November 26, 2010
I don’t remember where I heard or read this piece of advice – that if we have a hard time making decisions, we need to practice making decisions – but it’s proved enormously useful to me as a writer.
I’m not the best decider I know. And I can give you a bit of back-story to explain why. When I was a teenager, my mother took me on one of our infrequent shopping trips (we weren’t rich; we’d buy little, and what we bought had to last), and I picked out a dress, a lovely form-fitting turquoise-y sheath. This would be my dress-up dress for the coming year.
My mother looked at it, looked at me, and asked “Are you sure you want to buy it?” And, of course, the moment she asked me whether I was sure, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t figure out whether I wanted it or not. Every shopping trip wound up this way: me deciding I wanted something, my mother asking me if I was sure, me not knowing if I was. And it got worse and worse until I stopped shopping altogether and slumped around in my old clothes until I met my husband who loved to shop and helped me choose what to wear.
Add to that, a history of being told what to do by my parents, by my teachers. Add to that the “shoulds” of a woman’s married life with children, even with a husband who shared responsibilities. (Feed the kids, take care of the kids, do the laundry, make the beds, wash the floors, make breakfast, make lunch, make dinner, wash the dishes.) What you end up with is a woman (me) who didn’t get much experience deciding what she wanted to do. She did what she had to do, and that was that. (To this day, free time is tough for me; I have to decide what to do with it.)
So, when I became a writer, this inexperience with making decisions plagued me. Do I write this article or that one? Do I begin this book or that one? Do I continue writing this book or do I stop and write the book I really want to write? Do I take that chapter and split it up into two chapters? What chapter should come first? Should I eliminate this word? Add that image? End the book this way or that? Should I even bother writing? Is what I’m writing worthwhile or worthless? Sound familiar?
Writing is either a heaven because those of us (most of us) who didn’t get to make many choices in our lives get to make scores of choices every single day of our writing lives. Or writing is a hell because writers have so many decisions to make and we don’t know how to make them.
Years ago, I started researching the life of D. H. Lawrence for a book I was writing about writing as revenge. (D. H. Lawrence loved to get back at the people in his life by putting them into his books and caricaturing them.) Reading his letters, I realized that here was a writer utterly unlike myself.
Lawrence goes to Sardinia. Lawrence starts planning a book about Sardinia the minute (and I mean the minute) he begins his journey. He’s writing about Sardinia before he even gets there. He writes about what he sees, about the people, about the ethos of the Sardinian people. He never asks himself “Am I capable of writing a book about Sardinia?” He just decides to do it and he does it. He never asks himself “Are my judgments accurate – I’m just a visitor here, not a native?” He just wrote what he wrote, and if people disagreed with him, it was their problem, not his.
With Lawrence, there was no equivocating, no “Should I write this book or write that one?” With Lawrence, there was no barrier between a decision to write and the beginning of his work. It was never, “I think I might write a book about Sardinia,” but “I’ll go to Sardinia and write about it.”
Reading Lawrence’s life stunned me into realizing how much time I wasted equivocating (“Should I write this or that?” “Should I work mornings or afternoons?” “Should I shift that passage to the front or not?”). Reading Lawrence’s life made me realize how much precious writing time I wasted with all this equivocation. Lawrence never equivocated. He made up his mind to do something and he did it. He didn’t seem to spend time making choices – even difficult ones, like leaving England without any money and becoming an expatriate – he just acted. Sometimes he got himself into trouble because of this – he never asked himself whether his work would be censored if he wrote sexually explicit material when he was writing Lady Chatterley’s Love; he just wrote it. And he could be – he was – a smug, self-assured bastard who never questioned whether he should have done what he did; in fact, he once said that he had no truck with oughts and shoulds.
When I heard or read about how many of us haven’t had much practice in making choices, or weren’t born with the kind of personality which makes choosing simple, and that what we then have to do is practice choosing, it was a revelation.
Lawrence was either born with that innate capacity to choose and not question his choices. Or his upbringing as the pampered darling of his mother cultivated his willful character. Who knows? But I’ve seen this capacity to make choices and not question them in my granddaughter too. When I asked her what yarn she wanted for a scarf, she decided in two seconds. “That one,” she said, and was done with it. Her brother, when asked the same question, pondered for some time, looking at one yarn, then another, then another. He made a choice, but it took him time. Two ways of making choices; neither one better than the other. But then there are those of us who, when it comes to choosing, seem paralyzed. I once heard the story of a woman trying to buy sneakers, who asked her husband, “Which pair do I like?” That’s a way of not making a choice, and when I heard that story, it was achingly familiar to me, because, I wouldn’t have said that, but I would have asked my husband, “Which pair do you think I should buy?”
So, how did I move from the paralyzed decider to a writer who can make scores of complicated choices in a writing life?
I started practicing choosing. And one key principle helped me more than any other. It doesn’t matter what you choose, it matters that you choose.
I’ve seen students waste writing time because they can’t decide whether to write about, say, their mother or their father; they try to wait until the subject seems to be the right one. I tell them, “Just choose; it doesn’t matter which one you pick, you just have to pick. Once you choose, possibilities you haven’t even imagined open to you.”
I’ve witnessed students hampered by their incapacity to decide what should come first, what should come last, in a memoir piece. “Just choose,” I say. “Try it one way. Try it the other. Then decide. There’s no one right way. It doesn’t matter what comes first. What matters is what you do after you put something first.”
Just choose. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it. There’s no right way. These have become my mantras. So, through the years I’ve practiced choosing in my writing, I’ve made, no doubt, a million decisions. Where they the correct ones? Who knows? But I made them. And I learned that, as you work in this way over time, you start acting something like the way Lawrence did: you begin to have a strong sense of what needs to be done. You stop having to choose.