I have a friend who has an extensive owl collection. It all started when she innocently purchased a wooden carving of an owl in front of her mother one afternoon- hmmm, isn’t that cute? – and has led to her being the horrified owner of owl pot-holders, owl clocks, owl earrings, fluffy owl slippers, “I don’t give a hoot!” t-shirts, needle pointed owl pillows, salt and pepper owl shakers, stuffed owls, owl soap-on-a-rope…on birthdays, holidays and graduations, the dreaded swarm descends, perching on her shelves, flapping up her wall-space, peeking out from her closet – it’s like a horror movie.
“I don’t know how it got so out of hand,” she moaned one day as she unwrapped an “Owl Always Call You Friend” cross-stitch wall hanging from her sister-in-law. “Maybe it’s because you thank them profusely and act like you love their hideous gifts?” I suggested.
We decided she had to put a stop to it, to thank them very much but declare her world an owl-free zone from now on. Her friends and family were surprised and indignant, and although the onslaught stopped, they treated her like she was nuts. “Fine, if that’s what you want, but…”
The important thing is that my friend was finally free. She went against what she thought she should do and what everyone expected her to do, and did what she felt like doing. Then she had a giant See You Later Owlogator party and set her entire collection on fire.
People love to tell you what you should and shouldn’t want, regardless of what you have to say about it. And while they usually have your best interest in mind, they’re often coming from a place of fear: fear of change, fear of looking dumb, fear of being left behind, whatever.
When it comes to writing, your inner critic is just like these people, constantly doubting and trying to protect you from imminent failure. Your only hope is to hold onto your heart and your vision with both hands and keep moving forward. Regardless of how many owls of doubt it throws at you.
We often talk about how your critic is crawling all over you while you’re trying to write, but we never really discuss how he shows up before you even put pen to paper. Meanwhile, the moment you utter the thought, “hey I think I’ll write a book,” your critic shows up for work, spanking paddle in hand.
Whenever I start a new writing class I always have a couple students who are torn between a few different ideas for their books. Usually they’ve got one they’re dying to write, then they’ve got one they think they should write because it’ll make them money and maybe they’ve got something they started in college that they think they should finish.
They become paralyzed, worried that whatever they start working on will be the wrong one (or worse, they start working on all of them at once and bounce back and forth, making it impossible to finish anything). By the time they get to me, they’re already exhausted and we haven’t even started working yet.
Here’s the one thing to keep in mind that will always give you the right answer: write what you’re excited to write. Follow the spark, because if the spark isn’t there, you’ll go back to talking about your book for another few years instead of actually working on it. This is especially important when it comes to your first book – you’ll need all the juice you can get while you’re still proving to yourself that you can do it, so don’t set yourself up for torture by writing something that makes you want to take a nap.
Keep in mind that lots of times the book you think you should write is connected to the book you want to write because they’re both coming from the same place inside of you. For example, I had a student who was an acupuncturist who thought she should write a serious acupuncture guide to up her expert credibility, but the book she really wanted to write was about her year traveling the world by herself. The more we spoke, the more it was revealed that it was through her travels that she discovered her love of healing. She ended up writing a memoir about studying the healing arts across the globe.
This isn’t to say you should force your ideas together so you don’t have to make a tough decision, but rather that it’s worth seeing if your dots connect in unlikely places.
With whatever you’re writing, even if it’s a how to shave your cat, keep your why very close at hand. Why did you choose this line of work? What is it about your work that made you pursue it above all else? What is the most exciting thing about it? If you keep your why in tact, the emotion behind your words will resonate with your readers and keep them interested instead of just throwing a bunch of empty information at them.
Staying in touch with the reasons you do the things you do, rather than just blindly doing them, will make your life much juicier and purposeful in all aspects.