I belong to a few writers' groups on LinkedIn, and a few weeks ago I looked at the weekly discussion roundup and saw a sentence that made me hang my head. A woman had asked about how to carve out time for writing in her busy schedule. The comments on the post were plentiful (more than 40) and I suspected most were helpful. Then there was this one: "[Original Poster] said that weeks or months go by without writing. That's not a writer."
I remember the application process for my MFA program. Much was made on said applications of the need for a writing habit/schedule/priority/call-it-what-you-will. And at that time, I was writing pretty much every day, even if only for 15 or 20 minutes (often for longer). I was knee-deep in the process of hammering out a…something (novel? Novella? Heck if I knew). And one of the advantages of my low-residency program was that it forced you to keep a writing schedule on your own "as 'real' writers do." And I write in my essays about how I wrote every day and it felt weird if I had a day where I didn't write, etc. etc. etc. I got in, though I couldn't possibly tell you if that was why.
Now, I am not trying to say here that it's bad to write every day. It's not. But I was distressed when I went to the group site and found that the author of the above comment had preceded it by saying, "What do you do instead of writing? Maybe you should concentrate on that, since it is obviously of more interest and importance to you than writing." Wow, look at the snark! And the superior attitude that goes with it! It's one thing to say that writing is a habit and you'll get better the more you work at it, and that, certainly, if you're planning to make a living at it you might want to get to it more often than not. It's another thing entirely to hand down a pronouncement that A Writer (or A Painter or A Mechanic) Must Be As I Say It Is.
In defense of the commenter, this idea is pervasive. "Writers write," goes the saying. Well, yes, of course they do. And some of them are single-minded about it, as demonstrated by such sayings. Maybe even most of them. But there are a lot of us who are writers, dancers, musicians, painters, mechanics, events planners, editors, AND teachers. We aren't wired for OR. We're wired for AND, and so for us, one of those things is going to take priority over the one that had priority yesterday, and so on and so forth. We go from talent to talent, from project to project, and a fair number of us manage to make it all work. We may be a little jealous of those who can define themselves in a word or two, but try as we might, we can't make ourselves fit.
There are names for folks like us: Scanners. Multipotentialites. Multi-Passionate. Renaissance. And probably others I haven't heard of. There are books by people like Barbara Sher (Refuse to Choose) and Margaret Lobenstine (The Renaissance Soul). Websites like Puttylike. The tagline for Lobenstine's book sums us up well: "People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One." This was definitely my problem when I applied for college; I had tons of interests but no idea what to do with them, or even that I could do anything with them that looked like a career. And I was told that I had to put something on that "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up" line that sounded professional and serious. To me, that sounded like the kiss of death.
So how do scanners survive?
The late, great physicist Richard Feynman, a self-described "curious character," has fascinated me for 25 years or so, since Trudy Cunningham, then associate dean of engineering at Bucknell, recommended that I read the first volume of his biography, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. The second volume was titled, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Long before I ever went near that second book, I was transfixed by the title. You mean I didn't have to care what everyone else thought/said? Really?!?!! What must that be like?
Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching™ is big, and I do mean big, on not caring what other people think, because worrying about everyone else is a sure-fire way to find yourself creatively blocked. This is true, by the way, even if you're not a scanner. You may have experienced this phenomenon: You have an idea for an awesome, really innovative creative project. You know it's the one for you because you can feel it light you up inside. And then you mention it to your spouse/colleague/best friend, and immediately wish you hadn't. Maybe they say something like, "You're kidding, right?" Or they burst out laughing. It could just be the fleeting second of stunned silence before they awkwardly manage a, "Well, I'm sure that'll be great," and immediately comment on the weather.
Regardless of how it happens, the feeling is clear; not only do you feel judged, you can't figure out why you ever thought your idea was great in the first place. Even if you stubbornly decide you're doing it anyway, you have trouble finding the spark you felt before, and you find that your efforts are half-hearted. The frustration builds and you end up abandoning the project, or beating your head against it. Either way, you wonder what the heck is wrong with you, either because you had such a harebrained idea in the first place, or because you can't get yourself moving on the project.
Here's the simple truth: you have to follow your own North Star, as Martha Beck calls it. Your North Star may be purple with a green halo. It may flit around the sky like a Mexican jumping bean. It may sing old torch songs to you while you dance alone in your living room where no one can see you. It doesn't matter what your North Star looks like or how it behaves as long as you follow it. And for those of us who are "multi-passionate," the fact that a North Star jumps around a bit is perfectly normal!
Margaret Lobenstine, author of The Renaissance Soul, was interviewed last year at the Creative Souls Telesummit, and she made some fascinating points about how the non-linear soul works. The first was that we need to follow our energy flow. Trying to make ourselves write when we really want to get that bookkeeping out of the way is just going to result in frustration. She suggests handling the multiple-passions situation this way: write down ALL the things you want to work on. Then pick three or four that you're going to focus on for a while. You're not negating the others—you'll get to them eventually—and you can keep adding to your list.
Then pick times that you're going to work on those things, but don't decide which focal point goes with which time until you reach that time slot. Go with the one that calls to you. Lather, rinse, repeat. She also mentioned that the only thing Renaissance souls do every day is breathe—and that the idea of one career for a lifetime is a relic of the post-WWII years when employers wanted someone they could depend on to do the same thing over and over for a lifetime. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" grew out of that mindset, and doesn't really fit for a lot of people in the real world. If you're not one of those select few, it's okay!
So it's not the end of the world that the woman who posted on LinkedIn has trouble finding time to write as long as she doesn't abandon it completely. Sure, she may progress faster if she possesses single-minded devotion to it, but if her North Star takes her off to Paris by way of Mozambique first, well, so be it. As writers say, "It's all material!" Some of us are Writers AND. Stockbrokers AND. Artists AND Dreamers and Stock Car Racers AND Plumbers AND Secret Songwriters. (Heck, Richard Feynman was nuts about bongo drums, and one helluva player!)
Don't take my word for it. Check out designer Jonathan Adler, who clearly fits into this category, and see how he's kept himself moving despite having been told he had no talent when he was at art school (warning: some of the language in this presentation is not for delicate ears—but if that's you, I encourage you to tough it out anyway, because what he has to say is worth it):
It's all okay. Give yourself the gift of not caring what anyone else thinks. Follow your own crazy, wacky North Star and don't let anyone tell you you don't know who you are, or that they're better than you because they're able to narrow down to one interest or career or passion. That's great for them, in our single-minded society, but just remember: they may have a single color, but you get the whole rainbow.