When I began teaching a course called Fearless Writing, which attempts to address the many emotional challenges writers must overcome when they face a blank page, I began consistently encountering a particular kind of student. It was usually a woman whose biggest challenge was simply closing the door to her workroom. She loved to write, she’d always wanted to write, but the idea of doing something for two hours that did not involve anyone else–that, in fact, required her to ignore all the people she loved–seemed selfish.
This is someone who would never be described as selfish. She’d always helped people, always taken care of people, whether her children, her girlfriends when they were sad, her husband when the stresses of his work overwhelmed him, or her aging parents. She took care of people because it seemed to her the right thing to do and because she liked it.
Particularly because I had children, I know the value of taking care of someone. I understand the pleasure of cooking for my sons when they were young, of bandaging their cuts, of listening to their fears and worries. That my actions and efforts were about more than just me gave those actions meaning, sewed them into the vast fabric of life of which I was a part but from which I sometimes felt disconnected.
Fortunately, I have never had trouble closing the door to my workroom. In fact, if I don’t get a couple hours every day alone at my desk, I’m not always so much fun to be around. Writing, if it goes reasonably well, connects me to the best part of myself. And the only way for that writing to go well is if I tell the story I most want to tell in the way I most wanted to tell it.
The only way to tell these stories is to share what I think is interesting and valuable and meaningful about being alive. I can’t worry about what anyone else thinks is interesting and meaningful and valuable. If I do, if I spend one moment wondering what people think of my stuff, I feel lost, and I have nothing to say, and I’m much fun to be around.
In this way, writing taught me the value of good selfishness. Just as I can’t write any story, can’t write historical fiction or suspense or steampunk vampire romance, I also can’t lead any life. It may sound pat, that you must lead your unique life, but the temptation to please others, to do what you think your friends or family or church or community wants to you do, is great. We all want acceptance. Writers, in fact, require acceptance to have any kind of career at all.
Yet I never found that professional acceptance until I quit trying to please anyone but myself. In so doing, I found the best stories I could share with other people. My life is no different. I am always at my best, my most compassionate, helpful, and patient when I’m not trying to please anyone. I actually don’t know how to. It’s a mystery to me. Everyone’s different. What thrills one bores another. I can’t keep track of it.
All I can do is offer someone my best self. This is who has the most to offer, who is the best father and husband son and friend, and who I always want to be anyway. There have been times that I’ve misunderstood what the world and other people actually want from me. I’ve worried that I must choose between what pleases me and what people want me to do or say or be. In those instances, I have appeared quite selfish, walling myself off so as not to be controlled or influenced or dominated, blocking out others so I can lead the life I actually want to lead.
It is a false choice. I do not need to choose between my life and what others want from me. The more I’ve written and published the stories I most want to tell, the more it is clear to me that all anyone really wants from anyone else is their best self.
Only we know what that best self is, how to hear it, and speak from it, and act from it. We must look selfishly within to find anything valuable to give another.