The Joy of Caring Less

I always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time kind of girl.

I have discovered I was wrong.

In my January post at YA Outside the Lines, I discussed the frustrations I’ve been feeling about writing in the last year.

It was bad. As in can’t eat, can’t sleep, drive my family crazy bad.

I’m happy to report that it’s now much better, partly because I decided if writing was making me this miserable I shouldn’t do it because it’s not like it’s paying very many bills, either. But I can’t not write.

I used to write for myself, because I couldn’t not do it, and because I enjoyed making my mother and my English teachers cry—it is something, isn’t it, to make people feel? It’s a kind of power. I wrote with no thought of publication or awards. Those things were too far off.

Then I was published, and there was critical approval, if not money in it, and I have always loved approval better than money, anyway.

I wanted them again, those tiny hits of approval that really do hit my brain like a drug.

HOW COULD I GET MORE?

That became my goal, not writing what made me glad to write, not the projects that pulled at my heart and made me happy, but this.

WHAT CAN I GET PUBLISHED?

WHAT WILL MORE PEOPLE READ?

HOW CAN I MAKE PEOPLE LIKE ME AND GIVE ME MORE OF THOSE LOVELY APPROVAL HIGHS?

I discovered, in my desire for publication and approval, that I could not write. I was holding everything too tightly, afraid of failing, afraid of wasting my time.

Something made me let go. I don’t know what. Maybe my arms finally got too tired. I let myself drift.

I drafted (in longhand, which I haven’t done for over a decade) an historical fiction picture book. A book featuring real people (always very scary to write about) who spent a remarkable evening together and left behind a record of it so sparse it could not become narrative nonfiction because I had to fill in the gaps. It’s something I never would have let myself write while I was holding on so tightly to what would sell.

I began it two Friday nights ago while my husband bathed our daughter. I never write at those times, when it is loud and I can hear her laughing and splashing and him singing some song he loves from his own childhood about elephants playing on spider webs. I began it because the first lines came into my head and I needed to get them down before I forgot. I realized I had been an elephant on a spider web, and no elephant can play on a spider web if she thinks too hard about it. I felt joy in writing for the first time in a long time, and I woke up the next morning and finished the draft. Whether it ever sees the light of day or not is immaterial. Those six hundred words brought me back.

Last Thursday, I forgot to put my daughter’s school bag in the car, and I ended up driving to and from her school three times during what is meant to be my work time. It was okay because in that drive I realized which novel project I should be working on. The one I know is not “commercial” enough. The one I know can come from no one but me. (There are, however, pretty dresses in it, and the calculating part of my brain that knows I can sell historical fiction as long as there are pretty dresses—come on, you know it’s true—rejoices.)

In my research for various incarnations of the above novel over the past year, I stumbled upon a nonfiction story I wanted to tell. My husband has been after me for years to do nonfiction, because I do love it and I am good at it and I was trained as a historian first. I registered for a class on writing narrative nonfiction, because I also find great joy in learning and reading and homework assignments.

These projects are very different from each other, but they all have connections. All are set in my beloved eighteenth century because I think I am right, after all, after much wandering, to focus my work there. There is great joy in knowing a world well, and it’s interesting to see the same world from so many different angles as I work on different projects.

Working on three projects at a time enables me to hold them all with a looser rein. If one fails, perhaps another will succeed. I don’t feel so uptight about things. If I get stuck on one, I can switch to another. Nothing is life or death. Some people need to pour everything they have into one thing at a time, but I can’t. Because what if I give everything I have and still come up short? I can’t do it. I freeze in terror.

Working on a variety of projects keeps me from getting bored, from holding any one project so tight it can’t breathe, so tight I can’t breathe. It keeps me from caring too much. Caring too little is bad. Caring too much is bad. I need to care just enough to do the work well and then to let it be.

8 Comments

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8 Responses to The Joy of Caring Less

  1. Steve

    A nice read. Those hard to come by “ah ha” moments are truly wonderful! BTW, I am racking my brain about elephants and spider web.

    • Courtney

      One elephant went out to play
      Upon a spider’s web one day
      He had such enormous fun
      That he called for another
      elephant to come.

      Two elephants went out to play…and so on forever.

  2. Shirley Knight

    I so loved “The Last Sister” as it made me want to read more about that era. And I enjoyed “Eunice” before that. Your talents amaze me. Anyone who has the ability to “move” another’s emotions is truly amazing to me. I know I am not an expert, but I know what I like!
    Just a thought… I have been practicing meditation now for almost a year (a novice, I admit), but it has helped me in so many respects. It truly opens the mind to the inner self, which dominoes into a positive effect of clarity and transcendence (for lack of my ability to explain it well). This spills over into everything we attempt to do. The key is daily practice. Big love!

    • Courtney

      I have tried meditation before but always failed. However, I just got a new guided meditation app for my phone, in hopes it will help me sleep better. I have inherited the West insomnia…

  3. I first read this post on the day it went live, and I’m finally getting to comment today (3/2), so are you sure you don’t want to go back to work full time? (Ha! That’s a trick question! You ARE working full time, plus your part time writing job.)

    I TOTALLY understand your dilemma. I’ve worked for nearly twenty years on projects that I love and believe in and have never been published, and every couple of years (aw, heck, every couple of days) I think, “You should be writing a YA dystopian set in a school for wizards. With cupcakes.” But the reality is, as great as publication and pats on the head would feel, I have to write what is true to me. I can only write what is in my heart. I am so glad you have found what’s in yours.

    • Courtney

      Hahaha, YA dystopian set in a school for wizards with cupcakes! Except you’d hear it was overdone ;-)

      Having had a job very similar to yours, I know how busy you are! Oh, those endless stacks of papers. I miss the classroom, but I don’t miss those.