Want is a Vector

Mybe you’re not writing today. Maybe you can’t because there are other things that need doing. You want to write but you never have the time. There is always something that gets in the way. Maybe you are starting to resent it. Maybe you are thinking about making changes in your life. If so, here’s a perspective on things that might makes sense of so much of what you do.

Consider the mother of young children who desperately wants to be a writer. She’s running a business from home, she’s looking after her family, she’s taking courses for professional qualifications – and she’s writing in her spare time. Some people might say, “If writing is what she really wants to do, she should completely reorganise her life so that she can do it. Nothing else will make her truly happy.” Which, of course, is rubbish. It almost certainly wouldn’t make her happy to neglect her children. It probably wouldn’t make her happy to be poor.

The reason so many people who desperately want to be writers are still doing their day jobs, raising families, and preparing for a future that will be much the same, is that each of us actually wants lots of different things. Lots and lots of them. We want our families to be well cared-for. We want our loved ones to be happy. We want our careers – or, at least, the money they bring. We want to be successful at the things we do, even if they’re not anything to do with what we “really” want in our “heart of hearts”. We mow the lawn instead of writing because we want it mowed and no-one else is going to do it. We watch TV because we’re tired and frazzled from all the crap we’ve been doing all day and we want to be entertained. Mindlessly.

However much we want to write, all those other wants pull us in all kinds of other directions. Like all the forces on us, their strength varies from day to day, moment to moment. The course we chart through life is the net result of adding up all those forces, their strengths and directions. Imagine each one as an arrow. It points in some direction, towads some behaviour or outcome, and it has a length related to how strong it is. I want my wife to be happy. There’s a long arrow and it points in many directions, very few of them anything to do with writing. I want to drive a reliable car. Not such a long arrow, but again, it points to odd places. I want lunch. This one gets longer as the morning progresses and it points me straight at the kitchen and a couple of hour’s of activity.

I might delay doing lunch because I need to finish a job I’m being paid for that has a deadline. Wanting to have money is generally a pretty long arrow at my place. For a while there, the money-want was an arrow so much longer than the lunch-want that it dragged all my behaviours in its direction.

vector diagram

imagine this in n dimensions, where n is very large indeed

Remember high-school geometry? Remember vectors? A ship sails on this heading at this speed, with a cross-wind of that direction and that speed, and a current in the other direction at the other speed, what direction and speed does it end up travelling at? All those coordinate systems with arrowed lines all through them? Well, if you do, you already know what I’m on about. The basic point is that if you have several forces acting on an object in several directions with several strengths, you can predict which way and how fast it will move.

Sadly, in the case of human beings, who want so many different things in their lives, all with a strength that varies all the time, prediction is not all that easy. And it makes the question, “What do you really want from your life?” almost meaningless. Want is a vector. Every want is a vector, and you and I are just dots on the graph, pushed one way then the other according to how all this massive complexity resolves itself minute by minute. For some of us, our “direction” in life is close to a “random walk”, human particles undergoing Brownian motion. For some, those people who are so driven by a single desire that everything else – spouse, children, friends, family, work, career, image, everything – are relatively unimportant,  their lives are almost a straight line. In between is the majority. You and me. Drifting towards, then away from what we say we really want, sometimes on trajectories that seem to be taking us nowhere good.

Yet we have to remember, always, that where life takes us is a choice. We choose based on all those want-vectors. We go where the sum of those vectors takes us, like it or not. And what that means is that we end up doing what we want, even when it might not feel like it. The fact is, we want to keep our children fed more than we want to write – at that moment. We want to walk the dog more than we want to write – at that moment. We want to chat on Twitter more than we want to write – at that moment. And we want it because all the things that are important to us add up to us doing just that, just then, and everything else has to take a back seat for a while.

The important thing is to pick apart that great pin-cushion of arrows and to see what is truly driving us. Yes, spending time with the kids is stopping us writing, but that’s only because we want to do it, at that moment, more than we want anything else. When you look at it that way, you can easily find that not writing really isn’t so bad, even though you think you want it so much, because you are always doing the things that are most important to you. And, when you look closely at how much time and effort you spend on work, or on keeping the car clean, you can ask yourself which want-vectors are driving it. Is your social status so important that you need such a big house, or such a nice car, or an iPad, or designer clothes? Maybe it is. If so, embrace it. Maybe it’s not and you can shorten those arrows a bit, and give the others more of a chance to influence the direction of your life.

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24 comments to Want is a Vector

  • Very interesting perspective. Jiggling with your vectors is fun though! :) There are a lot of vectors in there that we don’t give too much thought as to why they are there, and do they need to be there. A jolly good pruning of your vectors now and again works wonders!

  • Well said. The holidays are especially hard for me as a writer. A large family is a good thing most of the time, but during the holiday, it seems to pull me in too many different directions and nothing gets accomplished. I’m bookmarking this post to refer to on those frustrating days where life gets in the way of writing. Thank you.

    • Eek! Sorry it took me so long to approve your comment Falyn – and such a nice one too! Yes, family is the biggie when it comes to vectors. If you’re like me though, you won’t regret a single decision you make to spend time with them (however hard it seems at the time to give up other things.)

  • Wow, I love this. It’s such a great way to look at all the different directions in which a writer is pulled over the course of even one day, much less his or her career.

    I’ve always found it helpful, when I’m feeling like I’m not writing or not reading or not doing whatever I should be doing, to stop and examine what else in my life is taking precedence. If it’s not a positive influence in my life, I know I can cut it out and be happier for it.

    • Thanks, Meagan. You’re right that some of what drives us isn’t a “positive influence”. The way I like to look at it is that some of the things we want more-or-less directly oppose other things. Perhaps this is just something we have to acknowledge and live with but, sometimes, we can do something about it. For example, if our desire for security or our need to avoid conflict is preventing us from taking steps that would enable other desires, it is possible that, with enough introspection and analysis, we can reduce the strength of these “negative” vectors.

