“Whether or not you find your own way, you're bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it's quite rusty.”
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
When MFA students visit my advisor office hours at The New School, it’s often to ask for advice on a decision such as whether or not they should take this or that publishing internship, quit the full time job that has nothing to do with writing but pays the bills, take the terribly paid teaching job, write for “exposure pay,” apply for PhD programs, switch to freelance, stay in or leave NYC after graduation, etc. At times there is a fair amount of sweating and fretting, because what they really want to know is, which decision will take me closer towards the writing future and life that I want?
When students first started coming to me for decision advice, my brain would dash about, knock things off shelves, overturn couch covers looking for the Correct yay or nay answer for them. I’d find myself sweating and fretting, because the simultaneous freezing and frantic qualities of indecision are so familiar—not just because my past was filled with them, but because so, still, is my present. There is no singular artistic ladder with clearly marked rungs to climb. This can make finding your direction as a writer confusing; each decision can feel frighteningly important. It’s almost like you are trying to decipher whether each opportunity is a promotion, a demotion.
As an advisor, it is not my job to make someone’s decision for them, it’s my job to support them in making their own, and perhaps also to put these decisions in perspective. It is easy for some of us (um, at least one of us) to make emotional mountains out of decisions that are in the long run, mole hills—but perhaps there’s a more useful mountain to imagine when it comes to making the write career decisions. After watching a video of a speech by Neil Gaiman, I created a goal creating/decision making exercise inspired by something he said. I recently passed the exercise below on to my MFA students at the New School; I’ve also used a version of this with middle school students, college aged veterans, and some friends. Try it, share it, let me know how it went.
Mountains, Bogs, Rocks:
an exercise to help you climb in the write direction, inspired by Neil Gaiman
Author Neil Gaiman, in his 2012 commencement speech, “Make Good Art” at The University of the Arts, spoke about how he made decisions at different times in his career:
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – which was an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics, making good drama and supporting myself through my words – imagining that was a mountain, a distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to…proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at that time.” (See the full address here.)
You’ll need: paper and pen; drawing paper and pencils, crayons, or markers. You can draw and/or write this exercise, I do advise drawing some of it in order to evoke your sense of play. There are several steps listed below: do whichever ones you want. (The only rule is that you cannot stop at the Bog. You must at least add rocks, or pack your backpack. Because…who wants to stay in a blechy bog?)
1. Make Your Mountain: Draw a mountain and doodle or write the top 5-10 artistic and life quality goals you have right now. If you aren’t sure what they are, first brainstorm by using the prompt, "My mountain has..." Ex: My mountain has a published novel, my mountain has 37 completed stories, my mountain is full of laughter, my mountain has a retirement plan, my mountain has unexpected adventures, time to volunteer, a law degree, yoga practice, a quiet hammock in a backyard, a turtle.... etc. Think about your, friends, family, emotions, other things you hope to accomplish or do. Now choose the top 5-10 most important to you right now and draw them
2. Spot Your Bogs: Draw a bog and label it with possible obstacles to getting to your mountain. You can brainstorm with the prompt "My bogs are..." Ex: My bogs are my college loans, my self doubt, chronic pain, having to care for my family full time (bogs can be delightful things too) ...etc.
3. Recognize your Rocks: Even I can draw rocks! Draw and label them with the external supports you have in your life. Use the prompt "My rocks are..." Rocks may be supportive people in your life presently, encouragement from the past, the coffee shop that keeps you going, a favorite pen, writers you get inspired by, a job with an understanding boss, etc.
4. Pack your Backpack: Drawing or writing, use the prompt "In my backpack I have..." to explore the internal resources you carry with you. Ex: In my back-pack I have flexibility, patience, curiosity. In my back-pack I have mad math skills, tunnel vision when I want something, and the ability to ask the dumb questions...etc. This one is sometimes the toughest for people to do. If it helps, imagine your friends and family are packing the backpack…what would they see in there?
5. Spot your Signs. Draw/Write about the signs you have already passed that have indicated that you're headed towards your mountain. Write about the signs you will look for that will let you know you’re headed in the write direction.
6. Decision Map: if you have a decision that’s hard to make, look at in the context of your mountain and see if it’s taking you closer or further away—Remember that straight up isn’t usually the way to get up the steep slopes, it’s the zig-zag switchbacks that get you to the awesome view.
“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.” ―Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
(P.S. Someday you might encounter an unexpected cow–or herd of cows—blocking the trail. This might throw you off track, or you could even get lost, as the sun is coming down, when you don't have a flashlight...but, um, that's a silly story for another day)