What are your rules about rules?

Rules

Jenny spied one artist’s rules written on a scrap of wall

The building was filled with art, but these rules scrawled on a broken piece of sheetrock were the thing that caught my eye: Don’t waste time. Stop doubting your capabilities. Make something every day.

They seemed like good rules for a year of submission.

I was touring the studios of graduate art students at The University of South Carolina when I saw them. The rules were in the work space belonging to a young woman who was assembling a huge collage of hundreds of small photos, a work that told some kind of story, I’m sure.

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This USC graduate art student is assembling her photos into some sort of sophisticated collage

To make the piece, she not only photographed the scenes but also mounted the photos on blocks of wood that she’d sanded and painted. I overheard her say how tired she was of burnishing.

I’m assuming these are her rules. Despite the overwhelming amount of work required, she appeared to be getting her huge project done.  The images were intriguing. I would love to see it when it’s completed.  I admire her determination.

But much as I want to 1) Have a plan, 2) Stop doubting, 3) Make something every day–as soon as I make rules, the rebel in me rises up. I don’t like rules.

But I do like a lark, a joke, a project, a dare. And I do think how you package something counts. (We can blame that on too much time spent working in advertising.)  So it makes me think that our Year of Submission is just rules (or a rule) disguised as something else.

Let’s be sure not to tell me.

I wonder how other people feel about rules and getting work done. Do they help? Or something else?

Anxiety, Finishing & Submitting

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Deckle Edge festival water, in case this anxiety workshop causes Jenny’s mouth to feel dry

I’m now back at home, calmly cooking bacon on this Sunday morning. But a few hours ago, I was waking up early, dressing myself in real clothes (as opposed to fake “athleisure” wear), and attending a writing workshop that I only signed up for late yesterday afternoon.

The workshop title? Overcoming Creative Anxiety: 5 Steps to Jumpstart Your Writing & Remain Calm

The instructor: Cassie Premo Steele, a writer who runs regular programs to help people (especially female people) push through all the reasons they cook up to avoid finishing and submitting their work.

I arrived five minutes before class time, which I thought would eliminate any anxiety that could be caused by rushing.

I was wrong.

The location had been changed, though I didn’t know it. A noisy Presbyterian congregation was gathering in what I’d thought to be our classroom space. I bumped into a classmate, another last-minute enrollee who hadn’t gotten the message. Her anxiety level was extra-high as she scurried down the block ten steps ahead of me, out of breath and fretting that she would be late for class.

I began to feel anxious about being so calm. Maybe I wasn’t anxiety-ridden enough for this workshop.

Just as my classmate had feared, we were late–but our soothing, confident instructor folded us into the mix with ease. She presented five stages of writing, from idea to submission, touching on the way anxiety plays into each.

It was helpful, not in a zap-aha-breakthrough way but in a why-of-course-I-know-that kind of way, which is better and much less anxiety-inducing. (Me to myself: See Maxwell, you haven’t been doing it all wrong!)

Three ideas I’ll be using right away:

1. When you’re stuck, set a two minute time limit and do something.  I teach this approach all the time in my writing classes, just used it in a comics class I took.  So why am I not using it to do things like find three agents or tackle that query letter or write that last scene of my book?  I have no idea.  But now that I’m reminded of how well it works, I’m using it more often.

2. Know your purpose and take a “servant of your message” attitude.  That second part doesn’t come from Cassie’s words, exactly. They’re the words we use at The Buckley School to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. It makes perfect sense that it can work for your writing, too.

The idea is to put the focus on how your work is serving an audience rather than worrying about yourself and what people think of you. You take your big, fat ego out of the equation.  At The Buckley School when we introduce this idea, people say, “but if my ego were bigger, wouldn’t I feel more confident?” But it’s your ego–your worry about self–that gets in the way. As someone who’s had to overcome a fear of public speaking in order to teach it, I know that taking a servant-of-your-message approach has been a huge help. I’m not sure why I haven’t applied the same approach to my writing.

Cassie explained her thoughts about purpose using examples. Here’s one: You lose sleep to care for a sick child and it’s a good thing, because you know your purpose. You lose sleep because of insomnia and it’s a bad thing, because you have no purpose and instead dwell on “what’s wrong with me.”

3. Think of submitting as getting the help you need to fulfill your work’s purpose.  This is a new idea for me. I like it. Cassie suggests you think of submitting as a 50-50 proposition: I’ve done my very best work. Now I need the help of agents, editors and publishers to find and serve the readers.  That puts it on a different footing, yes? You are not asking for rejection. You are looking for the right partner to help.

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Cassie Premo Steele (left) speaking with students after our workshop

Cassie’s workshop was part of this weekend’s  Deckle Edge Literary Festival, organized by the people behind Jasper magazine.  Cassie writes about and teaches this subject full time, and you can find out more about those classes and her work here.