A while back, Brisbane writer Peter M Ball – who probably doesn’t think of himself as a motivational life coach but would be great at it I bet – clued me in to Neil Gaiman’s career trick of visualising a distant mountain to represent his goals as a writer.
Find your mountain – the nebulous end-point you define as success – and keep yourself oriented on it with each new step on your career. It may take a long time to get there, or you may never arrive, but if you look up once in a while and get your mountain back in your sights, at least you’ll know whether you’re heading in the right direction.
I’m still trying to figure out what my mountain looks like. It certainly involves not having to work for someone else for a living. Somehow I don’t think my mental image of sipping fruity mocktails by the infinity pool between writing sessions is entirely realistic. It’ll do for now though.
The way I picture my mountain, there’s a rocky pathway scattered with loose rubble, irate goats and a handful of milestone markers. The milestones look just like Obelix’s great stone menhirs, by the way.
I guess that’s not important. The important bit is that the markers come in two distinct varieties – the kinds under my control, and the ones I can’t do anything about.
Novel: To date I’ve written four novels (well, three, but I rewrote one from scratch, so I’m calling that one to boost my numbers). None of them are what I’d call satisfactory. So the number one milestone is to finish a novel to the point where I can say, hand on heart, “this is done”. I expect to knock this one off my list this year. Immediately afterwards I will likely replace it with “Now finish the series”.
Publish a novel: Once I have a finished (edited, polished) novel in the bag, will I try to walk the traditional road of selling to a professional publisher, possibly through a literary agent? Or will I self-publish? I don’t know yet, but the latter is certainly a viable fallback if the former doesn’t work.
Collaborate: I enjoy working with people on projects. I enjoy the back and forth of collaboration: the negotiations, the sparking of new ideas, solving knotty little problems. I’ve not worked on shared writing projects since my best-forgotten Doctor Who fanfic days. Sooner or later it’s going to be time to dust those skills off and have a crack at it.
That’s the “under my control” side of the equation.
On the other hand, there are a few milestones that I probably can’t make happen without resort to graft and corruption. Contests wins, award nominations, personal invitations to contribute from editors: all would be encouraging signs that I’m doing something right. Any or all of them might be the serendipitous by-product of hard work, consistency and lucky timing.
Beyond all this, there’s one marker I would be very satisfied to hit on a regular basis: hearing from readers I don’t know in person. It’s great knowing that a friend or relative enjoyed your work. When a complete stranger says the same thing about your art, they’re telling you that the work stood on its own. That is its own distinct and appealing form of validation.
Which reminds me to give a shout-out to the person in Brazil who has visited this site on several occasions. I don’t know who you are, but I do appreciate you. I hope you stay with me on my walk to the mountain.
You do know, ‘visualise a distant mountain’ immediately brings to my mind Mount Doom, to which I drag myself, starving and desperate, each day losing a shred of my sanity, and where I will probably lose a finger?
Look, Mount Doom has had a lot of bad press owing to its previous management regime, but the Mordor Tourist Board really wants to get the message out that they have a thriving jewel manufacturing sector, their mining industry is a reliable employer for both indigenous and immigrant workers and their cultural exports program, while admittedly going through a subdued cycle at present, holds great promise.
Your finger concern is admittedly valid.