When I worked as a newspaper reporter back in the mid-90s, I found myself trapped in the endless news cycle that was always hungry for more. We’d just put one issue to bed when it was time to start working on the next. In fact, most of us had starting working on tomorrow’s paper sometime last week, penciling in meetings, interviews, and events on our calendar while we were still tapping out obituaries and filing our notes from yesterday.
Even when an issue came together especially well–just the right photographs, an exclusive interview, a feature story everyone would love–there was no time to rest on our laurels. We were off to the next big thing. In the current 24-hour news cycle, I’m sure it’s even worse.
Writers of all kinds, not just journalists, feel the pressure to breeze past one writing accomplishment and onto the next. We’re only as good as the next thing we write. Not the last. But I’d like to propose a little reprieve of that kind of thinking.
Today, I wrote the first 2,012 words of a 50,000-word rough draft that I’m planning to complete on November 30. It’s the mad dash of National Novel Writing Month, and I’m already worried that I’m in over my head. For this first day, I’m ahead of the 1,667-word daily pace one needs to maintain for a successful NaNoWriMo. But what about weekends and Thanksgiving and I’ll probably get a migraine at some point … and not write for a whole day. What kind of crazy (and arbitrary!) commitment is this anyway?
Welcome to the inside of my head. These were the thoughts swirling around this morning as I thought about sitting down to write. But amid the mental clutter, this thought rose to the surface calming all the others: you’ve done this before.
See, this is my second NaNoWriMo, and while I know 50,000 words in 30 days seems over the top, I’ve done it before. In fact, I wore on my 2016 NaNoWriMo Winner shirt to the gym this morning, as a kind of inspirational pep talk for myself. As I pulled the shirt over my head, I thought, maybe I should rest on my laurels. Maybe that’s exactly what I need, in fact, to face this next big project.
Even if I hadn’t done this particular thing before, I’ve written stories, I’ve completed projects, I’ve tackled hard things for 30 days and more. And so have you. The hard thing you’re working on, the writing block you’ve found yourself up against, the deadline or the word count staring you down? Don’t give up. Instead, rest on your laurels. You’ve done something like this before. And you can do it again.
See, that phrase “resting on your laurels” comes from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, where Olympic athletes and later victorious military commanders were given laurel wreaths as symbols of their success. In those original cultures, recipients of the wreaths actually did rest on their laurels, allowing their athletic and professional successes to carry them through the rest of the lives. According to History Revealed, the negative connotation of resting on one’s laurels didn’t come for “millennia after the decline of the Ancient Greek and Roman empires.”
So I’m not saying you should allow past successes to keep you from your next project. Nor should they force you into a project or pace just so you can outdo yourself. Instead, let the accomplishment you’ve already achieved fuel your creativity and give you the confidence you need to sit back down and do the next work you feel called to do.