  • I like the last two paragraphs especially. Because while you’re right, it’s still something of an excuse, isn’t it? It’s still people saying, I want to write but I’ll get around to it when these other vectors aren’t so important. I would prefer they take your advice and just admit maybe writing isn’t something they actually want to do – or they jiggle the vectors (love it) to make it a priority.

    I think you have a nicer way of saying what Scalzi said a couple months ago (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/09/16/writing-find-the-time-or-dont/).

    • Yes, Scalzi can be a little bit ascerbic, can’t he? :-) Unfortunately, the way he puts it (basically “put up or shut up”) could easily have the effect of making people feel even more guilty that they’re not writing.

      So many people “dream” of being a writer, but then we all dream of all kinds of things (I’d like to be an astronaut and a theoretical physicist – oh yes, and a guitar virtuouso would be nice) but mostly don’t have the talent or the motivation to do all that is necessary to achieve it. Motivational “gurus” who tell us that we can all achieve our dreams if we just become completely monomaniacal about it are idiots.

      There are two major pitfalls when it comes to achieving your dreams. One is underestimating the level of performance required. If I mistakenly thought my guitar playing was anything other than crap, I might waste a lot of time trying to be a professional musician. The other is underestimating the degree of dedication required. (I like the adage, “Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”) More pertinently, how many people want success so much they will neglect family, friends, comfort and security?

      The sad thing about writing is that it is exceptionally easy to fall into both these traps. Writing is like having sex or driving a car. We can all do it, and we all believe we do it better than most people. It deceives us into thinking that our paltry talents and our paltry motivations are sufficient.

  • J-A Brocke

    I don’t know about vectors, but I found out today I can write around 350 words in 15 minutes if I just sit down and do it (as opposed to procrastinating). That made me feel pretty good. Does that count?

  • I like this analogy, too. I think it’s also useful to apply to characters. The whole Goal/Motivation/Conflict approach can be useful, but asking “what does the character want?” implies that the character wants one thing and one thing only. A fully rounded character, like a real person, has many competing vectors. Thanks for the insight!

  • Both brilliant, insightful and sweet. To everything there is a season…or a vector. I’ve wanted to be a writer all my life, yet I also chose to be a mother and focus on my children and my marriage. I also need a day job to help support those children and further their goals. I forgave myself a long ago for not having time to write and I avoid reading all articles that tell me what to do. I do what I do and I write, not only when I can, but when I feel like it. Sometimes I’d rather hike with my dog than sit down at my laptop. Well…most of the time…

    • Hi Julia. People would be so much happier if they could accept who they are and, as you say, forgive themselves for not being what they feel (or what they’re told!) they ought to be. I think this perspective helps with that.

  • [...] Want is a Vector by Graham Storrs Consider the mother of young children who desperately wants to be a writer. She’s running a business from home, she’s looking after her family, she’s taking courses for professional qualifications – and she’s writing in her spare time. Some people might say, “If writing is what she really wants to do, she should completely reorganise her life so that she can do it. Nothing else will make her truly happy.” Which, of course, is rubbish. It almost certainly wouldn’t make her happy to neglect her children. It probably wouldn’t make her happy to be poor. [...]

  • Graham Clements

    I like to think some of many of my vectors other than actually writing are useful, if not necessary, for improving my writing. For example, I like to keep up with what is going on in the world, so I religiously read the Age, they sometimes pile up until read. Because I write science fiction, I’ll read any articles which give hints to what the future might be like, the science articles, articles on global warming etc. I also spend about two hours each day on my fitness, which has the benefit of freshing up the mind, and as authors are expected to perform at conventions and book signings, I don’t want to look like a slob. I also enjoy watching science fiction, with its obvious benefits for someone writing in that genre. Then there is time spent networking with other writers on facebook, blogs and twitter. Time spent reading and critiquing too. So I have all these other vectors which I think are helping to thicken and elongate the writing vector.

    • I guess what you’re talking about here is synergy. If you can get all the things you want to do to point roughly in the same direction, you’ve got it made! Things like wanting to chat to people on Twitter and blogs, which also happens to help with keeping informed about markets, publicising your work, meeting great people, and staying sane. I feel a T-shirt slogan coming on, something like “Synergy Saves Energy” or “Synergy is a Vector Amplifier”. Something to get a conversation going at the next writing con I attend :-)

  • Time to sew on your “Sage” badge, Graham. You keep coming up with insights into our daily potterings that help and educate. Plus you write good.

  • It’s right there above my “Parsely” badge, mate. I only need “Dill” now to complete the set.

    By the way, that dog in your avatar is a glove puppet, isn’t it?

  • I seriously feel like you were writing specifically about me and the choices that I have to make in my life every day to get to the writing… that’s a spot on insight you have. Just found your blog today through Merrilee Faber’s, and I will DEFINITELY be back for more! Thanks for an amazing post!

    • Thanks, Meaghan. I’m sure you know how much a writer appreciates such praise.

      I have huge amounts of sympathy with women with young families who are trying to write. When my daughter was a baby, she had colic and her mother had post-natal depression. I was the only breadwinner and no-one was getting any sleep. It coincided with a time when my (non-fiction) writing career had just started to take off and I could do nothing but let it all slip away from me because of other more important demands. I didn’t have any kind of writing success after that until more than twenty years later. Do I regret my ‘dream’ career stalling like that? How could I, when I know I would make exactly the same choices if I had the time over again?

      Which is one of the beauties of this perspective: it really does help you live with your choices and accept them as being right, given who you are and where you find yourself.

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