Monday, March 21, 2011

Book review: Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher

I'm re-reading a book that's not about writing, but has been a big help to me as a writer. It's called Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher (author of the perennial bestseller Wishcraft). The tagline reads: "Use all of your interests, passions, and hobbies to create the life and career of your dreams." That's a tall order, and maybe not immediately obvious how it applies to writing, but it has made a world of difference in how I approach my work. Maybe it will help you, too.

The first thing to determine is whether you are a Diver or a Scanner. Divers are those people who "dive" into a project with a vengeance and don't come up for air until they've finished whatever it is they set out to do. They are able to stay very focused. If they have a novel to write, they write the whole thing before starting in on something else. Divers are also specialists. They think nothing of dedicating a lifetime to studying and writing about one particular subject area, becoming the world's foremost expert on, say, a certain type of mollusk or an obscure historical event. If you're a laser-focused, goal-oriented, diligent Diver, this book is not for you.

A Scanner, on the other hand, is fascinated by a wide range of subjects, constantly "scanning" the horizon to see what's new. Her head is exploding with new ideas and interests but she might not delve very deeply into any of them. This rapid-fire attention span might brand her as a dilettante in a world that values specialization. Worse, she sometimes has so many unrelated ideas that she can't seem to finish any one thing, or maybe even get started in the first place.

I can write with authority about being a Scanner-type writer, because I am one. At this moment my desk holds a plethora of writing projects in various stages of progress: a novel, magazine articles, book-jacket copy, an editing project, a study guide, a book review, newsletters, and blog posts. I also have ideas for things I'd like to write about: animals, music, true crime, theology, Prohibition, paper crafts, folk music, antiques, nutrition, and more. Much of the time, my head is spinning and I don't know which project to pick up first. The end result is that, too often, I don't get around to any of them, and risk falling prey to a comfy couch, a bowl of ice cream, and the remote.

That's where Refuse to Choose has come to my rescue. Written for Scanners, it's filled with practical techniques and tools to help us to remember and keep track of the zillion ideas exploding in our heads, and make time to work on each one of them, sooner or later.

My favorite technique, called the School Day Model, divides the writing day up like a school day: work on novel from nine to eleven, history article from 1 to 2, church newsletter from 2 to 3, and so on. Nothing gets neglected or forgotten, and I get to switch topics before I'm bored (another Scanner characteristic: being easily bored). A related approach is the Physician Model. Just as a physician might see patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays and perform surgery on Mondays and Wednesdays, I might devote Mondays to my novel, Tuesdays to research, Wednesdays to client work, etc. Again, nothing gets neglected or overlooked, and I don't get bored.

Another favorite tool is the Avocation Station, where I keep papers and research materials in boxes by subject: Local History, Nutrition, Music, etc. Any tidbit or random thought I have gets tossed into the appropriate box, where it's readily available when I'm ready to write about it. In the meantime, it's neatly corralled and out of my head.

If you suspect you're a Scanner and you feel as if your writing is all over the place because of it, I suggest you take a look at Refuse to Choose. I'm under no obligation to the author or publisher for this endorsement; just gratitude for my own dog-eared, underlined copy that has been such a help in my writing life.

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