The Joys and Challenges of Accountability–Figuring Out What Keeps You Writing

The Joys and Challenges of Accountability–Figuring Out What Keeps You Writing- blog by author teachers artist- Mary Tyler Moore.

For decades I’ve studied the element of accountability–what it means for the creative person, especially those involved in a long-haul project like writing a novel, memoir, or nonfiction book. A colleague once joked that books are like marriages. She added, “Sometimes I miss the one-nightstands.” 

Books are indeed long commitments, and they require creative stamina, as I posted about last week, but they also demand a system of accountability to self, to project, to whatever keeps you writing.

They take an emotional and psychological toll which can wear away at any stamina you have, unless the accountability is in place. I love this quote from writer Red Smith:  “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” How do you keep writing if you’re bleeding all over the place?  

How do you keep bringing that vulnerability, even courage, to the page? Especially when your life explodes, other stuff demands attention, you feel all dried up?

One thing I’ve noticed: First-time book writers think success with finishing a book is just about the writing. If you learn how to craft good sentences, if you figure out the secrets to plot, you’re home free. That’s why so many “write a novel in 20 days” books are so appealing–it all seems like magic, not work. 

Magic counts. I’ve been grateful for the times that something beyond my limited abilities helps me create a better chapter or scene. You can call it grace as well. That extra gift that shows up when you show up consistently. 

That’s where accountability enters.

Each book project you take on demands two kinds, or so I’ve learned through my personal study of accountability. We’ll talk about each and you can see which is working for you right now, to keep you in the race. And what you may need to strengthen.

Internal Accountability

Enthusiasm for your book is often high in the beginning. Ideas are sheer fun. Anything is possible. You read a bestseller and think, I can write better than that and I have just the right plot to try. 

A writer automatically has internal accountability when it’s easy to show up at the page or the writing is going well. 

You’re finally doing what you’ve wanted to do for years! 

You probably recognize this honeymoon period if you’ve been there and lost it. It can last months, sometimes far into a first draft. We just keep writing, no worries about quality. It’s golden to be flooded with ideas, to think about your book all the time.

Truthfully, we don’t know better–we don’t know what it takes to actually finish a book. Thank goodness for this kind of start. Otherwise, who would write a book, right?

But there’s a point where we begin to need some feedback and we share the chapter or draft with someone we believe will just echo our enthusiasm. Instead, they give us critique. Or we run out of stamina and begin to doubt all on our own. Internal accountability builds on whatever momentum and faith in the book is created by the writer herself. But something usually happens to derail it.

That’s when the Inner Critic takes a front-row seat. This sucks, you know. Are you really a writer?  

Might as well stop now, before anyone else reads this. 

When we work from internal accountability alone, unless we have years of experience with the voice of the Inner Critic and know how to keep writing despite it, the writing dries up overnight. Many writers, especially if this is a first book, will walk away at that point. 

That’s the purpose of the other kind of accountability: external support. 

External Accountability

Writers who know that internal accountability has limits, know that they will need support. Ever read the acknowledgements pages of your favorite books? Most published writers thank legions of supporters.  

External support comes in lots of forms. Online classes are big for me. I look for ones that foster a sense of community, boost the external accountability with weekly deadlines, and give me new ideas (generative) to keep me exploring new directions.

The best classes give me a weekly opportunity to gather my internal accountability again, recommit to the marriage (with my book).

Writers groups are another form of external accountability. I have a weekly exchange with my writing partner and a monthly by-phone group. It took me many years and many false tries to find these wonderful people. It was worth it. They make me work hard, they give me new ideas, they keep me going when my internal accountability is low. 

It’s important to cultivate a group, though, that boosts your internal accountability. If there’s too much critique too soon, if one person dominates, if you only get positive comments when you’re ready for more depth, they can make you falter.

Putting Them Together

I’ve learned that the two types of accountability toggle back and forth. Internal accountability–what keeps my enthusiasm strong and new ideas coming–depends on how much external accountability I have in place. I set up both, when I start a new book project. I plan my writing time each day, I make lists of what I want to work on (to avoid the horror of the blank page on a bad morning), I read voraciously and study the craft. 

But I also set up deadlines for feedback, and I sign up for online classes.

One series of classes just ended this week and I’ve signed up for another starting in July. Summer is a tricky time for my writing; there’s a lot to do, plus we travel more. When I try my usual tricks to just handle it all, the writing totally disappears. So I need these classes, the accountability of showing up every week, people who care about me and my book.  It offers the chance for a creative life for me this summer.

What is going to keep you accountable to your writing these next months? What internal accountability do you have, and what have you set up externally as support? What can you change or add to make the marriage with your book last?

Now a word from Glennis Annie Browne

Have you found Mary’s ideas food for thought?

What keeps me writing? I dislike not finishing what I have started. I do take breaks, and the last one was long due to the effects of covid in the community. My mind wouldn’t remain on the novel plot, so I left it many months. Strangely, the plot stayed with me, bringing different ideas which meant I researched and wrote notes. Now I am engaged again. Book Four is moving forward and ideas while revising again flow. Am I accountable to anyone or simply myself?

I am accountable to myself but also am aware of my lovely readers who are waiting for my next book. Secrets will be released later this year.

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