Vocation, Obligation, & the Fiction Writer

The word should stresses me out. My eye is twitching a little right now just thinking about it. It’s a word that “reeks of guilt, regret, powerlessness. If you should do something, it probably means you don’t want to do it, but you’ll do it anyway, albeit begrudgingly. “ I have a long, long, LONG list of things I should do and it seems to get longer every day. Maybe it’s because I have a full time job, a house, two kids, and a dog. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to write a book, manage my mini media empire, and occasionally clock more than 4 hours of sleep. Maybe it’s because I suck at time management. The point is, sometimes I feel like I am awash in a sea of should and I can’t swim and my inner tube has sprung a slow leak.

Not that there’s anything special about any of that. In fact, I’ll bet if you think about it, you have a long should list and a twitchy eye and your own slowly deflating inner tube. Most of us do. It seems to be the curse of modern life.

It never really bothered me until I started hearing myself say things like “I should be writing” and “I should finish Chapter 13 today.” How did that happen? How did writing go from being something I love to do, to something I have to do? Something on the same list with cleaning the bathtub and washing the dog (though not in that order, obviously)? How did I let the line get so blurred and more importantly, how can I sharpen it up again?

First off I’m trying not to say should so much anymore. Under this new rule I will no longer be saying things like, “I should put this book down and do the dishes” or “I should get to work early today.” I’m still going to have a list of things I need to do, and I’ll still going to do those things because frankly, they’re not going to do themselves and they’re shitty jobs that no one else wants, but I’m going to try very hard to change the way I talk about doing them.

  • I’m going to stop being resentful and feeling guilty about the existence of the should list.
  • I’m going to let the little stuff go. Maybe I should organize the linen closet, but I’m not going to.
  • I’m going to make time for the things I want to do.

But most importantly, I’m going to remember the difference between an obligation and a vocation and stop saying “I should be writing.” I’m going to write because I like to. Not because I should.

What’s on your should list? Tell me all about it in the comments. Maybe we can help each other out.





Slay your Babies & Other Advice for Fiction Writers

        Editing is my least favorite part of writing. Sadly, it’s also the most important part of writing anything that’s actually worth reading. Anyone can fill up a page with words, but to write well you have to know which words to leave there and which ones to take away.  So I do it. Oh, how I suffer for my art….
        Anyway, I recently had a conversation with a writer friend of mine (who we’ll call WF) about the need for editing. It went something like this:
WF: Have you ever written something and you suspected while you were writing it that it was great and then you finished and it WAS great and then it was so great that it required no work or thought or editing because it was already so great? (probably not a direct quote)
JY: Sure, all the time. Then I remind myself of some advice I got from a college professor of mine and I force myself to look at it anyway.
WF: What was the advice?
JY: Slay your babies.*
WF: Excuse me?
JY: I said Slay. Your. Babies.
WF: Yeah, that’s what I thought you said.
    I know it sounds harsh, but it’s probably the most important writing lesson I ever learned. Sam, the workshop professor who taught it to me, wouldn’t tolerate mollycoddling of any kind in his class. He’d sit at the front of the room and if he felt that one of us was cradling our precious work a little too gently, he’d shout out, “What’s the only rule, Miss Young?” The answer, the only rule, was “Slay your babies.”
    By that he meant that anything and everything you write needs editing. It needs finessing. It needs work. Hence first drafts and second drafts and rounds of revisions. Even if you love something, even if you are 100% sure it’s the best thing you have ever written, even if it pains you physically to do it, you still need to rip it apart. In fact, if Sam were here right now, he’d probably say you owe it to the work to rip it apart.
    Anyway, I thought I’d pass that along. What’s the best advice about writing you ever got? Tell me all about it in the comments. Maybe we can help each other out.

* Just for the record, I am vehemently anti-infanticide. I am also against shoving the elderly, kicking a man when he’s down, and horse violence of any kind.