Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The endings of so many wonderful stories – our own and others’ – are different than what protagonists imagine they might be.

And our lives hand us some of the same twists and turns.

As writers and illustrators, there are times we must move through more than the usual vicissitudes.

Something may go terribly wrong and leave us feeling like doors are closing, possibilities are evaporating, and our creative work will forever remain in computer files or portfolios.

I had an experience this year that felt that way. It challenged my learned and well-practiced optimism to a degree that I hadn’t felt in years.

The first thing I did was a completely natural tendency: I tried to figure out how and why the experience had happened. Luckily, I’ve learned that it’s unlikely that we ever figure out the reasons for things completely out of our control. I also know for sure that spending time this way may be a natural way to mourn what is lost, but it’s also a definite mood and productivity sinker.

I won’t call it a total waste of time, but I will call it a bridge from despair to energy that I wanted to keep as short as possible. My experience left my middle grade novel in verse up in the air. The direction forward couldn’t be immediately clear.

Get busy on your next project in the meantime, I thought. That’s what we all tell one another, right? And it’s such a good plan!

But no big ideas came. No little ones, either.

I wondered whether my hard-won resilience had met its match. I definitely didn’t want to believe it had. Looking forward, I was not feeling tremendously optimistic.

But I don’t believe in writer’s block.

So I meandered forward more slowly than I might have wished, but I stayed patient.

Ideas came, and I jotted down verses. The ideas didn’t take hold, and I turned elsewhere, pulling out a picture book draft for revision.

I was writing, but I couldn’t detach my best writing self from the novel in verse that had been a story I had had to write, and did. I was collecting ideas that would or wouldn’t go anywhere.

That’s all I knew. I didn’t have a clue where my meandering would take me. I was fairly successful with staying patient, but I won’t say it was easy. I just wanted to keep writing.

Then an online course popped into my email – an intensive, homework-heavy, webinar-filled picture book course that appealed to my need to dive into something deeply. I read the syllabus, and any other time, it might have felt even overwhelming, because it was that filled with a bounty of information and peer and professional critiquing. It was going to be intense. Could I handle it?

I decided I could. At this moment in time, the intensity of the course offered a door off my meandering path, and I was ready to head through it.

Deep into dissecting components and aspects of a favorite picture book text during the five weeks of the class, I knew I had moved forward just by focusing on, and doing, the work. Thoughts came and went, and came again, about how I wanted to proceed with my novel in verse. I spoke with colleagues, a mentor, a friend. I began to research options for submission.

By the end of the course, I thought about the process I’d taken myself through: Without planning it or thinking about it, I’d used reliable techniques from past experiences. These come naturally to me now, but they were originally learned behaviors:

  • Trusted my feelings, let them come and go without judgment – the initial shock and disappointment, the interest in moving on along with the uncertainty of how I would do that, the pleasure in writing every day even if it “went nowhere,” the ultimate excitement about immersing myself in a new project.
  • Trusted the process – that if I nudged myself gently with interest rather than impatience, with a brain open to stimulation, my meandering and daily writing would lead me somewhere meaningful, or be meaningful for its own sake.
  • Worked hard to reframe any negative language (which equals negative thinking, and then a negative mood, decreased productivity, decreased creativity, and more) into neutral, and then positive language replacements.

All three “activities” kept my brain open and able to take in new information and possibilities, creative solutions to problems, and positive emotions.

For me, being a resilient optimist means that sometimes I see the worst possibilities, then begin to do whatever I can to at least try to have those possibilities not come true. And as I do, all kinds of opportunities open up right in front of me.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes middle grade fiction, award-winning picture book manuscripts, and poetry, as well as regular guest columns for Cynsations and the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, she writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience.

Her middle grade novel in verse, "Reeni's Turn," currently out on submission, inspired the award-winning film, "La Folia," and was named a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize at Hunger Mountain.

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