Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project, talks about the thrill and the perils of trying something new:
There’s a common occupational hazard that affects writers, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it: the desire to write outside your main field.
I know a journalist who took a sabbatical to write a novel, which turned into a short story. I know a science writer who is writing a play. I know a novelist who is writing a memoir.
This change can be exhilarating and fun, because it’s a new creative challenge – and that contributes to a happy life. But it can also be a bit of a pain, because these projects can feel … oppressive. With writing, often, there’s a strange feeling of compulsion. You just have to write about something. I remember hearing Kathryn Harrison remark on a panel, when asked how she chose her topics, “You really have surprisingly little control about what you want to write about.” I knew exactly what she meant. I had to write a book about power, money, fame and sex — when I was clerking for Justice O’Connor, I was writing that book on the weekends. A few years later, I felt I couldn’t go another day without working on a biography of Churchill.
Of course, you can choose what you write about. You just can’t choose what you want to write about.
For the last few years, for example, I’ve been desperately fighting the urge to write a book about St. Therese of Lisieux. I have a lot to say, and I think most of her biographers seriously mis-read her writing, and I’d love to set everyone straight. But I resist because I’m not Catholic, I have no doctrinal expertise, I don’t even speak French! No one would read my book – but how I would love to lay roses at the feet of my spiritual master, St. Therese.
Although I write non-fiction, three times in my life I’ve had an uncontrollable urge to write a novel. My problem is that I’m not much of a storyteller, and these were “novels of ideas.” Which, I know quite well, is not a good way to write a novel. One novel was about the apocalypse, one was about why people destroy their own possessions (I later wrote a non-fiction book, Profane Waste, on this subject, in collaboration with artist Dana Hoey, and it worked much better in that form), and most recently, I wrote a novel-in-a-month about the happiness consequences of two people having an affair. (I describe this experience in The Happiness Project book.)
For a writer, it can be a gigantic distraction, and therefore a work liability, to have these projects press on you. They get in the way of the work you really need to get done. They can be fun, creative, and satisfying, yes, but writers, like everyone, need to be productive in the work for which they’re paid.
This has happened to me, yet again. I have this idea for a novel – but for once, in a nice change, it’s not a novel of ideas. Well, it is a little bit. But it has more plot than usual. And it actually has some real characters in it. It’s also a young-adult novel, which I’ve never tackled before, although I’m a huge fan of children’s and young-adult literature.
But what’s the point of view? I imagine it like a movie, with a distant third-person narrator, but I need to locate it in my main character’s point of view…and then how to handle the gradual reveal of the secrets I want to emerge slowly?
I really don’t have time to be fussing with this right now!
I mentioned this dilemma to a friend who is an editor and a YA writer herself, and she said, “You should just write it! That’s the happiness project thing to do!”
She’s absolutely right. It would make me very happy to write that novel. But while it would be fun, it would also be draining and difficult and distracting. Plus, I would really try to make it good, but it probably wouldn’t end up being good – and if I go to the trouble to write a book, I really want it to be good. It would be “play,” in that I’d be doing it for fun, but it would use up precisely the same energy that I use for “work.” More time at the keyboard, can I stand it? Of course, it might energize me as well.
I know that I’m extraordinarily lucky to be a working writer, debating whether to do this extra project for fun. For now I think I’ll hold on to my idea, and promise myself that I’ll make a start on this novel this summer, if I still feel the urge.
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