Are You Letting Worry Kill Your Calling?

It’s a big, complex world nowadays. Our attention gets pulled left and right by advice, suggestions, warnings, recommendations, advertisements, threats. When we finally find something to focus on, there’s still an avalanche of information on how to achieve the object of our focus that it’s hard to tell just what we should do next.

In theory, we writers have it lucky. There’s just one commonly-held piece of advice for us to follow: Write. Every other piece of advice is subject to your own style, your own preferences.

Still, there’s a lot of advice out there, and lately I’ve been bothered by some of it, especially the bloggers who compare writing to training for the Olympics or climbing mountains, who write that writing a novel is a grind, a slog, that you need discipline, endurance. It’s hard to tell whether they’re advocating the sternest commitment as a bulwark against some great slothful urge or saying that the “passion” that supposedly lies behind any creative endeavour is some juggernaut of lust that pushes them through all the angst.

Yet could these people trying to drown their calling by turning it into work? Do these people actually enjoy writing? Are they happy?

Back when I decided to get serious about writing (perhaps the first warning sign), I went out and looked for writing advice on the web. I asked Google questions abouit plotting, outlining; subscribed to blogs by writers who answered questions and offered tips about the process. A lot of the advice has been good; were it not for Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing, I never would have encountered Scrivener, nor would I have realised that the sole purpose of the first draft is to answer the question, “What happens next?” over and over again. I also have to give shouts to Randy Ingermanson, whose Snowflake Method gave me guidance on how to construct an outline, and the lads of Writing Excuses, who’ve offered lots of entertaining insights into the craft of writing (as you may know, I found their podcasts on the Hollywood Formula extremely beneficial to my plotting process).

But intermixed with those were other posts about how often you should write, how disciplined you should be, how lonely and hard an endeavour writing a book is and how much sleep and social life and other interests you have to sacrifice in order to get your work finished and published.

Photo by Doctor Bob

I tried following their advice, but after subscribing to blogs and collating articles on writing and joining the Tropical Writers in 2010 and completing NaNoWriMo that same year, after talking about getting Slamdance written – my writing output for 2011 was minimal. All I got out of it was stress, and I had plenty enough of that in my life. The only thing I did about all the targets and goals that I was supposed to be setting for myself was stress; the only thing I got was an increasing sense of failure.

So many people whose blogs I’ve read are very quick to harp on about how much work and effort and skullsweat goes into the craft of writing, how much commitment is needed to stay the course, yet so few actually talk about the actual joy they get from doing it. And my wife Vickie would watch me trying to follow their advice and ask me why the hell I was bothering? If happy I wasn’t, then produce quality work I surely wouldn’t.

I have to credit both my lovely wife and two bloggers for pointing me in the right direction. The first blogger is Leo Babauta, who owns the Zen Habits web log. His mission is to advocate the joy in a simple, uncluttered life. I linked to a couple of Leo’s articles on New Year’s Day and the one about quashing the self-improvement urge is particularly relevant here. I’d offer you some quotes, but – seriously, go and read it. It’s worth your time.

The second is Ollin Morales, a fellow who’s chronicling the things he’s learning while working on his first novel on a web log called {Courage2Create}. Right around the new year he wrote a post called 3 Easy Ways to be Patient, something I definitely need help with. There’s one particular section of his from Way #1: Meditation that I can safely quote:

I used to be anxious and lost in my own thoughts most of the time. Even in the middle of a group of people, I would feel restless, and sometimes completely out of it. This meant I was often impatient, and impatience led me to become angry, and this anger led to me to unhappiness.

Seem a bit familiar?

I just re-read it now; while I’m doing the breathing thing pretty well (it does help), I realised I forgot the fifteen-minutes-of-awareness-daily bit. Still, that’s what lunch breaks are for!

I began to mind both articles whenever I saw more of that goal-setting, pushing-through-the-pain, ya-gotta-wanna-win-it-li’l-Johnny kind of advice (which, ironically enough, Ollin does put out every now and again). Yet I still worried about whether I was doing the right thing in writing a novel, whether I should concentrate on getting some extra money in via freelancing (especially after we were quoted around $800 for the removal of another mast-cell carcinoma from one of our dogs last week), whether I was even meant to be a writer given that even when I got up at 5:30 for some quiet writing time, I didn’t enjoy the process.

What was getting between me and the elusive state of joy that every source seemed to associate with finding your calling? Was it because what I was doing… wasn’t my calling?

