Writing and the Fear of Commitment

Holding Hands

This post could also be titled Don’t Be Afraid to Fall in Love with Your Writing.

I’ve come to believe that one reason we resist getting serious about our writing is a fear of commitment.

Holding Hands

Falling in love is scary. For all of the thrill and romance, we lose a part of ourselves. We are no longer wholly our own, and that’s the way it should be.

Anyone who is around someone else who has fallen in love also knows that the afflicted is “not all here.” Their minds and hearts are split, half in the world where everyone else lives and half entwined with the object of their love. (The photo, above, was taken by my brother Paul Furrey at our son’s wedding last summer.)

Best-selling author Terry Brooks explains why, as a writer, he is “not all here”:

“So what am I talking about when I saw I am not all here? I mean that if you are a writer, you really can’t be. Writers are not all here, because a part of them is always ‘over there’—’over there’ being whatever world they are writing about at present. Writers live in two worlds—the real world of friends and family and the imaginary world of their writing…. Each is compelling in its own way and each makes its demands on a writer’s time.” ~ Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, page 5

If we fully commit to our writing, if we allow ourselves to fall in love with and be swept away by it, we also choose to leave a part of this world behind—not all the time, but enough so that we will inevitably miss out in some ways, and our friends and family may not always understand. We will always feel a little torn, a little (or a lot) distracted, and, as with any relationship, misunderstood at times even by the writing we love so much.

The other option is continuing to play it safe.

But, as writer Jeff Goins reminds us, “The world doesn’t need more safe writing. Write something dangerous — something that challenges the status quo. Something that moves you (maybe it will move others, too). Then, no matter how scared you are, share it.”

Today’s question:

Have you experienced fear of full commitment to a writing/creative life?

See also

The Creative Life and Opportunity Cost

Opportunity Cost

Every choice we make has an opportunity cost.

That simple idea, first explained to me by my son, has had a lasting impact. It doesn’t always mean that I make the wisest choice in the moment, but I certainly have made some more thoughtful choices as a result.

Opportunity Cost
Image by CTSI-Global (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is opportunity cost?

Every choice we make has an opportunity cost. Every time we do or choose something, we are not doing and not choosing many other things. Whatever we opt not to do or choose that has the highest value for us is our opportunity cost. The idea goes far in helping us to explain why we often do what we do, and perhaps how we can change our decision so as to be happier and more satisfied, both in the short and long terms. To use a simple example, yesterday morning my husband and I had to decide whether to take our morning walk. Usually, it is not a conscious choice: We try to walk in our neighborhood every morning at the same time, after coffee and before beginning our work days. It is part of our routine. Yesterday, however, brought clouds and a steady rain. We enjoyed one cup of coffee while looking out at the puddles, then had a second cup while deciding what to do. In the end, we chose not to walk, at least not until later in the day. Here’s how opportunity cost fits into our decision. The prospect of getting wet and having to navigate slippery sidewalks lowered the value of our walk for us, so that the next best choice—getting on with our day—gained value in comparison. Without the rain, the value of the walk trumps an early start to our work. With the rain, we got more out of skipping the walk.

Opportunity Cost Is Relative

It’s easy to see that opportunity cost differs from person to person, and it can vary for the same person, depending upon circumstances and priorities. We aren’t the kind of people who pride ourselves on braving the elements no matter what. If we were, we would get more value from walking in the rain than not. Or, if we were on a tight deadline, we might skip the walk even on a sunny day in lieu of writing because the walk loses to the value of work. If daily walking was part of physical therapy or some other medical need, the opportunity cost would not be high enough for us not to walk. Finally, if we loved walking in the rain (which my husband does more than I do) or were on vacation where we had few opportunities to see the sights, we may have chosen differently. Thank goodness we usually don’t think through opportunity costs during our day in such detail! Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, reminds us that we can take thinking about opportunity costs too far: “I can become paralyzed if I think that way too much… if you try to preserve every opportunity, you can’t move forward.” However, because we often act out of habit, it is good to step back and think once in awhile about the opportunity costs of some of our more routine choices.

The Example of Facebook

Recently I’ve been very aware of the opportunity cost of checking Facebook with the same frequency I check my email. I admit that I do check my email quite often, primarily because, as a freelance indexer, I never know when I will get queries that are in my best interest to respond to sooner rather than later. I know for a fact that I’ve landed jobs mainly because I was one of the first to reply to an email sent to several potential indexers. Also, during the school year, I want to check email more than once or twice a day to be sure to catch time-sensitive questions from students. Checking email frequently doesn’t pose a problem for me now (although it has been in the past), because I don’t get sucked into it. Especially if I use my phone, I quickly know if there is a message that needs my attention. If not, that’s the end.

Unless I proceed to Facebook.

