Every Friday Dr. Sue takes over and my blog becomes a couch as she dispenses writerly therapy.
I occasionally give workshops and seminars in my Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be notified about upcoming events, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
Dear Dr. Sue,
I have been writing for about 10 years and, like most of us, snatching whatever time I can find around my commercial work. In this way, I have made substantial progress--winning a number of awards for short stories and essays and getting published in a range of good literary magazines. Now I am working on a novel--a project I feel great urgency about completing, as it is the realization of a dream.
For a number of reasons, I am now in a position to contemplate taking a leave of absence from my commercial work to concentrate for perhaps 4 or 5 months on completing this novel. I have been thinking about beginning in the fall--though this plan is fraught with conflict for me, as I would be giving up, at least for a time, my identity as income earner in an occupation where I am highly skilled to try to do something I am not certain that I can do (complete and sell a novel).
As if this problem were not difficult enough for me, my father-in-law has announced that to celebrate a significant birthday, he wants to take the family on a two-week trip abroad during the time I have planned for my writing. I know that this is a generous offer, but I do not really want to go, for several reasons, including its timing. How can I expect him to understand my intention or hope of protecting this time when I am having such a hard time doing so myself? And how can I know whether this is my true reason for not wanting to go?
It seems that you are in an enviable position. You have a job for which you are highly qualified, one that gives you the opportunity to take time off to fulfill your dream of writing a novel. You have evidence of your gifts as a writer in your awards and publication history. And you apparently have the means to live for four or five months without pay while you pursue your dream.
One problem with enviable positions is that they force us off the fence. Those of us who can’t afford to take time off, or who whose jobs wouldn’t be waiting if we did so, can comfort ourselves with the belief that if circumstances were different, we could easily produce the novel the world has been waiting for. It’s a comfortable belief because we know it will never be put to the test. If we did get a chance like the one that’s facing you, many of us would panic.
I can’t tell you what to do, but I can suggest some exercises to help you clarify why this is so hard for you.
Bring some paper and a pen to a quiet corner where you are unlikely to be interrupted. Think about what the worst possible outcome of your proposed venture might be. Perhaps you would fritter away the entire four or five months without writing anything substantial. Or you might turn out garbage, proving once and for all that though you may be a competent short fiction writer, you will never be a novelist. Or maybe you would become completely immersed in your work, discovering new depths of feeling and heightened expressive powers—only to have to return to your job, which would now feel stiflingly repressive without the promise of a leave of absence looming.
Whatever your worst case scenario turns out to be, imagine it as fully as possible. Then draw whatever image comes most strongly to mind: a sheaf of blank paper surrounded by candy wrappers; a pile of garbage; yourself chained to a desk—don’t worry whether it makes sense or not; the idea is to give shape to your feelings and fears.
You may find it helpful to do this exercise several times, each time exploring another facet, or layer, of the conflict. When you are satisfied that you have examined every aspect of the issue in your drawings, put them aside for a few days. Then take them out and look at each one carefully, asking yourself how you would handle it if the pictured situation should occur. Would you die of shame? Shoot your boss? Or simply feel sad and disappointed for a while, then figure out what to do next?
If your answer doesn’t involve clinical depression or bloodshed, I would advise you to plan for your leave. Start thinking now about how to avert or minimize your worst-case scenarios. If you fear wasting your time, for example, think about how you can structure your days. You may wish to investigate local or online novel-writing workshops or critique groups that will require you to submit new material at regular intervals. By making such concrete plans, you will increase your commitment, your confidence, and your odds of succeeding.
Once you have addressed your own inner conflict about this project, it may be easier to see how to deal with your father-in-law. You didn’t describe the degree of openness in your relationship with him or the other reasons you may not wish to go, so it’s difficult to offer suggestions in this area. Chances are, though, unless he is a serious artist himself, it won’t be possible to communicate the depth of your commitment to him, and you may need to choose between hurting his feelings and going on the trip. Is it possible to schedule your leave for the period right before this vacation? In this way, the trip could be a celebration of your completed project as well as his birthday. If not, you may end up facing some flak. I hope he will forgive you by the time of your publication party.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A well-published author herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.