Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Power of Expectations

This month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question came from yours truly:

Where do your expectations for your writing (career/skill/quality/achievements) come from? Is the source internal, external, or both? And how do you cope when you don't meet them?
Lydia's answer is here, and Laura's is here. Deb will be up next week. As for me...

My expectations for my writing come from the same place the rest of my expectations of myself come from. And instead of telling you flat out, I will share a little story from my childhood.

My parents decided I was ready to go to kindergarten when I was four. Sure, my birthday wasn't until the very end of October and I couldn't legally start public school where we lived, but they decided I was ready enough to put me in some sort of church kindergarten, and then a different private school for first grade. And I have a memory, a very hazy one, but I've checked with my parents and they confirm the logistical details are accurate:

I am sitting in an empty classroom, at a table with a bunch of chairs around it. Child-sized. And I am holding a pencil, and looking down at some kind of test. I think it was an entrance exam for that private school, though at the time I only understood it as some sort of worksheet I was supposed to complete, and that the school people wanted to see if I could do it. I remember thinking only one thing:

I will SHOW these people what I can do.

I was five.

My expectations of what I can and should achieve come from inside of me.  And I expect a lot. I know I said I don't study writing craft, but that doesn't mean I don't work on my writing, that I don't critique my own work mercilessly, that I don't expect every piece of work to be better than the last, or that I am easily satisfied.

Now that I've gotten to the point (in this strange adventure I am calling a writing career) where other people are beginning to expect things of me, I'm really starting to have fun. I like few things better than a really high bar, except for maybe nudging it a little higher. I might whine or angst over it to my friends (poor Justine), but really, it drives me.

It has absolutely nothing to do with competing with other people. I don't actually care that much about that. Other people can do their thing, and I'll do mine. Some will do and be objectively better, others won't. Some are flatly more talented, others aren't. That stuff ... meh. It is what it is. All that drives me is what I can control, and the only thing I can control is how hard I work.

So ... when I don't meet those expectations ... you know what? I'm pretty forgiving of myself (most of the time). I usually just buckle down and work harder. But really, when it's something I care about, and when I really feel like I've done all I can, I try to re-evaluate the goal I set for myself, and question whether or not it was reasonable. I usually don't waste time beating myself up, because that doesn't help me.

Enough about me! How about you? Where do your expectations come from? Who sets your bar? What happens when you don't quite reach it?

OH! And the winner of the exclusive LARKSTORM deleted scene is Alleged Author! Congrats!


  1. I was four also in kindergarten...but unlike you, my mantra, even back then was, "I don't have to do what you tell me to." This has NOT served me well, and I wish I could go back and kick my own arse because all of my adult life when I've set my own was never as high as it could have been. I'm just now learning how to work harder at working harder.

  2. You seriously haven't study craft????? Seriously??? Wow, you could have fooled me. :D

    My kindergarten mantra was: 'I know I can't do it. I know I can't do it.' Fortunately that later changed to: 'I'm going to prove them wrong.' That's still my mantra.

  3. Hmmm, I do not remember having a mantra at all in kindergarten. Wonder what that says about me...

  4. I haven't studied writing either. I have learned so much here, from other bloggers. Expectations wise...I pull from myself. I also have that..."I will show you" attitude. The doubters only make me stronger. :-)

  5. awww! little sarah was TOO CUTE!
    i don't know, i think motivations come from lots of different places for me. :)

  6. I don't know where my motivations come from, but I know I can't leave something half-done. If that means trying harder, or trying something new, I do it.

  7. That internal drive is so powerful. When they say a person has a fire in their belly, they're not kidding.

    So glad your drive is creating such marvelous things as novels!

  8. I'm so old we didn't have kindergarten when I was a kid. Still, I've always set my internal bar very high, and worked very hard to top it ... and then nudged it up a little higher and worked some more. It'd be nice to have flowery praise, accolades, and ticker tape parades on my behalf, but the person I most want to please is me. Aw, who am I trying to kid? A ticker tape parade would be AWESOME!

  9. It's weird, because I'm generally kind of lazy, but I'm also a bit of a perfectionist. What this ends up meaning, is that I don't attempt that many things, but when I do attempt something, I never give up until it's done to my satisfaction.