Facebook is an entirely different story. We all know the experience of checking Facebook just to see if someone has done something interesting or has commented on something we posted or—let’s be honest—to make sure we’re not missing out on something. Before we know it, 15 minutes or half an hour later, we’re still there, because as soon as we’ve looked at one set of pictures or clicked through to an interesting link, we can refresh and start the whole process from the top of the newsfeed again. This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip (I am writing from experience, after all). There is nothing inherently wrong with spending time on social media, and there are some aspects of Facebook I relish, but we are wise to think occasionally about the opportunity cost. If Facebook isn’t your thing, substitute email or whatever social media site or online game you are drawn to more than you’d like. What are we not doing when we are engaging in that space? What happens when we weigh the opportunity cost, especially in the long-term, against re-reading newsfeeds we’ve already seen or clicking through to yet another “You won’t believe this!” headline?

It Comes Down to Priorities

One of my goals for this series is to explore exactly what we mean by getting serious about our writing. It all comes down to priorities and commitment. If we take our creative life seriously (because of the meaning and satisfaction we know it can bring), the opportunity cost when we are doing something else instead is high, higher than it would be if we weren’t as serious. (And keep in mind that being serious does not preclude having fun.) I will admit I struggle with Facebook. After a recent nearly three-week trip to London, I was in a good habit of checking Facebook only a couple of times a day, morning and evening, which was definitely enough time to catch up with friends’ lives and bookmark interesting links. That continues to be my stated strategy, as often as I might fail. These tips have helped:

  • Removing the Facebook app from my phone
  • Removing Facebook from my laptop bookmarks bar
  • Using the messenger app so that I don’t have to check the site itself for inbox messages
  • Signing out completely after each session (the pause afforded by having to type in my log in credentials is enough time to remind me not to—see the important Viktor Frankl quotation below shared by Jane Friedman)

Today’s question:

How do you handle the lure of social media versus the need to write? What is the line between social media’s usefulness and its high opportunity cost?

See also

No More Excuses: Jane Austen’s Writing Table

Jane Austen's Writing Table

What are you waiting for?

That might sound like a rhetorical question, but it is not.

What are you really waiting for before you get serious about your writing? Here are a few answers that come to mind.

We wait because we have young children at home (or teenagers, who can take up just as much emotional energy). I totally get that and remember thinking when our son was young and we were homeschooling that it would be so much easier to write once he was in college.

Yes and no. I certainly have much more control over my time now (he is not only out of college but married, in law school, and living—sigh—half a country away). However, in some ways, it was actually easier to pounce on ideas and focus for sustained but short periods of time then than it is now—I marvel that I was somehow able to write a 400+ page book during a few months at that time. When we are busy, we are in the habit of fitting things in, knowing that we simply don’t have time to spare. Now that I have more time to ponder and think, that’s just what I tend to do, rather than to act.

In any case, if we wait until our children are grown to do anything at all, we lose precious creative years. We can begin the mindset and habits now (baby steps really are the key), knowing that in years to come, we can look forward to building on a foundation already put in place.

We wait for other people to appreciate our passion (or talent). This is a tough one, but I think it is common. We wait for other people to give us permission to take seriously our own desires and needs. We feel our family or friends or even imaginary readers and reviewers are not fully supporting us, are not cheering us on every step of the way, so we wait until they do.

But they have their own lives to pay attention to, their own passions to pursue or internal dialogue to monitor. While it is nice to have others’ support, in the end, we need to rely on our own belief in our creative life. It gets easier with practice, so why not start now?

And what if the people who matter to us really do ignore or even disapprove of our work? We have to decide for ourselves if that is worth our giving up something so very important to us.

We wait for life to be perfect. We need more space, more money, more time, to quit our job, a different job, a newer laptop, the latest app, fewer distractions, better ideas, more ideas, fewer ideas, more energy, a more understanding spouse, a different spouse, a second spouse, a different cat, no cat, a fish, a room of one’s own. Whatever it is, we convince ourselves that we can’t write, not seriously, without it.

All I have to say is this: Jane Austen’s writing table.

Jane Austen's Writing Table

Recently I visited Jane Austen’s home and museum in Chawton, England. There, in the bustle of a parlor room, on a sloped portable desk placed on this little writing table, she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion and revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

Seeing the writing table in person, I was struck by the fact that in her lifetime, while she did enjoy some sales of her books and fans the likes of Sir Walter Scott, she was far from knowing that she would, someday, be the Jane Austen we know today. The icon. The industry. She was just a writer doing whatever she needed to do in order to write.

Her writing table is my current desktop background as a reminder to myself that there really are no good excuses, not when we want to take our creative work seriously.

Today’s question:

What are you waiting for? Make a list. Be brutally honest. See if it tells you anything. See my answer in the comments.

See also

Your Daily Word Count

Get Serious About Writing

What is your daily word count?

Welcome to the second day of Get Serious About Writing!

Today’s topic is daily word count (or daily pages or lines or whatever other metric you want to use). I used to think that this would fall into place once—well, once everything else had fallen into place.

But I had it all backwards. The daily writing comes first, and that is the base for everything else.

In a later post in this series, we’ll take a closer look at the book The Confidence Code, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (a book not for women only), but for now, one important message of the book is that confidence comes from doing rather than thinking:

“[W]e need to stop thinking so much and just act.” Read more

We make a mistake by thinking (I could really stop there, couldn’t I?) that we will write more when we feel good about our writing. The truth is that we will feel good about our writing when we write more. So before we understand why we put off taking our writing seriously, before we tackle social media or where to submit for publication (if that’s what we want), we need to write enough so that we know we are writers. That’s where it all starts.

