I had shoulder surgery back in 2010. I detached my labrum, got misdiagnosed, and then spent a full year doing the wrong kind of physical therapy which made my injury worse. When I finally was diagnosed properly, my shoulder was so messed up that the surgeon who fixed it told me I’d never be able to do a push-up again.
At the time, sports was a big part of life. I was doing martial arts three times a week, playing and coaching basketball, and going to the gym regularly. Needless to say, I was extremely frustrated by the way the injury was restricting me. One day, I expressed these frustrations to my chiropractor, who, in response, gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: If you can’t do the best thing, it doesn’t mean you have to do the worst thing. If you can’t do the best thing, do the second best thing.
I might not be able to do certain exercises, but there were others I could do. Working on the chest press machine might not be great for my shoulder, but it wasn’t as harmful as push-ups; I might not be able to train in the style of martial arts I had been training in, but that didn’t mean I had to quit martial arts: I might not be able to rest as much as the doctors would have liked, but I didn’t have to push myself to the level I had pre-injury.
I think about that advice a lot.
There is a tendency among writers to have an all-or-nothing mindset. Write every day. Hit your word count, or else. Post x amount of times a day on social media. update your blog on weekly, on the same day, at the same time. Finish a full novel during nanowrimo. Aim for 100 rejections a year.
There is tendency to give up if we don’t achieve our goals. If we miss our word count one day, it tends to snowball. If we don’t write one day, we might not write for a few day (weeks?) as we wallow in shame and self doubt. If we don’t finish that novel in November, we put the project aside as a failure and to add it our ever-increasing pile of unfinished manuscripts.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Some days life happens. Some days, writers block happens. Can’t write your 750 words today, maybe only write 400, or 150, or 50. Can’t write at all today? Send out a submission or two. Do some research. Even read a book with a writer’s eye.
Only write 23000 words during nano? That’s 23000 words you didn’t have before. There’s no law that says you have to finish your novel by The end of November, or December, or the following November, or, if you’re George RR Martin, 10 years from now. Just don’t throw it away. Make incremental progress over time. Write many words some days, fewer words others.
That is what true discipline is. It’s not always doing the best thing, or even the second best thing. It’s about not doing the worst thing; not doing nothing. Will there be days you cheat on your diet? Yes. Will there be days you can’t train? Of course. Will there be days when you don’t write? That will happen too. The most important thing is to keep going, to make incremental progress over time. If you take two steps forward for every step back, you’ll reach your destination eventually.