Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lying to Oneself

by Juliet

Way back when, before I ever dreamed of becoming a "real" writer, I used to tell people:

"When I retire I'm going to move to [insert name of great European city here] and I'll tell everyone I'm working on a novel. That way I can sit around in cafes jotting things down in a notebook, drinking espresso and cheap wine, acting as though I'm doing something...but I'll never have to actually produce anything!"

I thought it was brilliant.

Wow. Did I underestimate this writing gig. "Never have to produce anything"? Really? Now that I do write for a living, I realize that ALL I ever do is produce, or at least try to produce, day in, day out.

Still, I have a confession to make: there are days when my hardworking neighbors think I'm "writing" but I'm really walking around the lake, having lunch with friends, and maybe cleaning out the shed or working in the garden or taking in a matinee.

Not many days, but there are some.

I console myself with the thought that, as a writer, I'm ALWAYS working. I'm going over character development as I'm perusing bookstore aisles, or observing details of wardrobe for some crucial descriptive passage, or perhaps my subconscious is working out a few plot problems while downing that second martini.

And as someone who's been self-employed, one way or another, for most of her adult life, I have no qualms about taking off on Tuesday when the stores are empty and the traffic is mellow. The harsh truth is I work most Saturdays and Sundays --and most evenings-- so I don't feel guilty about my rare free hours.

But here's where things get dicey...the problem isn't when we lie to others about writing; it's when we lie to ourselves.

I did it when I was "working on my dissertation" in anthropology. I aced the classes, whizzed through my oral exams and enjoyed the hell out of my field research. But the actual writing....? Not so much. I didn't have a word count or other daily goal to keep me on track. I couldn't keep my focus--new topics became fascinating, and everything was relevant and needed to be pursued. I developed a kind of graduate student ADD, and lost my ability to keep my butt in the chair, my mind on my thesis, and to write.

As months faded into years, I realized I enjoyed the idea of writing my dissertation a lot more than the reality of it. Being a doctoral student was fun. I garnered sympathy/respect/pity from the general public, was granted full university library access, managed to travel extensively, and even worked on a BBC documentary film. And I learned a hell of a lot. There were lots of perqs to the lifestyle.

But it was one thing to lie to others about what I was doing....quite another when I started lying to myself. That's when I knew I was in trouble.

I think lies have their place. In the eighties, when I traveled a lot, I told everyone I was Canadian (still a handy ruse). And every April 15 I insinuate that I need to buy all these art supplies for my business. If I'm bored on the plane, I might mention to my seatmate that I'm visiting my pen-pal prisoner fiance who currently resides in Vacaville Maximum Security.

But lying to myself about what I'm doing -- or not doing-- to fulfill my dreams? That, I will no longer do.

When I finally admitted to myself that I had been pursuing my PhD for all the wrong reasons, I pulled up my big girl pants and dropped the dissertation. Amazingly enough, the world did not end. No one's head exploded. After all those years, it was surprisingly easy to leave the lie behind.

So now, when I actually move to [insert name of great European city here] and sit around in cafes jotting things down in notebooks, drinking espresso and cheap wine...I'll be producing words that become sentences that lead to books. Honestly.


Sophie Littlefield said...

This rings so true. During my long, long dry spell, when each week I'd have nothing to show as far as progress on my WIP, I still said I was a writer. On the inside, I sort of acknowledged I was more of a "someday writer." Luckily for me, my someday came. I think a great many people get stuck there in the just-thinking-about-it stage.

Meg London said...

Great post! I wasted many of my earlier decades (won't say how many ) pretending I was "going to write some day." Fortunately, I finally did start and when I told my mother about my new contract she said "OH. I didn't know you were *still* writing."

Juliet Blackwell said...

Amazing how once we settle down and really write, it's hard to remember the pretense we used to hold up. glad you're *still* writing!!!

Daisy said...

My big one is "working in the background." Like, when I'm checking email, reading twitter, entering online sweepstakes and getting into comment-section discussions about what they should title the Dr. Horrible sequel, my brain is busy composing the book I'm allegedly working on, and fully-formed ideas are going to pop out the minute I switch back to it. (It isn't, of course. That only happens when I'm in the shower.)

That said, sitting around in cafes, drinking wine and occasionally writing in a notebook does sound like a very nice way to spend a few years. I wonder how you could get paid for that?

Mysti said...

Lucky for us readers that you traded not writing a dissertation for writing books that are so much fun to read!

I didn't realize just how much I was lying to myself about internet access during writing time until I installed a program that cuts all access for an hour or two--my self-interrupt sequence was running on two minute intervals! Not entirely coincidentally, my writing velocity is improving.

This app has saved my writing life :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

Amazing how many methods we come up with to stall ourselves on what we're "supposed" to be doing! I love that you found that app, Mysti --I had to remove myself from the internet completely on my writing computer!
Daisy -- once I figure out how to get paid for hanging out in cafes, I'll let you know ;-)

Rachael Herron said...

This is gorgeous, and so true. When I quit telling myself "someday" I'd write a novel, and realized that if I didn't do it I would ALWAYS be lying, I finally got it done.

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