practice it. ( I’m 81, but that’s no excuse.)

    Congratulations. Keep doing what you’re doing in both your writing (I always take something valuable from what you have to say.) and your exercise. We know where that leads.

    Reply
    • Listen, Bob, I assure you that the only reason I haul my cookies to the gym and work out twice a week is because I’m paying someone to make me. 🙂 I know myself well enough to know that I’d likely let it slide otherwise. And yeah, at 81 you get some leeway! Although I’ve come to believe, as you say, that exercise is the way to age well, so as I get older I’m feeling pretty committed. Dammit. 😉

      I can picture the graph you describe–and I love that. I’m fairly type-A and can get frustrated if results don’t come quickly enough for me, so anything that reminds me to be patient and consistent is welcome. Noticing my results really does help keep me motivated.

      Thanks for your comment–always good to see you here!–and for the kind words. It means a lot to know when the posts land well.

      Reply
  • You’re a wonderful breath of inspiration! I’ve taken a step back for 3 weeks now and haven’t worked on my story or written anything. Those weeds are very tall for me at this point. I needed to read this today to help get myself back on track.

    Reply
    • I’m glad to hear that! Thanks for taking time to let me know. And good luck getting back in the chair. Sometimes if you give yourself a ridiculously small goal–25 words, 50–it can defuse the tension around not having written, and when I’ve tried that I almost always find myself writing more, and picking up steam. Getting back in the saddle is the hard part.

      Reply
      • I wish I could write at least 25 words. It’s hard when I don’t know what those words should be. 🙂

        Reply
        • Just vomit them up, as the wonderful Brenda Ueland says in her excellent book If You Want to Write. 🙂 It’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of worrying about or judging our writing as we write and freezing up–but often if you just vomit up anything at all, even your own stream of consciousness (“I hate this. I have no words. I cannot write right now…” etc.) it seems to open the tap, and if you do that enough, before you know it the words will flow. Good luck, JB–don’t give up on yourself!

          Reply
  • suzanne trauth
    June 16, 2022 8:46 pm

    This is just the advice I needed today…wrangling the editing process of a draft of a new novel. (How did you know, Tiffany?) Thanks for your insights and encouragement to appreciate the current accomplishments.

    Reply

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