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Getting off the Hamster Wheel

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Please welcome author and mentor Katey Schultz to WU today! Katey is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year award, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year award, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. Katie is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at KateySchultz.com.

Getting off the Hamster Wheel

When I was in grad school, I had the luxury of communicating with my advisors every month about craft concerns. When I hit the road for writing residencies and fellowships following graduation, the majority of my support came from mature authors, also in residence. If questions about deep revision or the creative process arose, I usually found an answer just one studio over, and often from someone with the word bestseller in their bio.

Depending on others for advice about my next move on the page was good for me, at the time. I had so many other craft issues to deal with that I had to relinquish some of the biggies to the experts. But this dependency wasn’t sustainable and, furthermore, it wasn’t teaching me to be a better writer on my own. Sure, I could sign up for a workshop or attend a conference, but at the end of the day, I still had to face my own drafts and know what to do and how to do it. At a certain point, other people’s suggestions started to suffocate my sense of joy and turned writing into a checklist of feedback applied, and tools used. I’d “made changes” and “fixed stuff” but my writing also felt…well…dead. Where was the sense of discovery? That feeling that what I had to say, mattered?

I needed a way to get off the hamster wheel of leaning on others for feedback and find confidence and discernment in my own process. And I needed to be able to do this not just for one story, one essay, or one manuscript…but for the rest of my writing life.

Name it

Learning how to coach myself is what finally got me off that hamster wheel, and it took almost a decade for me to leap. Where did I land? In a place of confidence and discernment as a writer, with a deep creative practice that could contain both generative bursts and literary restlessness, all while meeting my goals. How? By identifying the invisible, decision-making moments of my creative processes and applying a unique set of reflections and craft skills to help me determine my own, best, next move.

You might be wondering: If it’s invisible, how did I fix it? The answer is something every writer can relate to. We can fix something only after we’ve named it. Naming things, after all, is what we do. But it’s not just for our stories and essays, it’s for our internal creative processes, too. When we start to apply thinking to language and apply reflection exercises to our own creativity, we can more expediently discern what to do next on the page, and why. We know how and why stories come to us, and we understand our blind spots. Rather than messing with the muse, we work with what it gives us (knowing our handicaps) and thrive on revising with real stakes and authenticity. All of this translates immediately into confidence, and when you put confidence and discernment together, what do you get? Momentum.

Be your own best editor

Now, when I sit down to write, it’s just me (imperfect), my motivation (inconsistent), and my foundation (unshakable). When I run into craft concerns, rather than shoot an email to a friend or give up, if I can coach myself by naming the challenge, then reflecting on the decisions I made that brought me to that point. If I can name the decisions, I can then question them, which allows a space for a different decision–perhaps a more effective one–to arise. From there, I can write my way forward and see how this slight pivot feels. If I still don’t feel clear, I know how to leave cues for myself on the page and write past the trouble spot, trusting that I have tools for returning to it later. I don’t have to solve the challenge or make every word perfect before moving on, because I’ve learned to trust that clarity comes in waves.

But if we stop writing, or if we think we can’t solve problems without a workshop or a conference, we’ll never experience that deeply private, deeply impactful, sense of momentum. We’ll never coach ourselves.

This kind of work is invisible to our readers and publishers, and that’s fine. They read for entertainment and discovery, which is what we want. They don’t need to be able to see the micro-decisions we make along the way. But we need to be able to see them.

That’s why being coached in how to coach ourselves is an absolute must when it comes to successfully writing for the long haul. It empowers us to become better writers on our own…not just for one project, but for every project.

In more concrete terms, that looks like this:

How much backstory is too much?

Problem: As a writer, I wonder, how much backstory is too much? Maybe I need to stop what I’m writing now and figure this out. But how do I figure it out?

Solution: I have taught myself to pause and take a deep breath in these moments, leaning into the question by asking more questions. This is difficult–we’re not conditioned to get close to the unknown and very few writing workshops teach writers what they actually need to be asking of themselves during these critical, all-too-elusive moments. For instance, I ask myself, What does my character desire, in this moment? How do I know that? Does the reader know that? If not, what object, obstacle, action, or reaction can I add to the page that will make this known? Sometimes, privately reflecting on these questions or freewriting answers to them in a notebook constitutes the end of the writing session for that day and I move on (to do dishes, pick up kids, clock in at work, mow the lawn). Other times, it is the beginning of five new pages.


How do I keep my reader from getting disoriented?

Problem: As a writer, I wonder, how far afield can I go from my present narrative before the reader gets disoriented? And how long can a flashback be, anyway? Maybe I’ve gone too far. Some of this page isn’t even in a specific bracket of time. Am I allowed to do that?

Solution: I make a map of my own story, tracing the narrative and its undercurrents, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and eddies. Sometimes I simply stare at my structure map, consider how it looks and feels, contemplate the balance of scene and summary, then…go to bed. But the next time I open that document, I have the answer to my question about how far afield I can go. I’ll either adjust a structural component, or I’ll keep going forward through time. In either case, I’ve coached myself through this challenge and can skip the workshop hamster wheel and meet my own goals, with confidence.

Show up and do the work

I’ll always have and need my good writing friends. I’ll always study the work of others to see what I can learn. And at some point in every manuscript, I’ll want to hand it over to a trusted reader for their response. But I’ll also always have to be able to write alone and coach myself from one page to the next. Finally, after a good bit of training, I can really say that I am my own best coach and guide through this process.

Above all else, I’m able to write. Simply. Without excuse or obstruction. The only requirement is that I show up and do the work. What do I wake up eager to do most mornings? Exactly that.

How are you your own best coach and your own best editor? Where do you still need help? We’d love to hear from you in comments.

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