When should you give a shit?

(Sorry, this is kind of a long one. If you want to skip the intro, click here. Also, my sailor mouth comes to the fore a bit in this one. If you don’t like the four-letter word that rhymes with spit, you may want to skip it entirely—but I think you’ll be missing out, if I do say so.)

In the days before smartphones and tablets, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth—wait, hang on, not that far back.

When I was a lowly undergrad, I took a class in basic reporting that required working on the daily newspaper put out by the journalism school. Our teachers were the editors for the newspaper and they would review our articles before they got passed along to the copy desk. Particularly memorable to me was one of the editors named Yves (not my editor; my editor was a guy named Mark, who called Yves “Why-vez”). Yves was known for reviewing student articles and saying, in his very proper accent, “What is this shit?”

I was glad not to be his charge, but I wasn’t glad to be taking that reporting class. It was here that I discovered a) grad students who had authority over undergrads were almost universally assholes (especially you, Sarah), and b) I really, really did not want to be a reporter.

This was a frightening discovery, since I’d worked hard to get into one of the most competitive journalism schools in the country. I loved to write, and I loved doing research; what I hated was writing articles that I had absolutely no interest in writing, and the constant rejection that comes with calling one person after another trying to get them to speak on the record. This was also when I discovered just how much of an introvert I am. The relation between the two things is obvious.

Anyway, at that point, I felt adrift. I had no idea what I was going to do. I always thought I’d be a writer and reporter; now what?

I considered changing my major to English. One of my friends did exactly that, and it seemed like the closest fit for me, too. Later that semester, I discovered the joys of editing and graphic design, switched my emphasis from reporting to magazine editing and design, and breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, seeing the strange, sometimes rudderless course my career took after that, I probably could have spent more time thinking about that decision, but it was twenty-five years ago, and there was no knowing how the career landscape would change.

All I knew was that I didn’t like reporting and I didn’t have time for that shit. If Yves had asked me “What is the shit?” my answer would have been, “It’s not my shit, Yves, that’s for sure.”

I think that’s an important realization to have, as a writer and as a person working their way through the world in general. Figuring out what to give a shit about is not always clear-cut, but you have limited time in any given day and in this life, so it’s essential to choose the shit that counts.

In that regard, I’ve learned to ask myself some important questions:

Do I give a shit right now?

Maybe this shit is important, but not at the moment. Can you put it off? Will it become important later? Is this shit a limited-time opportunity you can’t pass up?

There’s a middle-grade science fiction novel I started in grad school that has been languishing since then. I love it, but I also have a sequel to my YA fantasy novel in process, a raft of short stories that need revision, and then there’s the novel I want to work on next. Now, if I hear about a contest or an agent who’s seeking that kind of shit, I might change my priorities. Barring a catastrophic failure of all my backups, though, that middle-grade book isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. I will get to that shit later.

Do I still give a shit?

Your priorities can change over time. What was important last month or last year may not be as relevant to your goals now. That old shit may have just been a necessary step in the process toward getting to the shit that matters. Don’t rehash the same shit just because you can. And don’t stick with something just because it was important to you last year or five years or 10 years ago. I’ve always wanted to be a writer; does that mean the time won’t come when I want something more than I want to keep being a writer? I don’t know. I doubt it, but it could happen.

Is this good shit?

This is subjective, of course. (But then, isn’t all of this?) But don’t devote your time to just any old shit. Choose the shit that matters and will make a difference. In the past, I’ve written stories that I enjoyed writing and that were, I think, good exposure for me, but I probably would write them completely differently now, because hopefully I’ve improved as a writer in the past 10 years or so. Some of them, it turned out, didn’t lead to the genres I was really interested in. (I wrote a bit of erotica at the outset, but haven’t really done that in a few years. I’m not opposed to it, but I’m much more captivated by things that are weird or “what-if?”-ish these days.)

So it’s not just a question of whether the shit is good. Is it good for you?

How badly do I want this shit?

Some shit’s worth striving for. Most things that are important involve some element of struggle, where maybe we’re still learning or we don’t exactly know the right answer (if there is one). Don’t be afraid of the hard work, but try to be sure that the hard work is worth it. I worked hard to get into journalism school and discovered I didn’t want to be a reporter. Was it worth it? I learned a lot about editing and good writing in the process, so yes. But at the time, I was beyond worried.

Do I need this shit?

Some things may not thrill you, but they may be a necessary step toward reaching the goals you’ve set for yourself in the future. Put up with the shit if you think it’ll work for you in the long run, but don’t be afraid to walk away from that shit if necessary.

Does this shit stink?

I never had to take cod liver oil as a kid, but I have it on good authority that the shit stinks, and doesn’t taste all that hot either. I did have to take a statistics class in college, and the only thing that made that tolerable was the fact that Yash, my T.A., was fine. (See also “hot shit.”*) The class itself was torture, and even though I did well in it, I would have gladly dropped it. But…

Do I need this shit enough to tolerate that smell?

…sometimes you’ve got to deal with shit in order to get closer to the shit you’re really interested in. If I wanted to take any of the upper-level courses in my field, I had to get through statistics. (See the previous question, “Do I need this shit?”) And to be honest, I still use some of the things I learned in stats class.

Have I had enough of this shit already?

There’s a lot of different shit out there. Focusing on some of it can help you develop a specific expertise, but there’s also something to be said for having familiarity with a variety of shit.

Do I need help with this shit?

Writers are often regarded as these solitary people toiling away in isolation, heads bent over their keyboards. Sometimes that’s true, but it’s equally true that I have a circle of friends who are also writers with whom I can share my work and ask for advice, and vice versa. (Thanks in particular to Ruth, ’Nathan, and David in that regard.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help when shit gets too much.

How much of this shit can I take?

You can’t say yes to everything.

Learning which shit to keep and which shit to let go of is an imprecise science, but you get better at it the longer you do it. Trying to do all the shit is just going to  leave you overextended and not able to do any of the shit particularly well.

And! If you want more shit like this, check out Paul Jarvis’s article “Stop doing shit you don’t like.” Sound advice, if you ask me.

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