Going back to our thought from yesterday about how we are doing this for our future selves, imagine how you will feel at the end of August when you have written every day, even if much of it is imperfect? I know the very thought puts a smile on my face.

Daily Word Count Guidelines

What you write doesn’t matter, as long as it’s new content, not just the same words dressed up in a different font. In fact, word vomit is exactly what you want. No editing. No second guessing. Nothing too pretty.

How you write doesn’t matter. Pen and paper, tablet, laptop, phone—it’s all good. I have a friend who dictates almost all of her writing (and even did so for NaNoWriMo) using voice recognition software. That wouldn’t work well for me, but it’s a boon for her. I have had success writing myself emails with my daily output as the text—the very act of writing an email loosens my internal editor for some reason (probably why I have so many typos in my emails!).

The specific number doesn’t matter, as long as there is a number. If the word “goal” trips you up, think of it as one of your “dailies,” as I do (another concept for a future post, but, in short, it’s something you do every day, like flossing your teeth or sorting the recyclables). And don’t aim so high that you will inevitably beat yourself up for not succeeding. The book I had the most fun writing began with a 250-word-a-day gift from my son. Ernest Hemingway was happy with 500 words per writing session. If you set a small word or page count, most days you will probably exceed it (and if you have a day when you didn’t write until late, it’s easy to fit in 250 words before bed rather than give up on a more unrealistic goal of 2000 words).

Have a plan for missed days. I personally think that daily writing is important, but any regular schedule is what really matters (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example, or Wednesday and both weekend days). But what will happen if you miss a day? You will (let’s hope not too often), so have a plan for that. For me, it is dangerous to skip more than one day of anything I want to do on a regular basis, whether it is writing or physical exercises or sticking to a cleaning schedule. If I skip more than once, I’m off and running with a new habit: that of not doing whatever I wanted to do. I wish I were different, but that’s just the way it is, so if I do skip a day, I move heaven and earth to get back on schedule right away, and—this is vital—refuse to let perfect be the enemy of the good.

Today’s questions:

Do you have a daily word count or other goal? What has worked for you? How do you deal with the inevitable missed days?

As usual, my response is in the comments. We will revisit this topic a bit later in the series. Happy writing!

See also

Let’s get serious (finally!) about writing

Woman Using Typewriter copped

New 50-Day Blog Series! Get Serious About Writing

Day One: Do It for Your Future Self

This is my fifth year of blogging, and I don’t think I have ever been as excited about a post or a series as I am about this one.

First, a note to all who subscribe via email: For the next 50 days, I’ll be blogging daily about writing. Specifically, the posts will be about getting serious (finally) about our writing, from daily habits to lifelong mindsets and everything in between. The “Get Serious About Writing” series of posts will apply to any creative pursuit or goals, but if such topics aren’t the kind of thing you want to receive in your inbox every day, please feel free to unsubscribe or change to a weekly rather than daily updates.

However, if you have been waiting too long for your writing to happen somewhere over that elusive rainbow where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” you’ll want to stay here for the next 50 days through the end of August. We won’t be wishing upon any stars or chasing rainbows. Instead, we will embrace the challenge of finally feeling good about our writing ambitions by owning rather than hiding from them, by understanding some of the psychological and other roadblocks that can get in our way, and by writing, not just when we feel like it, but every day.

Why am I doing this series now?

2014 has been an important year for my own writing. There have been years when I have published more and even blogged more often, but I finally turned a corner this year in terms of a) understanding some of my own creative and practical stumbling blocks and b) establishing some new habits for lasting change.

I still have far to travel on this journey, however. To keep myself on track, I want to write about what has and hasn’t worked so that I don’t forget, and I also want to make sure that I continue to move forward rather than back.

What’s in it for you?

The short answer is that you need to do it for your future self. That future self will be the same you who is reading this post, and you can give yourself the gift of knowing that you have taken the first steps toward no longer feeling regret about the writing path not taken.

We writers even more than many other workers need a strong support system. If you are also someone who has waited what seems like forever to get serious about writing, or if you are on the verge of giving up on your dream altogether, join me here, where each day you will have a chance to comment and share your own thoughts, dreams, questions, and fears. You can use this series as a daily or occasional check-in, to keep yourself accountable. Or just read along for ideas, resources, and inspiration.

Today’s question:

What would make you feel good about your writing on August 31, 2014?

In other words, what would you have to accomplish (I would encourage you to think small rather than big, but big enough that it feels like a stretch) in terms of output, habits, schedule, or some other aspect of writing to wake up on the morning of August 31st with a big, endorphin-rich smile? Note that this isn’t a goal at this point, just an idea to help us to think forward to how our future selves want to feel, act, and live.

My answer is in the comments.

Isn’t it time we finally got serious about what matters to us?

Post edited Jan. 17, 2015.