Practice Deciding

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.





5 Responses to “Practice Deciding”

  1. Jennifer Cruz Says:

    This post hit me right on the forehead. Decisions are the bane of my existence. I feel like the most indecisive person on the planet. I vacillate between going in one direction or another with my writing on a daily basis. There are even moments where it’s going well but one little sentence or paragraph will throw me off and I’ll chuck the whole piece and start again. Later on, I find myself going back to that original piece. Giunta’s class has really helped me make decisions based on the quality of the writing. If I find myself torn between two stories I will go ahead and write both and then go through them line by line. There will always be those days where I cannot decide. I am writing your mantra on post its (as we speak) to place in my writing space to help me remember.

  2. Denise Palacios Says:

    I knew I wanted to write about what happened to me. But what happened? I had the advantage, and disadvantage of experiencing many traumatic experiences, which gave me much writing material, but also more decisions to make. I knew for certain that I wanted to write about the thing that was nearest and dearest to me, bulimia and recovery, however, how could I begin? Towards the end of my memoir on bulimia, I was not sure if I should delve into the pathological paternal experience of my father’s verbal abuse of my weight, and delve even deeper into his own traumas. Or, if I should just end with an “I’m cured, let’s celebrate” sort of thing. When we discussed the arc of the story in class, Professor Giunta explained the “insight” that should appear about 3/4 towards the end of the memoir. However, it was this moment of finding my insight, that I found my ending. The moment of insight was not an enlightening one, as I still struggle with food addiction. But Professor explained to me and to the class that the insight does not need to be positive. So I decided to use my current stance of bulimia, and leave my dad for another memoir. There will be more decisions to make, no doubt, but I will cross that bridge when I get there.

  3. Gina Says:

    “There’s no one right way. It doesn’t matter what comes first. What matters is what you do after you put something first.”

    When it comes to cutting down my memoir, this quote is great. There is not right, wrong, one way to do it. And it is what I do after that counts. Once we make the decision in our writing, we need to commit to the decision and go full force. There is nothing worse that a decision that isn’t followed by strong committment. I also think that after a decision is made, if we end up not liking it, most of the time, we can change it. Making a decision doesn’t always have to be a life or death situation.

  4. William Bradley Says:

    I put too much emphasis on making decisions. Most of these are related to dialogue. I take forever to figure out what one person says to another. I think that the most important way to get a reader to understand a character’s motivations is for them to say so.

  5. ashley Leavitt Says:

    Reading this entry, “Practice Deciding,” and the responses to it, was such a relief! Deciding what to write on, how and where to start, the tone to take, and most other aspects of making decisions regarding writing are at the crux of my “writer’s block.” I become paralyzed, afraid that any move I make has dire irreversible consequences – as if I were engraving the World’s history in stone. This knowledge has also given me the freedom to “lighten up.” That perhaps it is more productive to think of the beginning stages of writing as creating a draft, blocking out ideas. It can and should be fun – I hope. I am glad to know that one) this is a common dilemma, and two) that with practice it becomes less difficult to pull the trigger, and three) the cure is to just start. How elegantly simple. A quote that hit me is: “It doesn’t matter what you choose, it matters that you choose…Once you choose possibilities that you haven’t even imagined open up to you.” I think this is good life advise as well. Thank you for your insight.

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