Tough Choices

July 29, 2011

We, as writers, have to make tough choices, and it’s been my experience that we don’t often recognize this. Because our work, for the most part, is self-initiated and self-directed, we might tend to confuse our writing, say, with other pleasurable pastimes we enjoy and we might elide how many choices we make in a day of our writing life. But make no mistake about it, our writing life necessitates a tough-mindedness about our choices that it takes time to cultivate. In fact, I believe our writing life is especially difficult because of the enormous number of choices we have to make.

Here’s a simple instance of a tough choice. Do we pick up the phone when we see that a friend who is in the middle of a tough situation is calling, or do we, instead, go to our desk because we have only an hour in our day to write? We pride ourselves on our capacity for intimacy. Still, if we get on the phone, a half hour of our precious hour will be lost to us. Forever. We can’t get it back. And if we commiserate with our friend, we know that our head will be in another place, and not ready for the focus our project requires. Our friend can wait until late in the day; our writing can’t. It takes a steely will to turn the phone off, to write a note to call our friend later, and to move to our desks.

Writers know they have a universe of subjects to write about. Talk to any writer about what s/he’d like to write next, and I’ll bet s/he’ll come up with, say, five potential works s/he’s been dying to write. So which one will it be? Some of us are lucky enough to have very fertile imaginations, and for those of us who do, the choices will be even tougher than those of us who must, must, must write about this or that. Still, exploring one of our ideas in our writing life means that, for now, we can’t examine all the other ideas crowding our consciousness. Sometimes it seems so difficult to choose, that we become paralyzed, and don’t. But what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter which subject we choose: whatever we begin working on will engage us, and sooner, rather than later, we’ll be fully immersed in our subject, fully engaged, and we will have forgotten the agony of the moment of choosing. Choose sooner, rather than later, I’ve learned. If we make a nice little list of all the great ideas we have, they’ll be there, waiting for us. I recently discovered the outline of my memoir Vertigo in the journal I was writing while writing my biography of Virginia Woolf. I didn’t get to that memoir until four books later, but the seed had been planted, and I believe that it was germinating while I worked on other things. If we take care of ourselves, we’ll have long lives as writers, and we’ll have time to explore many – but not all – of them.

Every moment when we have our work under our pen, or under our keyboards, we’re making hundreds, thousands of tough choices in every writing day. Keep this; change that; move this paragraph here; toughen up the language there; split this paragraph in two. Many of us do this so automatically, we don’t realize that every choice we make matters. We shouldn’t remember this often or it would paralyze us. By the time we declare our work finished, or declare ourselves finished with the work, we’ve chosen every single element of our work, and we’ve decided to keep or change every single word, mark of punctuation, and indentation. Two axioms are helpful for us to understand. I learned both from my teacher, Mitchell A. Leaska. The first is that every word in a completed text is there by choice, not by chance. The second is that the meaning of a text reverberates against its unchosen alternatives.

Sometimes all these choices seem terrifying – at least they do to me. Should the book have four chapters or five? Three parts or two? Should it begin with this scene, or end with this scene? Should I ditch the material that comes at the end of the second section? On and on and on. I’ve found that if I tell myself that my choices will become easier as my work progresses, I’m less inhibited. If I take a work through, say, six drafts, I let myself make the so-called wrong choices at the beginning because I know I’ll have five more chances to make changes, so I can write in an uninhibited way. And I’ve found, too, that taking a work from penultimate draft to final draft becomes difficult in terms of our choices again because we know the work will soon be complete. At this stage of the process, I’ve found that if we treat our work as if a writer friend has written it – if we shift to editor brain rather than writer brain – the choices are much easier for us to make.

The meaning of a text does reverberate against its unchosen alternatives. And it helps us to think of it in this way. What will be the payoff if I put that chapter at the front of my work? What will be the ripoff if I do? For whatever we choose isn’t the only choice we could have made. I like to articulate these choices to myself in this way so that I can think through the outcome of the choice I have to make. It helps me enormously.

One reason why we as writers don’t realize how many tough choices we have to make is because of the way literature is usually taught. When we enter a literature class, the professor (let’s think college for now) asks us to think deeply about the meaning of a sentence, the meaning of a particular word. We and our peers enter into excited discussions about the work. The professor never indicates that this sentence, this particular word, might have been quite different, that the writer had gone through various revisions of that sentence, and had chosen this one, not the earlier versions, to be in the published text. Still, it’s quite possible that the writer’s earlier choices were just as good, just as viable as the later ones. I found this to be true when I edited a complete earlier version of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. Her working title for the earlier draft, she called Melymbrosia. The books are different; neither is better than the other. The reasons for Woolf’s abandoning the early draft are complicated. But it’s sufficient to say that she could have published that draft, and didn’t. She made the kind of tough choice we all have to make: to keep the draft, or to move it along.

And then there’s the final tough choice: when to stop. We can write whatever we’re writing until the end of our time on this earth. I don’t think we want to do that. How to make that tough choice? For me, it helps to establish an endpoint date and to work towards it.

So if you’re tired at the end of a writing session and don’t know why, it’s because you’re doing brain-breaking work making all these choices.


