Are you doing what you want to do? In your spare time, are you working toward your dream? Or has it been compromised by shoulds?
We all have ‘shoulds’ tossed at us every day: you should exercise, eat right, go green, support [insert latest cause here], write your senators and congress critters and denounce [insert latest injustice here], walk the dog, spend more time with your children, or, having none, volunteer more for children who have no advocates, don’t forsake yourself and your goals, dream big, push hard, don’t take no for an answer, but don’t be self-centered, etc., etc., etc.
If we’re writing, we’re doing something intimate and personal and taking our time—the time we ‘should’ be using to do something ‘useful’ for the family or the world—and using it for ourselves for something that may never amount to anything more than a stack of pages that go nowhere. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we often look at that accomplishment as having been selfish because when we start out, we can’t prove that we’re going to make it.
You know, it’s ironic… most of the time, anyone who’s doing something artistic for the fun of it is allowed to have that as a hobby. Somehow, there’s some added pressure if someone attempts to be a writer—like if you’re not John Grisham with the first five pages, you have somehow failed. It’s more than ironic—it’s insane. It has to stop.
Then… if we manage to get past the ‘shoulds’ on how we’re using our time, there are the ‘shoulds’ about what we ought to be writing. The problem is, I think when we’re writing, we all have someone we either want to impress or we want to avoid being embarrassed in front of, and it’s at times merely frustrating, having that sort of editor on our shoulders. At other times, though, it can be downright debilitating. I went to a very good MFA writing program where the focus is on literary fiction (particularly southern literary fiction), and while I learned a lot, I felt pressured to write southern literary fiction. In fact, it was pretty much understood that I wasn’t supposed to be wasting my slot if all I wanted to do was focus on anything other than southern literary fiction. I kinda had southern literary fiction shoved down my throat until it was streaming from my ears. And I kinda rebelled.
(Okay, I rebelled a lot.)
I rebelled so much, that I switched over to screenwriting because that was the one place where the lone professor who was over that department thought that commercial was an okay, if maybe not even an admirable, goal. And I thought, wheeeeeeeeeeee, I am free, free at last. I can write whatever I want! Wooooooooo!
Until I landed an agent in L.A. Who loved my writing. Loved it. Really and truly was super supportive of me. Except that these characters that I kept creating who were outrageous? Could I tone them down some? And these mouthy things my heroine said? Could I soften her up a little? A little more? Yeah, and a little more than that? Because no one is going to like a mouthy, stubborn, determined, tenacious heroine, you know. Even when something would go all the way to the top of a studio, my agent cautioned on the side of revising to make the characters more ‘castable’ so that we could cast as wide a net as possible for potential actors.
And so I did what I thought was the ‘should’ back then—I’d revise and then each subsequent watering down of what I’d done did worse than the draft before it. I hit a point where I thought fuck it: no one cares anyway, I might as well be doing what I want to do.
It was as if I had needed some sort of permission from someone that it was okay to write what I wanted to write. I didn’t have to have the excuse of writing screenplays to write a commercial story—it was okay (gasp) to write a commercial story for fiction. I wasn’t going to break the space-time continuum where all fiction books got sucked into some sort of void and every reader pointed at me as the culprit if I submitted something commercial; it wasn’t like my writing something commercial was going to taint my soul, ruin my kids, destroy my life, or prevent me from winning some literary honor that I wasn’t going to win anyway, wouldn’t know what to do with if I had, and wouldn’t matter to anyone I knew and loved. So why the hell not? And what in the hell had I been waiting for?
Permission, I think. Permission from someone, somewhere, that it was okay to like what I liked even though it may not fit into some hoity-toity literary program somewhere. Permission to be authentically me. Permission to aim squarely at telling a rip-roaring story with no pretensions of trying to be the most elegant wordsmith on the planet. (Please. Seriously, I had one philosophy professor genuinely compliment me for being able to convey such complex ideas using clear, simple language. Small words. And I told him, “Well, it helps to not know what the big words mean.” I think he thought I was kidding.)
That day I had that realization, that I wasn’t going to break the universe, there was no, “you break it, you bought it” policy going on there, and that I could write what I wanted simply because I wanted to… was the most joyous and freeing writing day I ever had. That’s when I decided I would write the BOBBIE FAYE story and I knew, without a doubt, that not a single soul was going to like it, and that was okay. I was writing her story for me. For the joy of it. The fact that someone bought it, and is actually publishing it, and people have so far liked it? Beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve already had the joy, and continue having the joy, of writing her story. Everything else is lagniappe (that little ‘something extra’). The book comes out May 1st, and yeah, I’m nervous, and I’ll always be nervous (the same way you’re always nervous for your children, no matter how grown they get), but at the same time, this has been a great joy, one I wouldn’t have traded for anything in the world, even if the book hadn’t sold.
So what are you doing for joy? What sort of aspiration or hobby do you pursue? And if you secretly want to do something, what is it?
Toni McGee Causey
BOBBIE FAYE’S VERY (very, very, very) BAD DAY — May 1st