There is this notion of “anticipatory regret” that is supposed to make you avoid doing something bad by anticipating or imagining the negative consequences of the action. You know, you won’t lie if you imagine untangling yourself from the inevitable web of lies spun out of the first one.
Years ago, I read the novel Therapy by David Lodge. For a long time, I attributed to that novel a different, more positive take on anticipatory regret: that it can help you do something good and desired that you imagine feeling future sadness about if you don’t do it. As I remembered the plot, I recalled that the middle-aged Tubby, who was invited to go on a pilgrimage with his former sweetheart, goes with her because he imagines that someday he could deeply regret not going.
I recently re-read Therapy — which sadly does not hold up well, though I remember it as a shining moment in my history of reading pretty much all of Lodge’s novels up to a point — and, although Kierkegaard’s arguments about regret are part of Tubby’s inner calculus, I found nothing about anticipatory regret.
Perhaps the different take was and is my own.
In the spring, for one of my classes I got into the habit of holding open office hours in a classroom, so students could drop in and talk to me about the assignment and, if they wished, sit for a while and write together. One time, 10 students showed up and stayed! Another time, only one did, but he stayed for two hours to work on his report. He would write, ask me a question, write again, say something out loud, write again, and so on. “What do you write?” he asked me at one point. This was an unexpected question, it being a computer science (writing) class and me so clearly not a computer scientist. Why would he, or any CS student, care?
I hemmed. I hawed. “I have written some essays… tried my hand at poetry… last summer wrote a story.”
“What about a book?”
“Well, a while ago I started working on a novel, but then I stopped because I thought it might not be so good for my mental health.”
“What do you mean?” He was still looking at his own screen, writing.
“Like, the story was too close to home. I wondered if I should be getting my thinking in order instead of projecting it all on a novel.” As I was saying this, it sounded stupid to my own ears.
“THAT IS MESSED UP!” he exclaimed, kind of laughing. “That does not make any sense.”
I, sheepishly, “Well, it did to me, at the time. But, yeah.”
You know, when you say something out loud, or you write it down, then you have to think about it.
In late May, I started writing a novel, a new one with new characters and a new plot. First, I wrote a letter to myself — a four-page one — to explain it to myself and ask questions. I realized as I was writing this letter that the protagonist, a 13 year old girl, was not that different from the protagonist of the abandoned novel. And both fictional characters, though not me, were probably somehow an extension of me.
So maybe I should just accept that whatever I write has some traceable connection back to me.
I wrote a 750-word summary of the novel.
I wrote four chapters.
I got off track.
While I was not writing, I started to doubt again. Can I even write? Do I even have ideas? Can I make a story happen?
So yesterday I started writing Chapter Five. Today I am going to finish it.
Tomorrow, I can at least write one sentence of Chapter Six. One sentence! Who doesn’t have time to write even one sentence?
Why do I want to achieve this? – (Write down 5 reasons why you HAVE to get it done.)
How will I feel when I have overcome every obstacle and achieved the goal? (Get in touch with how amazing it will feel.)
What will it cost me in 10 years time if I give up? (Really feel the pain associated with how your life will suffer in the future.)
From me, these three answers:
Why do I want to? I want to know that I can write a full-length manuscript. I want to tell a story. I want to get lost in something. I want to take my writing all the way. I want to have something to share with people who believe I have it in me to write something big.
How will I feel? I will be at peace, at least temporarily. Something that only exists inside of me will be out. I will be filled like a balloon, buoyant, floating. I will talk to my writing friends about writing and feel: I am on the other side.
What will it cost me if I don’t? In 10 years, if I give up, I will have lost THIS moment, this story. I will feel as if I wasted 10 years on lesser things that I already know how to write: comments on student work, grant proposals, emails, memos. My best sentences will be applied to activities that are somewhat important, but of lesser importance (to me… to the world?). I will not have been part of the conversation. I will not have tried to become the writer I know that I am. But how can anyone else know, if they don’t see the evidence? In my head, it is only a beautiful idea; it is not a thing that you, a reader, can experience, touch, engage with.
Right now, so much of my life feels like the chief activity is helping. My effort is supplementary to the needs of others. In helping, I do not design or own the vision. Someone else does. Is that what I want to excel at, implementing the vision of others?
I recently read this quotation, attributed to Somerset Maugham:
We all end up doing what we do second best.
There is no daily feedback for a long-term project. Motivation, momentum, and steadiness are hard to sustain. If I write a status message or tweet, I can get a few thumbs up in an hour.
If I write a sentence or a chapter, it sits there. It must wait.
I have to find a way to love it, to tell it: “You are a beautiful sentence.” Or: “You’re not ready yet. Give me time. I’ll fix it.” Or even: “No, but thanks.”
Maturity is on my side; age in this case can be an asset. I am not as hungry for affirmation as I once was.
But I am still hungry for learning and for making.
And to finish a complete work. To reach a milestone that I will only recognize when I get there.
In the meantime, I must anticipate — imagine! — the pleasure of looking back on the effort and being able to say, “I did it. I wrote this.”
I doubted, I doubted almost every day, but I kept going.
Image, “Motivation,” credited to Rob on Flickr via a creative commons license.