Now Comes The Hard Part: Reversing Underachievement

I am in the part of my learning curve with my fiction writing that will push me to the brink. Like many adults who slid through school without having to work hard, I never developed habits of persistence and grit. And now, I have to if I want to make progress.

I got through school by showing up to class, reading the assigned work, and taking the tests. Notice the complete lack of revision, study, or thinking about the material to understand what I was missing. I always understood enough to get As, but never enough to excel. I had no motivation to excel. To excel would have required me to live through the discomfort of staring what I didn’t know in the face and hanging out with it, examining it from all angles, trying to find a path to understanding – a discomfort that most people encounter before leaving high school, but that I managed to get through law school without ever encountering.

This pattern of not pushing myself has led to a classic case of adult underachievement, a failure on my part to fully use my strengths to accomplish my goals.

Luckily, the universe sent me a bunch of challenging children to parent. I can’t stay in bed all day and ignore my kids. I have to do my best to help them grow into happy, healthy, productive citizens. And, like all parents, some days are not so good. Some days, I really feel like a failure. But, I need to get up the next day and keep trying, hoping that what I can manage to accomplish that day will be enough.

Parenting has forced me to develop persistence, to become comfortable with studying, experimenting, and changing things that aren’t working.

For the first time, I have been given a task that feels too hard for me, but that I refuse to give up on, and I am learning to push past what comes easily.

As a writer, I have reached the point where I need to dig in for the long haul and do the hard work. I have written bad first drafts; I have read a huge amount about the craft of writing; I have written good and bad short stories; and now I am revising a novel – a very messy, in serious need of hard work, novel.

I am unwilling to give up on this novel. But, I don’t have the discipline of decades of hard work to draw on. I need help getting past my lazy habits of doing just enough to get by. For now, I need external deadlines to meet, to push me through the frustrations. I hope not to need them forever.

I have homework due for my novel-writing class – homework that will require me to do some analysis of my draft that I have been putting of for too long because it is hard. I have agreed to send the first 25 pages of my WIP to Charlotte Rains Dixon tomorrow because I won a critique from her. I am terrified to give her these pages. This is the weakest part of my draft and I know it. But, it is better now than it was before I won the critique, and it will be better again before I submit the first 20 pages at the end of my class in a few weeks.

I am determined to beat this underachievement thing.

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Posted on April 9, 2012, in Education, Parenting, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. OMG –let us know how the critique went! –And hey, at least you *have* a “first 25 pages” of a WIP to submit! I tend to get bored long before 25 straight pages have been written, so I skip to something else, leaving me with 500-1500 word vignettes.

    I can relate to your high school experiences –though I didn’t always get straight A’s, I don’t remember feeling like I had to work very hard to understand the information. The hardest I remember working in high school, would be when I had to gather information for a report and decide which portions would be used–then there was the typing of the report–on a TYPEWRITER. Whew! 😉

    I also seemed to have a resistance to keeping things organized, so when it came time to make sure my biology binder or my social studies binder was in proper order with all the papers behind the correct tabs, I recall staying up till 4am to get that done. Of course, there was nothing to “grok” here, so the “hard work” with binders was just me reaping the bad fruit of my lack of self-discipline.

    Thank you for these articles. It’s good to not feel entirely alone in this! 🙂

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thanks for reminding me to notice how far I have come. It is so easy to notice the places where we aren’t meeting expectations or goals, and so important to notice what we are accomplishing.

      Writing reports was my favourite part of high school because it was the only place I learned something I cared about. I didn’t feel like I worked hard, but I think I must have done since I remember the libraries where I researched them and their topics, and I don’t remember anything else related to the content of my high school classes.

  2. What a brave and honest post, Kate. I would never have guessed you to be an underachiever. Based on this blog, if someone had asked me which you were, I would have unhesitatingly said, “An achiever!”

    Best of luck with the critique. I imagine Charlotte Rains Dixon would be a rather wonderful person to get a critique from: she exudes fair and supportive (and fun). I’ll look forward to hearing how it turns out for you.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thanks, Milli.

      My journey with this blog is part of my transformation from underachiever to achiever. I still don’t feel like I’m there, yet, but I am definitely on my way.

    • You know, Milli, I’d say that most achievers view themselves as underachievers. They always look at where they could have been; we look at them in awe of where they are. Kate, in my mind, is an achiever.

      • Kate Arms-Roberts

        I also think that those of us with potential in a lot of different fields suffer from living in a world that adores high-achieving specialists. There is no good socially admired way to measure achievement in breadth. So, when we compare ourselves to specialists, it is easy to see ourselves as having fallen short.

  3. I am with Milli in that this is a brave and honest post. I was a bit taken aback, actually, particularly by your use of the word “underachievement.” As I said to Milli above, however, I think I understand where you’re coming from.

    This harkens back to a conversation we had recently on my blog, where we talked about genius and if it is inherited or learned. If I recall, you were talking about the extent to which things come easy to people, and whether they keep going when it is no longer easy. With music, I stopped when it wasn’t easy anymore. For some reason, with writing, I’m still pressing forward even when it isn’t easy (which is often). I’m so glad you are.

    And I’m so glad you’re doing a critique with Charlotte! I’m sure that will be of great value to you.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      As I mentioned in the post, parenting really forced me round the corner and I have started pushing into the hard work. By the time you and Milli found me, I was into the uphill climb, but I am still very much aware that I am building new habits to replace decades of only doing as much as necessary to get by rather than pushing for stretch goals that would be more meaningful for me.

      It’s nice to have the perspective of people who didn’t know me before to show me how far I have come. Thank you.

  4. I’m excited to read your work, Kate, and I SO appreciate the honesty of this post. It is rare to find someone who knows herself so well. I have a feeling this self-awareness does great things for your writing.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I am really looking forward to feedback. I have been scared to share my work on this novel with anyone, so it feels like a big deal to be giving other people pages to read. And this month, I have shown things to my eldest son and my husband, and have sent segments off to you and another editor, plus I will be practicing pitching it at the end of the course I am taking.

      Huge steps forward for me.

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