Life on the Plateau — an extended metaphor about writing

When you traditionally publish a novel, you enter into a tacit agreement. You can no longer speak of wanting more. Millions of unpublished writers would love to trade spots with you. They yearn to have your one agent, your one published book, your one award nomination.

And, you, published writer? It’s unseemly to want more. So you bottle up your writing/career frustrations, mentioning them only to other authors, in back rooms, in the dark–and only on the third Sunday of every month.

It’s only after the long, dark haul that you can bring these frustrations into the light, and then, as an afterthought: I’ve achieved this new thing–and here are the struggles I went through to get there.

Thing is, shedding light on the dark times, while we’re in them, might help all writers. Whether it’s a matter of craft or career–or both–anyone can hit a plateau.

My story:

I reached this particular plateau with my writing partner Darcy Vance on May 19, 2009. That was when The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading was released. But on the last leg of the climb up, I hurt myself. So while Darcy danced around the campfire and other writers sprinted past and scaled greater heights, I nursed my injuries inside my tent.

(In real life, right after our book launch, I got terribly sick, lost twenty pounds in less than two weeks, and couldn’t leave the house for a while. Eventually I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.)

Darcy would circle around, pausing in her joy of being a publish author, to check on me. My mom worried too. I plastered my perky YA author smile on my face and pretended everything was okay.

Three years later, and I’m still on the same plateau. Oh, sure, I’ve left my tent. I’ve tried on some new equipment. I’ve taken a few test runs, explored a path all of us (me, Darcy, our agent) knew might result in a dead-end. Eventually it did. But I haven’t left the plateau.

Some writers settle here, seemingly happy with where they are and what they’re doing. Others sulk in their tents, bitter, resentful, and cold. A few find their way back down the mountain.

Some of us take on that cliff wall, skin scraping, fingertips bloodied, only to fall off at the slightest bump against our shoulder. A rejection hurts more than it should at this point in our journey; a casual comment meant to help derails us for a week.

Here’s the thing about scaling this writing mountain: At first, you run so fast. Sure, you might stumble and skin your knee, but you’re up again quick, ready to tackle the next foothill. It feels great, like you never want to stop running. Then the slope gets steeper. Sometimes the path isn’t so clear and you run straight into a cliff wall.

There’s a first plateau where, I think, a lot of writers get stuck. They run up to it quickly, stop to catch their breath, then never continue. Or they circle back around, running up and down that part of the mountain–starting and stopping, starting and stopping. Their battle cry is usually, “This time I won’t let real life get in the way.”

But real life–or something that resembles it–always does.

But there are things–good things–you can do while stuck on any plateau:

Get a resupply from base camp: You can only subsist on reconstituted freeze-dried meals and trail mix for so long. In writing terms, remember to refill the creative well. Read (not just fiction, but rich and varied nonfiction), watch movies and documentaries, go to museums. Take a walk; take care of your body.

Weigh all options: The well-worn, obvious path may not be the one for you. Maybe you need to go around instead of over. Or maybe you need to tunnel through. The publishing landscape is changing and shifting all the time. What’s impossible today might be standard procedure tomorrow.

Heal and rest: Sure, you might be able to continue to the next level, but if you’re injured or exhausted, stop for a bit to rest or heal. Otherwise, you might find yourself tumbling back down and landing hard–maybe too hard to get back up again. Besides, the race isn’t always to the swiftest, and it isn’t really a contest to begin with.

Lend a hand: If you’re on a plateau–any plateau–you can see things writers below you can’t. Don’t kick rocks at them. Instead, lean down and offer your hand. They may do the same for you someday. And if that particular writer is the sort who kicks rocks at others? Not your concern. It’s why avalanches exist.

Start from scratch: Give yourself permission to try something new and unrelated to your main goal of scaling the mountain–hang-glide, rappel. Or in writing terms, take a poetry class, write a screenplay, try flash fiction. It will remind you of what it’s like to have that beginner’s mind, where nothing is impossible.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be capable enough to leave this plateau I’m on. Sometimes I think not only don’t I have the skills to climb higher, I’ve lost the skills I had to reach this place. My pack feels heavier. It’s filled with expectations (mostly my own) of what I must do.

But there’s one more thing you can do while waiting on a plateau:

Enjoy the view.

(And don’t kick rocks.)

10 Comments

Filed under Musings, Reading & Writing, Writing

10 responses to “Life on the Plateau — an extended metaphor about writing

  1. I like this metaphor, and for my own part, I hope you leave the plateau re-energized and ready to scale again. You’re right in that there seems to be divisions in the author world between Traditionally Published vs Self-Published vs Not-yet-Published. I also think that we’re all readers (no writer I know lives in isolation within their own words) and that should allow for compassion and shared support. I personally am finding the writers blogs I follow a great comfort for when that plateau becomes the only horizon you can see, and I’ve had quite a few authors reach down and offer a hand up the next climb ahead. All the best, and I will be following your journey my friend.

  2. Cheryl

    Lovely metaphor. Keep climbing. I believe in you. I keep thinking of that part of Neil Gaiman’s speech when he says something about when you get to that point that you wonder if maybe you’re revealing too much of yourself you’re starting to get it right. Keep reaching closer to tell your unique story. I’m still climbing. Let’s give each other a boost now and then ;)

  3. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I agree with you about the division in the author world and think we should strive for compassion. I’m also fascinated by your wordpress site. I’ll return later to explore some more. Thanks again!

  4. Oh, thanks, Cheryl for stopping by to read and comment. The weird thing is after I wrote this yesterday (I always sleep on longer blog posts–just in case), I found his speech. Seemed like a sign to me. ;-) Thanks again for stopping by!

  5. anno

    Beautifully expressed, Charity, and, yes, I’d pay attention to any resonances from Mr. Gaiman. Very careful attention. But I’d also suggest that if you’re on a plateau, you might as well enjoy a glass of iced tea while you can … who knows when the next opportunity might arise?

  6. Thanks, Anno. You are very right about all of that, except the tea part. It can be 100 in the shade, and I’ll still want my tea hot. I’m weird that way about my tea.

  7. Love this, Charity. So true. It’s hard to keep going, no matter where you are on the mountain. No matter how long you’ve been hanging around on the plateau, be proud of yourself for the distance you’ve covered!

    I read that only like ten percent of people who start a novel actually finish it and something like three percent of the novels submitted for publishing actually get published. You’re a member of an elite group.

    Anyway, you’ve got a generous spirit and give good advice. And you don’t kick rocks, so that’s good.

  8. I loved this post. I am feeling that in my life right now (though not in regard to writing; I’ve never aspired to be a “real” writer) and what you said has helped me put a lot of things into perspective. So thank you for that.
    I had no idea you were ill (haven’t been around the blogosphere in awhile!), but I do hope things are sorted now and you are feeling better. xoxo

  9. Oh, thank you and thanks for stopping by. The comments on this post have been wonderful. I do appreciate it. Plus, the name of your blog always makes me grin.

  10. Jenn, it’s so good to hear from you. I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned my illness online, so it’s not like you really missed anything. Oh, as far as writing goes? You are a real writer. But I am glad the post helped. It’s good to see you around.

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