For the past six months, I’ve alternated between writing a new draft of a novel I first started in 2012 and pitching out short essays and comedy pieces. Some days I worry that the time I put towards the short pieces takes away from my progress on the novel. I’d definitely be farther along if I only focused on fiction every day.
Instead, I spend afternoons reading sites to get a feel for what they publish, mining my life for relatable essay topics, and crafting pitches that hopefully land with editors. I write jokes to make myself laugh and hope someone else will laugh, too. I write thousands of words that are not about the characters I made up and have been thinking about for more than six years.
In reflecting on how I write, I realized the short pieces helped me stay motivated in specific ways:
I See Clear Achievements
Without the short pieces, I’d be alone in my head working on something that I’m not convinced anyone else will ever see. I’d stare at my word count and wonder how many pages I’ll eventually have to cut because they’re not actually plot-relevant. I’d wonder how much of my plot is at all relevant to anyone other than me.
I turn to writing whenever I need a boost. When I have a bad day at work, I start jotting down article ideas. Even if the eventual pitch gets me a “thanks, but this isn’t a good fit” email, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. If the pitch turns into an actual published piece, I have evidence for myself that I am doing okay at the writing thing, even when I feel stuck.
I Feel Connected
The more I’ve written, the more I realize how important making connections through writing is to me. I write comedy to make other people laugh with me. I write personal essays to find people who may relate to something as small as using your joint account to buy your spouse a latte or as common as dealing with a coworker who refuses to learn how to make a Word document into a PDF.
Someday I hope someone reads my novel and connects with it. On good days, I imagine discussing my inspiration while giving readings at my favorite bookstores. On bad days, I hope I can at least convince my best friends to say nice things about the sprawling draft I will undoubtedly email them.
In the meantime, I have other discrete projects that keep me feeling connected. “Hey, I wrote this!” I can say as I share my work. “What do you think?” My heart bursts a little every time my editors or a reader thinks I’m funny. I’ve made friends with other writers because we liked each other’s work and reached out to say so. Even pieces I haven’t been paid for have felt valuable.
I Remember to Play Around
I started writing when I was a kid. I loved to read and wanted to make up my own stories. In high school, I wrote ridiculous adventures starring my friends, including a James Bond spoof called “Russian Roulette” that I’m still pretty proud of. Coming up with ideas for shorter pieces reminds me why I had fun writing in the first place. I wasn’t trying to write a literary masterpiece. I was just having a good time. Maybe my novel will never make it beyond my laptop hard drive, but I’m working on it because I enjoy writing, and that’s also okay.
Sometimes Getting Paid is Nice, Too
I’m not a full-time freelance writer, nor do I make anywhere close to enough on my writing to support myself. My comedy writing has all been unpaid, but other essays and articles are for money. I’m not making a lot, but each deposit in my bank account feels like an economic confirmation that I am a real writer. To paraphrase Stephen King, you’re talented if you used the check you received for a piece to pay the electric bill. I use my writing income as a justification to buy fancier cheeses when I shop for groceries, but it’s the same sense of confirmation.
Maybe someday I’ll sell my novel and I’ll use the income to pay my electric bill for a whole year. If that happens, it will feel great, but until then I can at least tell myself that someone liked my writing enough to pay me for it.
I Can See Improvement
I have sent out a lot of bad pitches. So, so many bad pitches. I have a folder of halfway thought out comedy pieces that might have been funny in my head before the words hit the page. I have drafts of pieces that I could never quite tweak to be right. When I look back at the first pieces I published six years ago, I’m proud of what I did and I can also see how far I’ve come. My writing is sharper, my ideas are clearer, and my pitches are at least a little better. I’ve had the chance to work with editors who have pushed me to improve, and those experiences continue to inform how I write.
When I returned to my novel draft from 2012, I could see how different my writing had been. At the time I knew it wasn’t perfect, but now I can better identify what needs to change. I can believe this draft will be better because I have the evidence of progress in my shorter pieces.
Writing can be lonely, and sending short pieces into the world helps make it a little less solitary. The pitches and articles help me feel like I’m still connected when I finally close out of all my tabs and open my draft to try to keep telling the longer story that’s been running through my head for years. I can keep going and feel more confident that someday someone else might read it, too.