  10. I have to laugh at Matt's comment that he is kind of lazy! Could have fooled me!!

    Confession time: I am a competitive soul to the core. It's genetic. I was brought up believing that our family was the best, and there was nothing we couldn't succeed in. It's had its good moments (there has been a lot of success in life), but the shadow side is DARK. Like a ripe old apple, though, I now have a much mushier core... though my wife says I'm just transferring the competitive spirit to my kids!

  11. All I can say is my ultimate goal is to beat Michael at everything.
    Sorry--couldn't resist that. Really, I just want to be a famous author and writing books seems to be a good way to achieve that.
    Really, I just don't want to think about it too hard.
    Maybe I should do a blog post on this subject myself.

  12. This made me smile because I have so many expectations of my writing and I have yet to meet most of them. Still, I have hope that if I continue to work hard (like you said you do) it will happen. Forward progress is key!
    Great question, and thanks for sharing your own expectations.

  13. Thanks for commenting on my query over at Matt's blog! Nice to meet you :)

    Your description of inner willpower sounds astounding similar to mine... I set very high goals for myself, and have high hopes for lots of things. And that part about controlling how hard I work - I may have used almost that exact same quote before!

  14. Wonderful post. I connected with your motivations, Lydia. I write for me, for the characters, to write the best book I can so my readers won't be disappointed.

    But, I'd be dishonest not to say I don't have a competitive side. I remember my grade school days when I wanted to memorize THE LONGEST POEM for an assignment, to beat out Danny Copeland to take the lead as THE SMARTEST PERSON in my fifth grade class. Tons of examples.

    But, perhaps that competitive spirit, turned inwards is me wanting to be the best for ME. I don't begrudge others their victories. I simply strive for my own.

    Love this community blog idea.

  15. That's so cool that you were so motivated at such an early age! I feel like I've found a kindred spirit in you through this post. I don't study craft, either, but I do tend to be merciless with myself about my writing. And I do have really high expectations. I know that at the end of the day, I'm going to be the most critical of my books, more so than even the harshest of reviewers. That's what drives me and makes me want to get as close to perfect as I can. Yep, the race is definitely with myself.

  16. That's a really interesting memory to have. But I know what you mean. The more we write, the more we're driven to improve, the more we need to write. :-)

  17. Like you, I don't feel I'm in competition with anyone but myself in terms of my writing. When it comes to submitting for publication, if what I've written is up to snuff and appropriate, it will be chosen. If not in the first place I submit, then possibly the second. Or third. If I didn't expect to be successful, I don't think I could sit at the keyboard. The one ties into the other and keeps me going.

  18. Good topic and that is a vivid image that you created of you the young girl ready to ace the test.

    My motivation is internal as well, but highlighted by an external. When playing hs football, we were running sprints at the end of practice. Everyone was gassed. A very respected assistant coach watching me screamed in my face that I had the most potential on this team but so little to show for it. He was right.

    Many years later, I can still hear that voice and my own expectations pushing me.

  19. Love this! I especially connect with the self-competition thing. Doing the best I possibly can is my goal.

  20. I won't answer your question directly, but when I saw "I will SHOW these people what I can do," (which of course is what I read first) and the little story around it, I could relate to it in one way, and felt the opposite in another way.
    The relating part: People say the odds of someone being able to make a living as a novelist are extremely small. But the thing is, it doesn't depend on odds at all. Small odds is completely irrelevent. I would say it is very _difficult_. It takes a whole lot of work and perserverance. And a good bit of it depends on other people reading and liking what they read and helping books get published one way or another. But it doesn't depend on odds. And I want to show people (and myself) that I can do it. ...or at least get some things published.
    The not-relating part: High expectations of me (from myself or others) just puts pressure on me, and I really don't work well under pressure. I collapse and go to comfort myself one way or another. It doesn't help me toward my goals at all.
    ...So there's tension in badly wanting to accomplish something difficult and (what is commonly known as) unlikely, but trying not to expect too much because the pressure hinders me and because, well, I don't really think I can do it. (but I'm going to give it what I've got anyway)...