Hazard All You Have

November 3, 2016 § 8 Comments

I'll take this one. Do you offer free delivery?

I’ll take this one. Do you offer free delivery?

The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire;’
The second, silver, which this promise carries,
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;’
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
How shall I know if I do choose the right?

~The Merchant of Venice, Act II sc. VII

Recently, a writer friend agonized over the start of NaNoWriMo–she had three ideas for novels but also meant to write a memoir; should she pick something fun or something that felt more purposeful?

And an acquaintance lamented in a Facebook group,

How does everyone decide what project comes first? I write regularly for a couple of websites, freelance, blog, and am toying with three memoir ideas. What I love is personal essays, but I keep feeling like there’s something I “should” be doing more of. Do I forget the blogging and pitch more essays? Stop pitching and focus on finishing a memoir? Expand my freelancing so I make more money and maybe have more time off?

These may not be your problems. But you may well be gearing up for the holidays and thinking, “I have some time off, and not all of it will be occupied with rugrats and cranberries, is there a project I could be working on?”

You might even be thinking “OK, I could finish my memoir…or that long-form braided essay I’ve been wading through…or write some flash pieces and submit to Brevity (please do!)…or pitch an essay to a magazine…or write the first chapter of that novel I’ve been wanting to work on…or get caught up with some blog posts…” Like Portia’s suitors in The Merchant of Venice, you’re faced with (at least!) three caskets, all valuable, but (seemingly) only one of which contains the prize.

How to choose which project deserves your focus today? For that matter, how to fill your precious, limited writing time, all the time?

As a freelance writer and editor, I face that question a lot. I do work I love, work for prestige, and work for money, and while those things often overlap they are rarely congruent.

I’ve also discovered I already know the answer–and I bet you do, too. Sure, you can use Jessica Abel’s funneling process to figure out what you want to work on, or think about which project most strongly pulls your energy, or envision your many caskets and see which one gleams with a radiant inner light. But if you look at your list, or your pile, or your closed laptop, you probably know in your heart. And while the part of an artist that loves to dither, that loves to see infinite potential in every project (“Well, yeah, but if I work on that other thing, maybe…”) is pretending to have a hard time deciding, that dithering part of us is basically a three-year-old negotiating between a sundress or their superhero suit for preschool today. Mom doesn’t really care, as long as we get out the door.

Whichever casket Portia’s suitors choose, the end result is the same: Shakespeare has written a play. Then he wrote more. Choosing a project doesn’t make it the last thing you’ll ever write.

Your choice doesn’t actually matter. It only matters that you make a choice.

And once you’ve made a choice, there’s one big secret to getting your project started, middle-d, finished, and out the door in a reasonable (to you) amount of time:

Do it first.

It really is that simple. Look at your pile/list/laptop/casket, and begin working on the thing you most want done, that you will feel the best about doing today. If you have fifteen minutes, do your fifteen minutes. If you have an hour, or two, do that. If you have time today to finish a whole chapter/section/discrete unit, then finish it. Maybe you only have five minutes. That’s OK. Do it first.

Everything else can wait.

Check your email later. (Wouldn’t they be able to wait if the power went out?)

Return your phone calls later. (Wouldn’t they manage if you lost your phone?)

Tidy your house later. (Wouldn’t you leave a bit of mess if you were sick, or had to leave the house for an urgent appointment?)

All these small, busy tasks can be done after you spend the first and best flush of energy on your top project. Don’t waste your morning urgency on things that may be important to others, but don’t move you forward on the thing you care about most. In the Brevity Podcast episode 2 (coming next Monday!) Suzanne Roberts suggests telling yourself it’s a class, scheduled for that time–“You wouldn’t blow off class.” Andre Dubus III says he writes as soon as he’s dropped his kids off at school.

There is nothing more urgent than doing your most important project first. If your child must be rushed to the emergency room, take your notebook because there will be waiting.

The casket with Portia’s offered prize isn’t shiny gold or sparkling silver, it’s (spoiler!) the casket of lead. The inscription reads “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

Yes, you must.

Go for it.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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