By Karen DeBonis
“That’s a fine piece,” the editor of my local newspaper wrote in his email.
It was my piece he referenced, my op-ed I’d submitted a month before the 2016 presidential elections.
“I can use this,” he continued.
I jumped up from the table and ran, blubbering and breathless, to tell my husband. It was my first acceptance as a “real” writer, and it indicated—as hard as it was for me to believe—that I could actually write.
As writers, we have many firsts. First finished piece, accepted piece, finished chapter. Shitty first draft. First 100 followers, 1,000 followers, 5,000 followers. First query submitted, query rejected, and—if we’re lucky and worked our tails off—first book published.
Like a baby’s first tooth or his first day of college, our writing lives are a sequence of milestones. The early milestones may seem less important than the big ones, like our books being published, but we’d never have that book if we hadn’t walked through the other firsts. And every first, every writing milestone deserves a celebration.
Recently, in preparation of my memoir’s release in May 2023, I sent out my first book launch team letter. It was a marketing task I’d prepared for and read about for several years. I had amassed a group of almost 70 team members from 22 US states and 4 countries. The anticipation of hitting “send” flooded me with happiness.
As a writer, I’m sure you’ve experienced this flooding of emotion. It’s caused by the activation of reward centers in our brain, which release dopamine, one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters.
With challenging tasks that we work hard to achieve—think writing an essay, story or book—the reward centers ignite a feeling of accomplishment and reward.
But our brain doesn’t stop there. Multiple reward pathways involving myriad parts of our brain “work together to encourage repetition of the rewarding behaviors.” Essentially our brain “tells us to repeat what just happened in order to feel the rewarding sensation.”
For you science and physiology geeks, here’s a 2-minute video explaining in more depth our brain’s reward centers.
When I received and accepted an offer of publication from a small press earlier this year, I popped the cork on a bottle of Prosecco which I’d kept around specifically for that occasion. But bubbly is not required for every milestone.
For the kickoff of my launch team, I didn’t celebrate with champagne, a bowl of ice cream, or retail therapy, but with mindfulness of the moment. In other words, I sat with the feeling, soaking in that dopamine like a hot bath, and it felt every bit as good as the real thing.
Anytime I finish a creative project, whether it’s painting a wall in my house, reviving a garden, or sewing curtains, I like to spend time in the milieu I’ve created. I think of it as my afterglow.
After a rush of dopamine, if we hurry on to our next writing task, we cheat ourselves of our well-earned reward. It’s like eating birthday cake but scraping off the frosting. (Really- who does that?)
Before I queried small presses, I queried 85 agents, and only two requested a full manuscript before summarily ghosting me. The other agents either didn’t respond, sent me a form letter rejection, or kindly told me the project wasn’t right for them. Sound familiar? And don’t even get me started on my Submittable page with its endless list of “declined.”
Writers face rejection more often than phone scammers get disconnected. To return to understanding our physiology: rejection causes our adrenal glands to release the stress hormones epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline), and cortisol, which may cause aches, pains, and digestive troubles, among other symptoms. In other words, our "brain processes a rejection the same way it processes physical pain.”
Many writers have a creative strategy for handling the “downs” of our occupation. Here’s mine. In addition, we must capitalize on our brain’s dopamine production anytime we can. One way to do that is to celebrate the “ups,” the wins, the milestones.
What was one of your most memorable early milestones and how did you celebrate? Please share with us in the comments!
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Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, an entangled mix told in her debut memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in 2023. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, HuffPost, The Insider, AARP, and numerous literary journals. A happy empty-nester, Karen lives in upstate New York with her husband of forty years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.
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