10 Responses to “Tough Choices”

  1. Tina Neyer Says:

    I am in the midst of editing a work for, what feels like, the umpteenth time. Home life, social life and paying the bills life make taking time a challenge. However, lately I’ve been disciplined to take even an hour to work on it. The binder goes everywhere with me: the coffee shop, the restaurant for lunch, a nearby park. My work is most productive though when I set boundaries for family and climb the steps to my office (an attic room) and committ to several hours of uninterrupted work. I’m learning to see that time as necessity rather than luxury.

  2. Katherine Says:

    Thank you for the reminder about the tough choices. To be honest, when I started reading the blog post, I said to myself, “Stop reading! this is just going to make you feeling guilty!”
    For me the hardest thing about my writing now is the gaps between intensive writing periods. I spent the month of June in a small room in Provincetown, waking up each morning, excited to be on my own, with no “responsibilities” except to my writing. I did an enormous amount of revision and writing, and came home excited and determined. Of course “life” – including a case of pneumonia – intruded and I’ve spent much of July recuperating from illness. How to keep up that momentum of writing always seems to be my dilemma. I appreciate your reminders of the importance of choice – even in hard times!

  3. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    This entry hits home. Carving out writing time as a mother of a six year old is difficult. Every time I choose writing over mothering, the guilt is crippling. How do you look a six year old in the face when she begs you to go to the zoo when you need to write. How do you explain that you can’t accompany her. How do you put your joy before her joy.
    Lisa Roth-Gulvin

    • writingalife Says:

      I’d come to think of it this way…..Scheduling blocks of time for everything in our lives makes our choices far easier. If, for example, Saturday morning is writing time, Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon is family time, then it’s a no brainer. No to the zoo on Saturday; yes to the zoo on Sunday. I’ve found that not having a plan means that every single choice becomes an agonizing existential dilemma. But if, for example, we write an hour a day from X to X, then that’s our time, and it’s non-negotiable.

      I think the greatest gift (or one of the greatest gifts) a mother can give a daughter is the model of a mother doing what means a great deal to her. A mother not writing might be filled with resentment, and the zoo trip could be meaningless because the mother isn’t “there.” But a mother who’s done her writing can go to the zoo with great pleasure because it’s now family time.

      Families that organize themselves around children’s needs primarily, rather than those of the entire family, make me nervous. Parents deserve their turn; they deserve the time to pursue their passions. To me there’s nothing more distressing than the “taxi service” model of motherhood so prevalent. Kids get to claim more of their parents’ time than they have a right to.

      But it is of course a complicated world with complicated choices to make and each of us must decide for ourselves.

      • Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

        Yes, of course. I did not go to the zoo. I explained to my daughter that I needed time to write becasue it is important to me. It was her look of dissapointment that caught me off guard. I love to write. It fills me up, but it frightens me as well. Possibly I am the one who seeks out diversions and dwells on them.
        Your book, Writing As A Way Of Healing, inspires me everyday.
        Best wishes,

  4. Michael Frankovic Says:

    Luckily, I am still young and don’t have responsibilities such as raising a child or paying the bills but I still find time management an issue. I am also a photographer and try to play my guitar but reading and writing have taken up a lot of my time. I haven’t been photographing or practicing since I’ve become an English major and it pains me that I have neglected my other interests so much. It wasn’t so long ago that I thought I had so much time on my hands and just like that, I have so little time to myself.

    • writingalife Says:

      I read, somewhere, that for every thing we say yes to — reading, writing — there’s something we must say “no” to. Time is finite; our desires — if we’re lucky — boundless. But I suspect that your photography and your music will stay with you. My son didn’t play guitar for years and now, in his 40s, it’s a huge part of his life, so much so that he’s working making guitars in addition to playing them. So life is long, and our passions don’t go away, even if we put them on hold temporarily.

  5. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    Hello Louise,
    I read your blog at the perfect time. I am currently struggling with a crippling fear of choice. Choosing what to write and how to write it is torture, but I am glad that I stumbled upon this particular blog. It reminds me that this fear is a common experience of writers.

    When you wrote that it takes a “steely will” to ignore distractions and “move to our desks,” I must admit that I am lacking in this department. I usually get sidetracked by silly things, such as facebook. Sometimes I just sit and daydream. Anything to avoid the task at hand;putting pen to paper. However, I feel much better now that I’ve read your blog, since you say that it doesn’t matter what we choose as long as we write about something. I really need to make a list of ideas as you suggest. At least then I won’t be so nervous, since the ideas won’t be lost. They will be there, waiting for me to bring them to life.

  6. Angelica R. Says:

    Hello Louise,
    I find myself, along with many other writers struggling with putting writing-something that gives me great joy-ahead of other people’s needs. I tutor classmates at school and find myself putting so much energy into helping others write that when I get home, I feel exhausted and can’t even write for myself. The feeling I get when I can politely decline an unnecessary meeting and give time for myself is bittersweet. However, I am finding that it is essential if I ever intend to improve and make writing a daily routine in my life.

  7. I think I fall into that curse/blessing category of a fertime imagination. I have more than a handfull of ideas I’d like to get out of me. I really wish I didnt have all these ideas in the same period of time because it makes scheduling them out difficult. Like you said about a friend calling, I feel similar but in a different way. I feel as if sometimes the “friend is a story” like when i think to write on one idea another one suffers because of how much time and energy I will devote to the one I chose to focus on.

    I did however find hope in your mentioning of finding an old outline of Vertigo. I just made a list of the better ideas that I have and I realized how much just living and learning has allowed them to germinate and get closer to a form in my mind.

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