Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat casked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
This week an Ivy League university invited my company to submit a proposal for a year-long content-marketing initiative. Years ago, I dreamed of pursuing engagements of this scope. I wanted to build an enterprise that would support my family while I worked on fiction writing in my spare time.
But I never got very far.
Don’t get me wrong. My copywriting business has allowed me to provide for my family, while giving me a flexible schedule that supports my fiction pursuits.
It simply took the better part of a decade for me to realize that I didn’t need a multimillion-dollar agency to bankroll my dreams.
The Fisherman & the Businessman
Have you heard the parable of the Mexican fisherman and the American businessman? It’s a cute tale in which an ambitious American asks the fisherman why he doesn’t work harder to build an empire and to make more money to support his family. As the foreigner lays out a 15- to 20-year plan for the fisherman’s career, the fisherman asks why he would do all that.
The American’s response? So the fisherman can retire . . . and do the same things he’s already doing.
The story is often told as a joke, and I first heard it nearly 20 years ago, when I was busting my fanny in the corporate world (which so aptly prepared my for my current life, thank you). I laughed then—and later cringed when I realized that I had somehow morphed into the misguided American.
Finding Satisfaction in ‘Enough’
In 2012, shortly after moving into my current, and probably permanent, home, I started planning a novel that I literally dreamed several months earlier. After six months of planning, I had a detailed outline and several drafted scenes.
That November, I attended a writers conference in Manhattan on perfecting your novel pitch. Not only did I come away with a solid pitch for my project, but an editor from one of the major publishers also requested the manuscript.
At the time, my actual word count was hovering around 35,000. I requested a few weeks to give the draft a “final scrub” and then wrote another 75,000 words in six weeks.
That final flurry showed me that I didn’t need the support of a thriving agency to fund my literary aspirations. It also revealed why I could never devote my energy to expanding my business: my subconscious recognized the effort as a delay tactic, one that took me away from my writing goals.
Like so many other aspiring writers, I had bought into the seductive notion that I should chase dollars now because I would have plenty of time to write later.
But later is not guaranteed. And any time you’re waiting to stockpile an unspecified sum that equates to “enough” money—to start a family, to travel, to write—it’s typically an excuse. (Go ahead and argue, but humans always find a way to support what truly matters to them.)
By giving myself the freedom to write, I discovered that I could follow my dreams now.
Around the time I finished that novel draft, I discovered that I was pregnant. The next eight months were spent preparing for our son’s arrival, followed by a five- to six-month adjustment period.
My son recently turned four. I still do not have a published novel, although I did sign on with an agent, who shopped around my manuscript. Alas, no takers, but I have continued my writing journey.
So far, my main takeaways:
- The more you learn about writing craft, the more you realize you have to learn.
- Writing fiction is my number-one love, and pretending otherwise wastes limited energy.
Pondering these lessons has led me to spend more time reading books on craft and applying those principles to my own writing and to what I’m reading.
It has also convinced me to scale back my business aspirations. Today, I work with a small group of clients that I genuinely love working with. Every one is a superstar in its respective sector, and I truly enjoy the people with whom I work.
This leaner operation leaves me with more energy to chase my dream.
But let’s not kid ourselves: While it sounds wonderful, it also boils down to old-fashioned, unglamorous hard work. In the wee hours before the rest of my family rises or late at night, when everyone else has turned in. In the odd cracks of time during the day when it’s tempting to surf the web or check one’s social feeds.
The Benefits of Focus
Spending more time and energy on my fiction writing not only brings me closer to my goals, but it also keeps me focused. I have less time for other, even enjoyable pursuits, like learning a language or practicing a musical instrument. I also have to assess personal and business opportunities more critically. Will pursuing X bring me closer to, or further from, my writing goals?
In the case of the RFP opportunity referenced earlier, having a clear focus prevented me from wasting time, debating whether I wanted to pursue this contract. Even under the best circumstances, this engagement would only hinder my fiction writing.
There’s something liberating about knowing what you want and whether an opportunity will support or sabotage that desire.
Try it, and let me know how it works out for you.