Change is hard, even good change. Learning to navigate change is why we’re wired for story in the first place. Even when we’re caught up in what we might think of as mere entertainment, under our conscious radar the story is mainlining inside info on how to deal with the changes that we can’t avoid, put off, or pretend aren’t really there. And so since the only constant is change, there will always be new stories, because stories will always have something to teach us. That’s why storytellers are the most powerful people on the planet.
But that power doesn’t come easily. I’m not talking about the power that comes from the story, the writing, or what you can do to become a better writer (you know, the thing I’m always going on and on about). Today I’m talking about something else: having the power to change your life in order to have a shot at writing anything powerful at all. Most of us try to avoid, put off, or pretend we don’t need to make any changes in order to write a book – but we do.[pullquote]To become a writer, you have to give something up. Something time consuming. Something you care about, and that in all likelihood might have unsettling, ongoing ramifications once you let it go.[/pullquote]
And of all the changes large and small, there’s one that underlies them all, and without it nothing else matters much. What change is that? The willingness to pay the ultimate price in the most precious commodity we have: time. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But as with most things, while the general concept is crystal clear, the specifics – what you need to actually do – is not. Because to become a writer, you have to give something up. Something time consuming. Something you care about, and that in all likelihood might have unsettling, ongoing ramifications once you let it go.
This is a lesson I learned from my writing coach, Jennie Nash. She told me early on that if you want to be a writer, you have to take a good hard look at your life, find something you spend a lot of time doing, and give it up in order to free the time to write.
I didn’t believe her at first. Like most people, I thought I could find the time to write.
But with crazy busy as the new norm, who ever finds time laying around unused? Especially since all that great “time saving” technology they’ve been gleefully producing at warp speed has morphed into the biggest time suck ever. Did you answer all your email today? Tweet? Post something on Instagram? Pinterest? Check in on Facebook? Catch up on the blogs you read? Leave meaningful comments? Respond to the comments on your comments? Feed the dog? What dog? Uh oh.[pullquote]Turns out mental energy is not something we can simply will ourselves to have. It’s biological.[/pullquote]
Point is, modern life is overwhelming enough. It doesn’t just gobble up your time, it saps your energy in the process. Which, as it turns out, is way more finite than we knew. Turns out mental energy is not something we can simply will ourselves to have. It’s biological. As Stanford Neuroscience Professor Robert Sapolsky says, “It turns out that the power part of “willpower” is no mere figure of speech. The brain is as real a blood-and-guts biological entity as . . . your blood and guts. The largest lesson is that who we are and what we do must always be considered in the context of the biology occurring inside us.”
Trouble is, we live in a society that doesn’t believe that for an instant, and loves to tell us we can do anything if we just set our mind to it. Learning that this is not true – that we do have limited resources – is very hard.
It’s much easier to embrace the notion that being a writer is something you can slip into your life by rearranging your schedule, or getting less sleep, or grabbing ten minutes here or there. And there are books that will advise you to do just that. In fact, I just randomly typed, “write a novel in ten minutes a day” into google to see what would come up, and guess what — there is a book with that exact title. Will those daily ten minute snippets add up to anything over the long haul? Probably not. Will there be a long haul, will you really shoehorn out ten minutes a day forever? Again, probably not. Not because you’re weak willed or lazy, but because all those things you’re doing already are taking up all your time, and carefully structured schedules do not take kindly to being messed with.[pullquote]We live in a society that loves to tell us we can do anything if we just set our mind to it. Learning that this is not true – that we do have limited resources – is very hard.[/pullquote]
That’s why you have to be bold. You have to take a good hard look at your life and see what can go, even though it hurts. And maybe, just maybe, the unease we feel letting something go is a good thing. Maybe the lingering fear that we’ve made a mistake isn’t regret. Maybe it’s the point. Maybe it’s saying: You’ve given me up in order to get something done, so you damn well better give it your all. At the end of the day, isn’t that what having skin in the game is all about?
That idea is summed up best in the commencement speech that Shonda Rhimes gave at Dartmouth last year. When in college, her dream was to be the next Toni Morrison. Instead she went on to create a TV empire that includes Gray’s Anatomy and Scandal. She’s incredibly successful. She has a great family, great kids, an amazing career. Doesn’t sound like she had to give up anything, does it? And yet . . .[pullquote]You have to be bold. You have to take a good hard look at your life and see what can go, even though it hurts.[/pullquote]
“People are constantly asking me, how do you do it all?
And I usually just smile and say like, “I’m really organized.” Or if I’m feeling slightly kindly, I say, “I have a lot of help.”
And those things are true. But they also are not true . . .
How do you do it all?
The answer is this: I don’t.
Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another . . . That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil . . . You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.
Something is always missing.
And yet . . .”
And yet we keep at it, don’t we? We keep going, we keep striving, we keep working to make a difference. Which means that along the way we’ve had to give up lots of other things — things that we really wanted to do — in order to keep our eyes on the prize.
Which brings me to why I’m writing this post: I’m going to be taking a leave of absence from Writer Unboxed for the next four months, while I write my next book. Jennie made me. I’ll be back in May.
What about you? What have you given up in order to have the time to write? And how do you deal with those moments when it made you feel like you were failing in another area of your life?