On Starting Now

by F.E. Choe
published in Writing

In June 2016, I was at a crossroads. I felt behind everyone I knew in terms of my career and life experience. I was sick with money worries, constantly anxious, and when I would glance ruefully at the dust on my writing desk, the specter of “real adult life” sounded a lot like my father. “Enough now,” it said. “Stop that nonsense. Stick to your lane. Be happy with what you have.”

How did this happen? Hadn’t I done everything I was supposed to? I had graduated with honors and found comfortable, writing-adjacent jobs that were good enough. I pursued sensible opportunities for advancement. I got married. I took on a mortgage.

So what, if when I wrote, it was in undisciplined fits and starts? Well all right, I had sort of stopped writing altogether, but I had time. I would write when I had saved up enough money. I would write when I retired. Or, who knows, I could win the lottery, finally quit working, and you guessed it, just write all day.

Asking for a Sign

I was unhappy. I asked for a sign. Please, if I’m meant to write, God, send me a sign. Send me something obvious and unmistakable.

I sent up the meager prayer from my car in the middle of Georgia. I reasoned I had worked hard enough at my “real job” that year to deserve a day trip to visit Andalusia Farm, the place where Flannery O’Connor completed some of her most prodigious work during the last thirteen years of her life.

Listen, I don’t mean I’m meant to be famous, only that writing is what I’m supposed to do, I thought as the air conditioning struggled to keep up with the heat. Send me a sign, and I’ll keep going, I pleaded, passing field after field of red clay.

The Myth of Later

Now, it is none of my business which (if any) higher power you believe in. If you are reading this article though, you may be asking yourself some of the same questions. Can I do this? Can I keep going? Should I even try in the first place?

You may also be comforted by the seductive coziness of “later.” Later, I’ll have enough money. Later, when the kids are grown up and out of the house. Later, I’ll make the space and time to put my writing first.

The truth is, however, that you may not have this “later” to which you feel entitled.

Let me be clear. I wish you health and old age. I want a full, wild, happy life for you. May it be free from accident, tragedy, strife, debt, violence, and ill health. May you be blessed with a comfortable retirement at an early age, and more money, time, and energy than you know what to do with.

I can’t guarantee that though. Nobody can. I hope you are spending some of your time now doing the activities that give you a sense of purpose and meaning, the things that make you come alive.

I Write Now

Spoiler: I write now. Though, more of my prose than I like to admit is disconnected and clichéd. My first drafts are rarely readable and never publishable. Fully rounded, relatable characters don’t just drop onto my blank pages, nor sparkling sentences that will jettison me into literary fame. At rather inconvenient times, I type random snippets of dialogue into the Notes app on my phone or scribble in an ugly notebook. But I write.

I write because I want to tell stories about my family, the places that have shaped me, and the people I love. I write because, even on the bad days, I feel like I’m inching closer to the truest version of myself again. And on the good days, when the words seem to land effortlessly in just the right place, it feels like playing with magic.

Start small. 

Use the five minutes it takes for the spin cycle on your washer to end. Start with ten words, then twenty, then thirty. Describe what you see from a different point of view while you wait for your bus. Write your own version of this article. Learn what you can from podcasts, YouTube, and these DIY MFA resources about the craft. You don’t have to blow up your entire life to do it.

Make hard choices.

You do have to make hard choices when it comes to your time. This is especially true if you have a full-time job or commitments that gobble up your schedule and mental energy. Protecting your writing time might mean cancelling plans and travelling less. It might mean waking up an hour earlier. It will probably involve more than one uncomfortable conversation with your partner about the division of household tasks. Your writing must matter to you.

Your children will be okay eating takeout once in a while. The dog will enjoy the extra hour dozing at your feet while you type away, bleary-eyed in the morning. Your friends and family will be excited to see how your writing is uncovering the person they love.

When life gets in the way, and your work slows down or stops, start again. And again. Whatever you do, just don’t give up. Write now. I’m rooting for you.

Not convinced yet? 

Plenty of authors with far more authority and experience than I say the same thing. Borrow their words when you struggle with self-doubt. Keep a record of the beautiful turns of phrase from the writers and poets who move you. 

Copy Charles Bukowski’s poem “Roll the Dice” down on scraps of paper. Memorize it. Then, when you need it most, it is as close and familiar to you as your own heartbeat:

do it, do it, do it.

do it.

all the way

all the way.

My Obvious and Unmistakable Sign

It was just past noon when I arrived at Andalusia Farm. I snapped photos of the descendants of the peafowl that O’Connor raised. I saw her typewriter, positioned just a few paces from her narrow bed, her miniature porcelain figurines, her crutches.

Before leaving, I spent some time on the walking trail on the site. When I stepped out of the tree line at the edge of a large pond and looked up, I was met with a pair of eyes. A doe had stopped to drink directly opposite and lifted her head to look at me. I stood still, taking in her sleek, graceful lines. She held her gaze. There it was, my obvious and unmistakable sign. It knocked the breath from me. I nearly burst into tears with relief. When I returned home, I wrote the first scene of a story I had been toying with for the last year.

My elbows and forearms left clean places in the dust on my desk.

I hope you aren’t wasting time, waiting as I did, for a sign. Just write. Create. Now. Do the thing that your heart knows you were put on this earth to do. Your life will be richer, more than you thought possible, by just trying. I hope you will realize, as I have, that it is worth it.

F.E. Choe Now

The elder daughter of Korean-Canadian and Austrian immigrants, F.E. Choe currently lives and writes fiction in Columbia, South Carolina. When she is not at her desk trying to craft true and beautiful sentences or piecing together her latest short story, you will find her feeding the dog scraps under the table, reading, or training her backyard flock of hens to walk backwards. Follow her on Instagram.

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