When "focusing on what you can control" doesn't really help
I’m so glad you’re reading my brand-new newsletter. Let’s start with a little background on the newsletter name and what you’ll find here.
I used to deflate inside when someone called me “sensitive” or chided me for “overthinking” things. I used to think my sensitivity and my need to talk, write, and feel my way through experiences made me less fun to be around, less strong, or just “too much.” But I’ve come to embrace these parts of myself, and now I see them as the source of my strength and resilience (not to mention the reason I write novels). I’ve also been craving connection and a place to share some essays about being a mom, writer, and human during this current moment, plus my book news and recommendations. So here we go!
Looking for control in an out-of-control world
Lately, I’ve been thinking about control and rethinking some advice I used to swear by.
“Focus on what you can control” is one of the things writers are always telling other writers, and for good reason. There are so many things we don’t have control over: whether a book is acquired by a publisher, how well it sells once it’s published, whether it gets starred reviews or makes end-of-year lists. You can write the best book you’re capable of writing, but what happens after that isn’t really in your hands. So the healthy, empowering move is to focus on the things you can do something about. Start your next book. Redesign your website. Make a reel or a really great Canva graphic or something.
But over the past year or so, my attempts to follow this advice have left me feeling more powerless than empowered.
In the first seven months of 2021, whenever I wasn’t on deadline or in book promotion mode, I used whatever work time I could carve out to write my next book . . . only I couldn’t get anywhere with it. I filled up notebooks brainstorming ideas, characters, and questions. I drafted ten or twenty pages of a few different versions of a story I couldn’t quite get to the heart of, but each one fell apart. I was too burned out and depleted to find the right way in.
I also tried all sorts of in-my-control things to help me spread the word about my last middle grade novel, Saint Ivy, in the weeks and months leading up to its publication in May. Sometimes it felt good to do something. But other times, these actionable items only amplified my feelings of disappointment because they didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped. I could control my own action, but I couldn’t control whether there was any payoff, and that hurt more than I’d anticipated.
For me, “focus on what you can control” still feels like a helpful mantra when it’s not guiding any future action. I feel relieved when something is clearly over and I tell myself, “Well, that’s out of my control. Nothing I can do now!” Or even better is something like: “I did my part. I wrote the best book I could, I achieved my own vision, and no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, I’m proud of that.”
But the mantra falls apart when I try to use it to determine where I should put my effort and energy in the present or future. Things are so unpredictable in the publishing industry (and probably every industry) right now, and everyone is so exhausted and overwhelmed. I feel panicky and desperate when I try to strategize about what in-my-control things I should do to promote Coming Up Short, my book that comes out next June. What if I pick the wrong things? What if I don’t do enough of them and the book flops and I feel like I didn’t do my part? The advice just isn’t working for me in that context.
And what’s more, the advice to “focus on what you can control” or “remember you can only control yourself” can leave me feeling like I should be able to control my emotions, not just my actions, and that isn’t true. It can make me feel like somehow, if I’d been working hard enough and successfully letting go of anything that was out of my hands, then I wouldn’t have felt so heartbroken when Saint Ivy didn’t get the buzz or attention I’d hoped it would, and I wouldn’t have had such a hard time writing something new.
Even before I started puzzling these ideas out consciously, I wrote some musings on control into my next novel. This is a thing I do—write books in which characters learn the lessons I have only partly realized I need. My next book, Coming Up Short, is about a softball-loving girl named Bea, who has to come to terms with her parents’ humanity and figure out how to get over the yips after a family scandal leaves her reeling, both on and off the field. Bea’s mom is always telling her that she can only control herself, and that advice is empowering in some ways, but it also leaves Bea feeling ashamed when her emotions are too big and confusing to wrangle. Throughout the novel, Bea has to learn that when we try too hard to maintain control, we don’t leave room to feel or express hard feelings, and we shut out other people and important parts of ourselves. She has to reframe her mom’s advice in her own way.
And I’m doing some reframing of my own. I’m trying to flip around the “focus on what you can control” mantra so that I stack the deck in my own favor and “control what I focus on” when I assess how well I’m doing. I want to pay attention to all the smaller things I’m accomplishing even when my bigger goals don’t happen—like how those false starts on my next work in progress were important steps on the way to finding the story I’m working on now, which I love. Or how an essay I wrote about Saint Ivy wasn’t published on any of the sites I hoped would pick it up, but the process of writing it still helped me crystallize ideas I needed to figure out.
I also want to untangle any action I might take on from the outcome I’m hoping for. If I want to do something because the thing itself sounds fun and meaningful (like starting this newsletter) regardless of whether there’s any “payoff,” then great. If not, I need to think twice before proceeding.
And I want to make space for all the feelings I can’t control or anticipate (or even fully understand), and I hope you will, too. I hope this newsletter encourages you to reframe any advice you used to swear by that isn’t serving you lately. Being a writer—being a human—is really hard right now. I think we need to feel the sadness and frustration of the current challenges instead of trying to conquer them with our strategic to-do lists and admirable work ethic!
Stuff I’m loving, and you might, too:
For any parents of young kids, I highly recommend the podcast Good Inside with Dr. Becky, as well as her workshops. All the content about deeply feeling kids has helped me more than I can concisely say, and bits of her wise and compassionate approach to feelings may have worked their way into Aunt Mary, one of my favorite characters in Coming Up Short and the mentor both Bea and I needed in many ways. One of Dr. Becky’s tips that works wonders with my daughter is to say, “There’s something about _____ that feels bad to you. I believe you” when your kid is super upset about something that doesn’t make sense to you (not being the first one to wash hands before dinner, for example, in my kid’s case). I’ve started saying a version of it to myself, too, when I’m upset and don’t yet understand why.
I just listened to the audiobook of A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus, read by Polly Lee, and it’s such a cozy, charming, moving story. I didn’t want to stop cleaning, folding laundry, or wrapping holiday gifts for as long as I was listening! My other favorite audiobook of the year was The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green, which moved me so tremendously and made me think so deeply. It was exactly what my soul needed. I love libro.fm (where I linked to both of these) because it supports independent bookstores! Highly recommend it as an alternative to Audible.
I can’t possibly choose favorite books of the year—that task is too loaded and complicated for me as a writer—but a recent book I loved (and think is a must have for all middle school classrooms and library collections) is the middle grade anthology This Is Our Rainbow, which is edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby and includes such a rich and varied assortment of stories. If you’re looking for books about 13 or 14-year-old characters (which I always am), then you need to check out all of Paula Chase’s upper middle grade novels. She’s one of my favorites, and her new release, Keeping It Real, is wonderful. Another delightful book with a 14-year-old main character (young YA this time) is Tiffany Schmidt’s I’m Dreaming of a Wyatt Christmas. I’m about halfway through, and it’s charming and hilarious, and would make a perfect holiday gift for a rom-com loving tween, especially if you order a signed and doodled copy from Doylestown Bookshop (linked here).
Thank you for reading! I’ll be back with more deep thoughts and big feelings in 2022!