Focus On What You CAN Control

When I was an undergraduate, I went through a major life change. Up until that point, I had been a musician. I started playing trumpet in middle school, practiced my ambitious, Type A little heinie off, got good, and never looked back. However, toward the end of my sophomore year in college, I started having second thoughts about this whole “professional musician” thing. I went to a week-long trumpet retreat in Colorado and spent my days playing so much my lips bled. Following our performance at the end of that week, my professor pulled me aside and told me I’d never sounded better.

On the drive home, I decided I wanted to quit.

What followed was a crisis of identity. I had always been a trumpet player, a musician, a band nerd. Now I was…what? I had some stories rattling around in the back of my mind, sure. In elementary school, I was always writing silly little stories about talking horses and magical horses and bloody battles between magical, talking horses. (My 8-year-old self is IRATE right now, by the way. She insists they were not “silly little stories” but actually EPIC, HEART-RENDING ADVENTURES.)

This horse is so magical it GLOWS.

But what did those stories mean, really? Surely, I couldn’t make a career out of writing. It had been so long since I’d written, and I’d never been serious about it. Heck, it had been so long since I had even read for pleasure. As an ambitious, Type A music major, I never had time for such things.

I ping-ponged back and forth between career paths. Teaching? Technical writing? Publishing? Had I made a terrible mistake? Did I need to go crawling back to my trumpet professor and beg to be a part of his studio again? I began working at the university library. Suddenly, I wasn’t interested in an English-related career; I wanted to be a librarian. But I couldn’t figure out what concentration to focus on, how I would pay for graduate classes, how I would have time to write, if I even should write, and if I was somehow failing everyone’s expectations, or worse, failing my own expectations. My friends were graduating and getting jobs, all their ducks in perfect, orderly rows, and there I was, unable to even find the pond.

In the midst of this panic, this uncertainty, this dangerous and ultimately futile rush to compare myself to some illusory idea of what I should be doing, or how things should be happening for me, I did what any self-respecting human being does in a crisis, and went out for ice cream.


My dad accompanied me, and during our conversation outside Baskin Robbins, he said something to me that immediately stuck. Seriously. The words are forever wedged into my brain crevices, and thank goodness they are.

He said: “Claire, honey, whatever happens is best.”

My brain immediately screamed in protest. “Whatever happens is best?” it cried. “Feebly philosophical tripe! That implies that we can’t control what goes on around us, and we must ALWAYS be IN CONTROL.” It took me a long time to be able to even halfheartedly accept that Dad might have possibly been the teensiest bit right with this one. “But there’s no such thing as FATE,” my brain continued, pounding on the walls of my skull.

Well, maybe, maybe not. But that’s irrelevant.

The point is there is such a thing as letting go.

The point is we can seldom see where our life paths will take us, so why agonize over what isn’t happening or what should be happening? Or worse, why agonize over what’s happening to other people?

We writers are not good at letting go. We’re passionate, neurotic, sensitive, smart, overly analytical, highly strung, phobic, obsessive, creative types who have dreams and ambitions and desires beyond your average Joe.

We are excellent at hating ourselves. It’s our default mode.

Our writing isn’t good enough. So-and-So writes so much better than we ever will. Why do we even bother? We fail. We are wasting our time. Look at What’s-Her-Name over there, getting an agent and getting a book deal and getting a movie deal, and getting a hundred more blog comments than us on a regular basis, and being so clever on Twitter without even trying. And holy god, she’s only 18.

^That? That, right up there? Stop it.

“But but but–” you say. No. Nuh-uh. Not interested in your pity party today, my lovelies. You know why? Because I’ve been there. I’m still there. Those feelings of doubt and insecurity, of wondering if you’re doing the right thing, if you’ve made a mistake with this book or that book, if you’re a failure because someone else is younger or smarter or richer or writes more beautifully or writes better action scenes or churns out four books a year where you can only kind of do one?

Those feelings will never go away — not when you get your agent, not when you sell your book, not when you’re on the NYT Bestseller List for the nth time and people are offering up their firstborn children if it’ll make you write the next book faster. This is a creative business. We create art, we create entertainment, and as such, we are always learning. We are always improving our craft, getting better, and making wiser mistakes.

But we can’t do those things if we’re constantly obsessing about what other people are doing. We can’t learn what we need to learn and hone what we need to hone while we’re wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth over someone else’s success, or over the fact that Whatsahoozit over there sure did seem to have a much easier time than we ever did.

So? Whatsahoozit has nothing to do with us. Whatsahoozit doesn’t matter. You know what does matter? Our hard work, our dreams, our path.

Whatsahoozit’s path may be different from ours. It may even be quicker, easier, more lucrative.

If I had gone into publishing instead of librarianship, or focused on youth librarianship instead of general studies, I could be richer, I could have an easier time finding a full-time job, I could have started writing earlier. If I hadn’t “wasted so much time” with music, I could have written so much more by now.

But those things don’t matter. What matters is not what I did or didn’t do, but what I am doing now.

Whatsahoozit and her books don’t matter, either. What matters is what we are doing to improve our craft, to bring our stories to fruition.

Whatever happens is best. Whatever doesn’t happen, or what happens to other people? We might glance out the window at those things, sure — but we always keep on going, down our own path, with our own goals waiting patiently at the horizon.

Because, as Worf says: “Thinking about what you can’t control only wastes energy and creates its own enemy.”

And, really, you can’t argue with that. So, grab your bat’leth and go write.


12 thoughts on “Focus On What You CAN Control

  1. You nailed it. As a control freak myself, I think you must have reached into my skull and dragged these doubts straight out. We are nothing if not our own harshest critic. It helps to know that. Also chocolate. Chocolate always helps.

    Good luck!

  2. Great post! (I was away last week so please excuse the late reply) I’m guilty of sometimes worrying about what other writers are doing and how they’re succeeding. It’s not productive at all. I love your dad’s wise words. ๐Ÿ™‚

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