I thought I would finish revising my novel-in-progress a while ago now. But the last couple of months of the school year included two multiple-day school trips to chaperone, a few weddings and a bunch of other special events to attend, and hours and hours of grading. Then, two days after my last meeting at school, during an amazingly fun and special weekend away, Mike and I got engaged and soon began looking at places to get married next June.
So summer was here and it was time to get back to writing—I’d promised myself I would—but instead I was visiting wedding venues, going to doctors’ appointments I didn’t have time for during the school year, seeing people I hadn’t spent much time with lately, and completing my scuba certification dives. Lots of fun, lots of excitement, but still not much writing.
When I lamented the fact that I’d wanted to finish this revision by July 10th (a self-imposed deadline I’d already pushed back from May 1st, June 1st, and then July 1st) and now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to, Mike said something that made me stop and think.
He said, “Sometimes, you have to choose your book.”
He was right, of course. I often struggle to choose my book over other things now that I’ve finished my MFA program and no longer have deadlines that somebody else set for me. It can feel selfish and antisocial to prioritize writing. It can feel scary to commit to something I’m not always sure I’m all that good at. And slogging through revisions usually isn’t as rewarding as working with students, or as fun as meeting up with friends, or as entertaining as watching Doctor Who on the couch, or as exciting as looking up wedding stuff online.
But if I never choose my book over other things, then how can I expect to make progress with it? How can I beat myself up about not finishing my novel when I consistently let it fall to the bottom of my priority list?
So for the past week, I have chosen my novel. I opted to stay home and work rather than going away for the Fourth of July weekend. I sat my butt in a chair, turned off the internet, and wrote for two hours at a time, at least a couple of times a day. By Sunday night, I had finished my revision, and yesterday I sent it off to a couple of generous first readers. But finishing that revision took making a conscious choice and a sacrifice.
When I was a kid and went to Sunday School at a Presbyterian Church, a Sunday School teacher once told my class that we had a choice in everything we did, even showing up at Sunday School. (I’m not sure if this statement was linked to a Bible story we were discussing or if people were misbehaving and the teacher was trying to convince everybody that deep down they wanted to be there or what.) Most people in the class were very vocal in their disagreement. They insisted that they didn’t choose to do their homework, or to go to school every day, or to come to church on the weekend. They had to!
“You always have a choice,” the teacher repeated.
“Well, maybe,” some kids reasoned. “But if we chose not to do our homework we’d fail and get held back, and if we never went to school we’d be breaking the law, and if we refused to come to Sunday School we’d be in major trouble with our parents.”
“Those are still choices,” the teacher maintained.
Looking back, I see that the teacher was right, in a literal sense. But as there were back then, there are still plenty of choices that really aren’t on the table for discussion. I don’t feel like I’m making a choice, for example, when I turn in my grades and comments when they’re due at school.
The tricky thing, though, is that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that we’re making choices all the time. It’s easy to begin to feel like there just isn’t time for writing (or exercising or dating or sleeping enough or whatever it is) without recognizing all of the moments when we make choices that prioritize other things. We’re not going to be willing or able to reconsider many of those choices. But we might need to think twice about some of them.
I’m not going to choose writing every time. I’m often going to choose my relationships or my teaching job, and I’m okay with that. But it seems like a manageable goal to choose my writing some of the time, so I am going to try to be brave enough and self-aware enough to do just that.