(Magnet on the whiteboard over my desk)
* * *
There are at least a dozen things I need to do today, but I’m writing this blog post instead.
Because I feel like it.
Make no mistake: all the other things still need to be done, and most of them are fairly urgent. Three work deadlines to meet. Bills to pay. Bills to send out so other people pay me. (You’d think I’d definitely feel like doing that.) Laundry. Housework. Scooping the litter boxes. Taking out the garbage for pickup.
Writing this blog post will not advance any of these goals.
It will not even advance my writing-related goals, which include finishing a draft of my current novel-in-progress so I can assess whether it’s worth applying to a program in which it would be workshopped. Other writing-related goals include researching agents for the novel I already finished, researching markets for stories that are languishing on my hard drive, and finishing revision on one story that is nearly ready to go out.
Writing this post will not bring me an iota closer to any of these goals. Which raises the obvious question: “Why am I doing this?”
Answer: because I feel like it.
Despite the fact that running your life based on what you feel like doing is almost a guaranteed way to screw it up.
You’d think that after nearly twenty-three years of self-employment, I’d have learned a few secrets about how to do my work without supervision. After all, there’s nobody hanging over my shoulder or popping their head into my office to see how close I am to finishing up. I’m free to let incoming calls go to voicemail, and the callers have no idea whether I’m intent on their project or if I’m on the other line, in the bathroom, running errands, in a rehearsal, taking my elderly parents to the doctor, or watching reruns of “Frasier.” Over the years, the most common reaction to my self-employment has been, “I could never do that! You must be so disciplined!” I remind them that they’d be disciplined if their ability to pay the mortgage depended on the number of hours they spent at their desks.
And yet, here I sit, writing about that discipline instead of exercising it.
Years ago, I read an article about a dancer. This young woman told the interviewer she goes to class seven days a week. The interviewer asked how she managed this, whether she sometimes didn’t feel like going. Her response: “You don’t think about it. You just do it, like drinking your orange juice in the morning.”
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard would-be writers talk about how they can’t write unless they’re feeling inspired. More often than not, these are the same people who talk about how they’re going to write a book someday, after they’ve retired and the kids have moved out and the house is paid off and the dog dies—in other words, never, because there will always be something else they feel more like doing.
Waiting to do things until you feel like doing them is indisputably a luxury. If you can live your life that way, good for you. I will never, ever feel like cleaning the bathroom, but it needs to be done and I can’t afford a housekeeper, so how I feel doesn’t enter into the mix. I just have to do it.
I’m not nearly as disciplined or organized as the world seems to think. Most of the time, I do my work because if I don’t, the electric company will shut off my power. Since I don’t enjoy camping, and since losing electricity means losing heat, water, lights, cooking, landline, and internet access, I have a built-in motivation to work. It’s not a matter of feeling like working; it’s a matter of not feeling like writing by hand in front of the fire, swathed in quilts and gloves and heavy socks. (If you think this sounds wildly romantic, trust me—it’s not. Been there, done that during a power failure. I tried to tell myself that if it was good enough for Jane Austen, it was good enough for me, to no avail. Jane Austen was clearly made of tougher material than I, even though I had a ballpoint pen instead of an inkwell that probably froze up.)
While I was procrastinating earlier today, I came upon a request by a press that published two of my early stories. They wanted to know what their past contributors had accomplished. I sent them a list of my published stories and select non-publication honors. While the list isn’t terribly extensive, I can’t deny that it likely wouldn’t exist at all—and neither would the stories published by this press—if I had only written when I felt like writing.
For me, there’s a distinct difference between the writing that pays the bills and the writing I love to do. I’m told this is true of most fiction writers: unless you had the foresight to be Stephen King or John Grisham, you’ll probably need to keep your day job. This creates another layer of tension in the “feel like” vs. “do it anyway” match: after a day of writing about the legislative history underlying the Common Interest Ownership Act, the last thing I feel like is writing something else. At that point, I’d rather watch television, make lasagna, go to a chorale rehearsal, or fiddle around with social media. But as far as making more words—I don’t feel like it.
What’s hard to remember in those moments is that there have been many, many times when I didn’t feel like writing until I began. Some days, all I needed was a boost to get started; other days, even beginning wasn’t good enough to make me feel energized. But then, sometimes—most times, if I’m honest—the act of persisting pushed a button somewhere, and the writing brain clicked on. Once I stopped thinking about how I didn’t feel like writing and focused instead on digging for the next word or image or scrap of dialogue, the mind began whirring and I found things I didn’t know I was looking for. My characters had opinions on subjects I hadn’t realized they cared about. They took actions I didn’t expect (or approve of, in some instances). They crossed lines, or they stood firm while others did. They offered excuses and explanations for behavior I’d labeled “bad,” and they unfolded into more complex beings than I’d originally imagined.
One of my favorite Anne Lamott quotes is this:
Oh my God, what if you wake up someday, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or because you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.
If you only write when you feel like writing, the chances are sadly excellent that this person will be you.
Right now, I don’t feel like working. I don’t feel like paying bills. I don’t feel like going down to the basement and taking a load of wet clothes out of the washer and hanging them up or putting them in the dryer (depending on their propensity for shrinkage). I recognize, though, that it’s an incredible luxury even to be able to do all these things–to have paying work, resources with which to pay bills, a washer and dryer just a few steps away.
Just like it’s an incredible luxury to have the time and energy and resources to make up stories about people who didn’t exist until I started putting words on a page. Even more, it’s an enormous privilege to have someone who has the absolute right to reject those stories say instead, “Hey, we like what you sent us, and we want to share it with other people, and we’re even willing to give you a few bucks in exchange.”
Recognizing the amazingness of these luxuries and privileges goes a long way toward getting over the speed bump of “I don’t feel like it.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on a brief and finish the laundry. Later, when the rest of the country is watching football, I plan to finish editing that story I mentioned and research a few possible markets for it.
Regardless of whether I feel like it.