Those worries, and a drop in the quality of my work at work, led to my decision to ask for some help. I followed my own advice and contacted Empolyee Assistance about organising an appointment.

The night before my appointment, Vickie was bothered; she asked me why I was going to a psychologist instead of talking with her. She had to dig the answer out of me (not unusual): Given that everything else, from her computer to her own health, had been driving her up the wall recently, I didn’t think burdening her with my same old worries would help. Plus, the fact that it was the same old stuff again would probably make her cranky.

It did, but even when she gets cranky Vickie never goes totally ballistic. She asked me why I kept put myself under so much pressure working to others’ expectations? Why couldn’t I just go with the flow?

The next day, I got up at 6:30 and got the bus into work instead of driving. It’s not exactly what you’d call quiet time and the ride is a little rough, yet it gave me the chance to not only read but … do you realise the amount of stuff you miss when you’re on your own, in a car, concentrating on being ready to react if the car ahead of or behind you does something silly? Especially when it’s just you in that car?

Photo by clarita

Being carried to work with people around me talking or reading quietly and green-covered mountains rolling by… I finally went with the flow.

I opened Scrivener up and let my mind play with the plot ideas I’ve been percolating for Slamdance, putting key thoughts down as index cards on the program’s virtual corkboard and shuffling their order around. It was the happiest I’d been while writing in a long while – and I was peaceful, letting my thoughts take me wherever they went. My outline looks a lot better than it did thanks to that half hour of noodling. And for the first time in ages, I was happy.

And rather than pushing myself to the point of burnout, I shut my netbook down when I felt like I’d done all I could and did something I don’t think I’ve ever done – pulled out my iPod and listened to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”And for the first time, the song made me smile and laugh. right there were all my troubles. no cash, no style, scared that we mightn’t be able to make mortgage payments. I stopped worrying and was happy. (After all, I do have a gal to make me smile!)

I’m still adjusting the scales at the moment; the “worry” side still out-weighs the “peaceful” side. But now I know it’s there, what it feels like. Instead of feeling some great passion for what I’m doing… I’m curious. Where could I go? What could I do? How do I get there from here?

I realise now that the desire to answer those questions before I start that has crippled me in the past is born of stress, of worry. Frank Herbert may have had his Bene Gesserit call fear “the mind-killer” in Dune, but I find it more worthwhile to clarify that definition: Fear is the curiosity-killer. Fear is the thing that keeps you from finding out about the world and what you can do in it.

Photo by Kakisky.

It makes all the articles I read about mountains and early starts and slogs and training and sprints seem ludicrous. Why do so many writers feel they must institute some regime to keep them going? Are they letting their worries about ensuring their success or making enough money kill their simple, child-like curiosity about the world and their own potential?

(Funnily enough, Ollin Morales wrote an article on this theme as well; he called it, “Resurrecting ‘The Kid’.”)

I know I said I was going to concentrate on forming new habits rather than making resolutions this year, but I reckon it’s still early enough in the year to go back on my word a little: I resolve to let my worries pass over me and through me, and spend a bit more time letting my outer eyes show me that the world I live in can be just as wonderful as the ones I tend to hide away in.

As for habits – well, giving fifteen minutes over to awareness every day seems like a good one to get into!

In the meantime, I’d like to know about you:

How are you doing on the worry – peace spectrum?

Have you ever worried yourself out of your passion, dream or calling (or come close to it)? What did you do when you recognised what had happened?

Images sourced from morguefile. Featured image by Patricia Fortes.

  • aladyunicorn

    Oh this is so so true. I know when I worry I get nothing done (and I’m a habitual worrier about not doing things right). Excellent advice though 😀

    • ByRobF

      @aladyunicorn Glad it helped, Alex! How’s your writing work coming along?

  • You’ve just stated a simple truth that I think gets missed in the blogosphere – that writing is, or at least can be a joy. It isn’t always a chore, we don’t always have writer’s block. For once let’s look at the positives.

    • ByRobF

      @Sonya76 Thanks for that, Sonya! I will say that after a week of writing on the bus it can sometimes take a little bit of geeing along to get started, but I think it’s a bit like exercise (which I’m also getting into the daily habit of).

      But I also saw a video by Alec Gillis recently, who talked about how much fun Stan Winston had with making pops and creatures, and he related that Stan once said “If you have a problem with being paid to play you might be in the wrong job.” Somettimes, it’s good to remind yourself that, especially with fiction, you’re giving yourself permission to play!