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When I was in the final semester of my MFA in Creative Writing, agonizing over my final manuscript—a collection of short stories and essays—I had a meeting with my mentor, Sarah. As it often does in writing communities, particularly when deadlines loom large, the conversation turned to the topic of how difficult writing is.

“Here’s what I wonder about,” I said, in a moment of sheer, exhausted admission. “There are millions, maybe billions, of people on this earth who do not have the compulsion to write things down. People who live perfectly satisfactory, fulfilling, meaningful lives, and don’t feel the need to write about it. Why can’t I be one of those people? Why do I have to write?”

Here’s what I thought (and hoped) Sarah would say:

“You have to write because it is your gift, and you must share your gift with the world. Because writing is a calling, and you need to listen to it. The muse has chosen you, and you don’t get to say you’d rather not do the work. Life without writing would be, for you, a dreadful half-existence.”

Here’s what she actually said: “You don’t have to write.”

Her answer startled me in the moment, and in the years that have followed, it’s become a kind of koan that I revisit every time the writing journey feels challenging. The answer I’d hoped for—the one about writing being my higher calling—was implicit in the question. And that would have been the easy answer. A calling knocks at the soul’s door, demanding entrance. We have no choice in the matter—we do not choose what the calling is, we do not choose the means of its arrival, or the nature of its demands.

But we do choose whether or not to answer a calling. And that’s what Sarah wanted to remind me.

You don’t have to write. And if you don’t have to, if there’s no deeper, universal obligation to put words to what you think and feel and imagine, then why do it? Because you choose to. You choose to because something about writing delights you, surprises you, or makes you see something new. You choose to because the work matters. And you also choose to because the challenges and struggles you encounter on the creative journey contain gifts of their own.

Sarah knew that the awareness of choice was important because she knew that the creative path is winding and, at times, somewhat lonely. The more time has gone on, the more I’ve understood that choosing to write, and acknowledging that choice, means that you get to continue choosing. You get to keep showing up at the desk, even after weeks or months or years of silence, and still find a spool of words longing to be woven into stories. You get to choose to write even as that spool of words turns into an impossible, tangled mess of a project. You get to choose to write even when you’re fairly certain that it would be much easier not to write. And, when that is really and truly the case, you also get to decide not to write.

I made that choice—the one not to write—for almost a year. I had just finished the fourth draft of my novel-in-perpetual-progress and, as with the three drafts preceding it, had met a dead end. I knew I had come up a poignant idea, I knew that I had imagined into being a series of interesting characters with illuminating journeys, but it seemed that I was incapable of actually writing it. So incapable that I chose to walk away. I wanted to give my calling a chance to go knock on somebody else’s door, someone who had the requisite talent and devotion to bring it to form. So incapable that, for the duration of that year, I wondered if my lifelong longing to be a novelist had been a too-big dream all along.

There was nothing easy about that year. Not writing, it turned out, contained all the same levels of challenge and struggle as writing did. And just as I’d chosen to write before, I had to keep choosing not to write as I went forward. I grappled with my own sense of purpose and identity, renovated my belief-system and perspective, and spent a lot of time walking along the beach, watching the ocean change. None of it easy (well, okay, the beach time was pretty idyllic)—but all of it necessary. Because it eventually led to a particular morning—the morning I finally chose to wake up early, go to my desk, and write.

As it turned out, my calling was still there, patiently waiting for me to open the door.

I believe in callings. I believe (and have lived) Mary Oliver’s statement that, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.” But writing is still a choice. Creative living is still a choice. It’s a choice you get to make minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year. Again and again, you get to decide.

So, what’ll it be? Your idea, your inspiration, your story—they are tapping gently at the door. Your calling is waiting, patiently. What will you choose?

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