Life Lessons Gleaned from Novel Writing

By Carolyn Astfalk

After I’d given birth to my first child, I vowed I’d never allow any task or experience to intimidate me again.

After all, despite my worries and fears, I’d just delivered a little human being, sans medication no less. If I could do that, I could accomplish anything.

But time has a way of dulling memories, especially those surrounding childbirth. (Thanks be to God.)

When in November of 2010, I decided to give National Novel Writing Month a shot, I was intimidated.

Surely fifty thousand words in thirty days would be less daunting than childbirth, right? But the bold sense of empowerment I’d felt after my son was born had faded. And childbirth had a clear advantage when it came to completion. A healthy pregnancy culminates in birth at the appointed time without much determination on my part. Birthing a novel? Those words weren’t going to write themselves, pushing themselves out of orifices and spilling onto a page in a coherent format, i’s dotted, t’s crossed, plot threads wrapped as neatly as a swaddled newborn.

Completing a novel may be a monumental task often compared to birthing a child, but the truth is, it takes a different set of life skills.

What I discovered, however, after completing those fifty thousand words and several books worth more, is that those skills and habits translate well into other areas of life. The lessons I’ve learned can be applied to a variety of tasks, projects, and seemingly unattainable aspirations. Put simply, writing novels taught me how to accomplish big goals over long periods of time.

Here are the universally-applicable life lessons I’ve learned:

  • Never stop learning. However much you may know or think you know, you’ve not learned everything there is to learn. However skilled you’ve become, you can improve. Whether it means taking classes, skimming blogs, listening to podcasts, attending workshops, or reading books, others have lessons to share with you. Be a ready learner, easily teachable and eager to improve.
  • Be patient. Big tasks take time, particularly those that involve big changes and new ventures. The world is not waiting for your success. Often what you see in your mind’s eye is a streamlined path to success and completion, free of barriers, setbacks, or a realistic assessment of how much time things take to come to fruition. Do not rush to the finish simply in order to check an item off of your list. Take the time to do things the correct way, even if it adds weeks, months, or years to your plans. Things worth doing are worth doing right.
  • There will be setbacks. There will be sick children, family emergencies, death, births, vacations, and celebrations. Your pace will slow or you’ll backslide. Your motivation will wane. Your time will ebb. Your feelings will change. Persistence is imperative. Don’t worry so much about your rate of progress so long as you resume moving in the right direction, however slow your progress,
  • Get over yourself. Humility is an underrated virtue. Yes, you are unique and special, and perhaps your accomplishment is stellar. But there are millions of other unique and special people on the planet who have also done great things. Maybe things much greater than your thing. Don’t let pride creep in, preventing you from accepting constructive criticism or the simple fact that everyone has an opinion and you’ll never please everyone. You can accept that even if what you’ve done isn’t the best or greatest, it has value, if not for others then at least for you.
  • You have unique value independent of whatever you do or don’t do. You may fail. You may succeed. You’ll probably do both many times over. Regardless, you retain your dignity. Don’t confuse who you are with what you have or haven’t done.
  • Don’t go it alone. Even the most introverted of introverts can’t go it alone. We’re meant to live in a community. You’ll need others, even if only a few trustworthy allies, to offer a listening ear, a helping hand, or a commiserating (maybe virtual) hug. Learn from others’ mistakes and successes, and then share your experiences with others. Having trouble staying motivated? Your compatriots can offer accountability too.
  • Just because you can’t do a lot doesn’t mean you can’t do anything at all. It’s the old “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” So, you’re only able to make minimal progress. Maybe your rate of success is abysmal. That does not negate the value of what you’re doing. Small steps, small increments of time, and little acts, however seemingly insignificant, have purpose and meaning and will eventually grow into something much larger.
  • Don’t make your ambition your life. This thing you hope to accomplish, it’s not everything. Balance your life as best you can, being sure to care for yourself as well as the important people in your life. Make relaxation and your spiritual life a priority. You will be better off for it. Time spent outside of the relentless pursuit of your goal is not wasted time. Time spent re-charging or re-fueling, or sometimes, doing nothing of consequence, is exactly what you need.

Success – let’s be real, getting by – in some areas of our lives comes easier than others.

You may not need reminders or lessons in some disciplines. Because I had the necessary drive to write that first novel, I hung in there long enough to learn these lessons. The challenge is to apply them in cases in which my natural motivation is lacking.

With fourth births and three published novels behind me, I hope I can take these lessons and apply them to other areas in my life. Maybe I could apply them to the neglected areas I choose to avoid or ignore for the same reason that so many people set aside the seemingly impossible idea of writing a novel. Things like adding exercise to my routine, keeping up with the housecleaning, de-cluttering neglected areas of the home and garage, losing weight, and on and on. Surely you have a similar list. (Please say that you do.)

I’ve written a novel, but that was just the beginning. The lessons I’ve learned will help me accomplish my other goals too.


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Carolyn AstfalkCarolyn’s debut novel, Stay With Me, will be released on October 1, 2015. At that time, she hopes to earn a few pennies to contribute to her family’s wealth and offset the time and financial drain of her word habit. Until then, you can find me playing with letters and words at My Scribbler’s Heart Blog. Carolyn resides with her husband and four children in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

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