I recently watched a talk about the drive to survive; how every organism (including us) on the planet has this most basic force driving all decision-making. It is always on the lookout for danger AND always assessing how to meet its most basic needs—food, shelter, procreation, etc.
Applied to our writing, that explains quite a bit.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to observe writers in various situations as the hostess of Cruising Writers. It’s an odd role I play. I’m a writer myself, but on my retreats, I’m less a writer and more an event wrangler. Slipping out of my writer-self and into a different role when I’m in a room full of writers can be a bit disjointing at times. But also, it has been very revealing how we as writers react to different ideas, new people, and unexpected situations.
Survival at a Conference, Critique Meeting, or Writing Retreat
When we walk into a room at a conference, meeting, or a writing retreat, we are instinctually looking for the threat and looking for what or who can fulfill our writing’s basic needs: craft instruction/critique (food), people we know or feel comfortable around (shelter), and who or what will advance our career (procreation).
We want something from each of these people or events. And each of these people or events want something from us.
But we also have a built-in danger alert system. That same instinct, the one that drives us to survive, is also designed to protect us from others taking something from us.
Think about it in context of a critique meeting: You bravely put your work on the table to receive feedback (food for growth), but there is this innate fear of harm. Your drive to survive has activated and though you need the food, there is a danger associated with getting it. So your defenses come up, and even if you are not outwardly defensive with your words, once at home it may take you a while to let those defenses come down so you can truly assess the feedback you’ve received.
And that’s assuming you allow yourself to receive the feedback. Sadly, I’ve encountered authors over the years at conferences and writing groups that have walked away from some truly wonderful, repetitive feedback from editors, agents and other writers, all because the fear of the threat to their writing was greater than their need to be fed. A true tragedy.
How to Overcome the Threat to Receive the Food
It is vital to the survival of our writing that we find a way to overcome the threat of danger to our words in order to receive food, shelter, and eventually the procreation of our books.
It’s going to be hard—that instinct to survive is built into every one of the cells in our bodies. The drive to survive will constantly weigh risk versus reward, and the unknown (new critique partners, new writing associates, new writing experiences) intrinsically comes with a greater risk because we cannot know the reward until after the experience.
However, neither can we sit in our writing cave and watch the world go by. We’ll starve. So venture out we must, and to do so, we must find a way to battle the need to self-protect and become or remain open-minded.
Three Tips to Remain Open-Minded in the Face of Survival
#1 - When you feel that survival instinct pop into place, do your own intellectual evaluation. Will this truly harm me if I venture forward?
Thankfully in the writing world, our physical bodies are very rarely, if ever, in danger. New information received can be discarded at a later date, if needed. But you’ll never know if the new information was worth the risk to receive it if you never show up to the workshop or critique meeting or writing retreat.
#2 - I hesitate to even give you this one, because writers have amazing imaginations, but ask yourself: What’s the worst that could realistically happen?
- I pitched my book to an agent and she hates it. That sucks. But will it ruin your career or make it so you can never write another word again? Nope.
- I went to a writing retreat and I hate everyone there and didn’t get any benefit from the material. If you’re actually showing up and making an effort to learn and forge relationships…not likely.
- I went to a conference and no one will talk to me and I can’t find the bathroom. I get it, I do. But the solution is that you should talk to someone instead of waiting for them to talk to you. And if you can’t find the bathroom, let me know. I have the locations of bathrooms memorized in most places, along with a rating system of the best ones with the shortest lines.
#3 - Practice the skill of open-mindedness. Yes, this is an actual skill that can be learned and must be practiced to have success.
- Constantly introduce new experiences and change to your life. This will teach your basic need to survive to chill out for a second; not everything is a threat.
- Admit that you don’t know it all. When you realize that you have room to grow (we all have room to grow), you’ll be more receptive to accepting new ideas.
- Make mistakes. Maybe you shouldn’t have listened to that critique partner who suggested you turn your main character into a banana. Or you should have ignored that agent who suggested, after you pitched to her for one minute, that you should change your entire manuscript from third-person past tense to first-person present. But the only way we can learn from our mistakes is to first make And to understand that we will make mistakes for the rest of our lives. It’s part of the whole living thing that we do.
- Listen first, then evaluate, then speak. This is a hard one. It’s much easier to go out with our spears of knowledge in place, defending our unacknowledged lack of knowledge with those spears. But you’ll get so much more out of this life by listening first. Then evaluating what you’ve learned. Then speaking about it from a combination of what you know and what you’ve learned. And so will everyone else around you.
Our drive to survive is something that has been necessary to the growth of our species. However, it can be more of a hindrance than a benefit when it comes to our writing. I challenge each of you to find something new to confront yourselves with this week, and evaluate your initial response. Is your fear of danger greater than your need to grow? If so, practice open-mindedness.
If not, enjoy the thrill that staring down danger brings. This is a great life. Go experience, learn, grow.
Do more than survive.
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Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. When she's not cruising the Caribbean, she's dreaming up new writing retreats to take talented authors on or writing the stories of the imaginary people that live in her heart.
Cruising Writers brings aspiring authors together with bestselling authors, an agent, an editor, and a world-renowned writing craft instructor together on writing retreats. Cruise with us to Grand Cayman this September with Lisa Cron (Wired for Story and Story Genius), Angela Ackerman (The Emotion Thesaurus), Michelle Grajkowski (Three Seas Literary), and Deb Werksman (Sourcebooks).