Challenge Yourself, or, Difficulty Setting: Hard Mode

Hello, writers! Can you believe it’s already December? I can’t. It feels like only yesterday I was holed up in the bathroom at work crying my eyes out over David Bowie dying. I am so fucking glad this shit-show of a year is almost over.

But enough of that. Today I want to talk about why it’s important to CHALLENGE YOURSELF.

If you’re like me, you have some ideas in your idea notebook that feel too difficult for your current writing level. For whatever reason, they are intimidating. The plots are too intricate, the characters too complex, the world too expansive, the genre isn’t one that you are familiar with. It is so easy to let fear and lack of confidence goad you into shelving those ideas. You tell yourself you “aren’t ready,” that you “aren’t good enough yet.” Once you are, you tell yourself, you’ll tackle them.

The problem with this line of thinking is that you are never going to feel “good enough.” At least I never feel good enough. And those difficult ideas have a way of becoming enshrined in my own head. They start to feel SO good and SO amazing that I know I’ll NEVER be able to do them justice. This is the quickest way to total creative failure. Why try to write at all? The idea is so clean and perfect inside my brain!

The best thing I ever did was throw my hands up, say “FUCK IT,” and jump into what was at the time my most complex and difficult idea. I just didn’t want to wait anymore. I knew I wasn’t good enough, knew I wasn’t ready, knew I would probably fuck the whole thing up and ruin the idea. And I did, at first. It was a long road filled with potholes and pits and barrels full of rabid squirrels that jumped out at me and latched onto my face as I walked by. I came out of the first year and a half cut, bruised, bleeding, exhausted, more certain than ever that I just fucking sucked. But I kept going. Eventually, the road became less bumpy. There were fewer potholes. And the squirrels were less foamy and red-eyed. I still fell into a pit now and then, but I clawed my way out of every one stronger than ever. By the time the road ended, I was a mean mother-fucker, missing some fingers and an eye and totally riddled with rabies and fleas, but ready to tackle whatever shit came my way.

Rising to the challenge makes you a better writer.

You have to put every ounce of yourself into it, of course. You can’t half-ass it and say, “well it’s hard and I knew I would fail.” No. You go into that rigged-against-you-boxing match and you give it your all DESPITE knowing you’re going to fail. You land some punches. You surprise people–hell, you surprise YOURSELF. Even if you lose, you come out of that shit stronger. Better. Ready for the next one.

I remember being a kid and stumbling on a book in the library that sounded interesting. I remember taking it home and trying to read it. It was too old for me at the time. It was HARD. I wasn’t used to that. I was an AMAZING reader, the best in my class. I don’t think a book had ever “defeated” me before. I returned it to the library…and then asked my parents to buy it for me for Christmas. I would not let this shit knock me down. Eventually, I finished it. I LOVED it. I read the rest in the series. I moved on to adult novels. Nothing could stop me at this point. I rose to the challenge and finished that mother-fucking book (which was Mossflower by Brian Jacques, by the way. It was my first experience with difficult names and dialect as a little kid, and that shit was CONFUSING). Conquering that battle prepared me for what was to come, and opened me up to a whole new world of books.

Two metaphors and a personal story later, I’m sure you get my point. Challenges hone our skills. If we always did something easy, we would never move on. We would never get better. We would stay in the same safe rut forever. We would only ever read “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and never “War and Peace.” We’d be safe and stupid and gross and boring.

If writing doesn’t make you uncomfortable, make you sweat, make you squirm, you’re playing it too safe. Try something different. Challenge yourself. Go out of your comfort zone. Write something you normally wouldn’t, go outside of your preferred genre or write a character so different from yourself that it’s difficult to get into their head. If something is hard, double your efforts. Do MORE research, MORE brainstorming. BE RELENTLESS. Don’t let that shit defeat you. Don’t put the project aside in favor of something easy. In the end, you will have improved.

When I was growing up, my dad always told me: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” I know now that the quote comes from Susan Jeffers and her self-help book of the same name, but dudes, my dad is the BEST at creative pep-talks and using random quotes to get me motivated. (He totally used “if you build it, they will come” to explain that I should write or draw whatever I want and that my passion would gain me an audience, instead of writing to trends. Dude used Field of Dreams for a writing pep-talk and it was one of the most important things I ever heard)

So now I tell you: FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY. Yes, writing something beyond your level is scary. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to hurt. But if you stick with it, you will be a much better writer by the end. You gotta tear your muscles to build them up BROS (god I am using so many metaphors in this post it’s crazy)

I finished the hardest book I have ever written in October. And now I can do anything. There’s another Hardest Book on the horizon. It’s waiting for me. I’m comin’ for it.

What’s your Hardest Book? Do you have the strength to take it on?





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