Back on Track and the Lessons I’ve Learned While Astray

Terrible oil pastel drawing of that crushing, staticky feeling. Artist: me.

As you’ve probably noticed from my fluctuation between complaining and a lack of posts, I have had some issues writing after quitting my “day job.” I thought at first I just didn’t have the right story idea. Maybe the plot I had in mind (or the characters, or the setting, or the everything altogether) was bad and I wasn’t going to get it to work, so I abandoned the idea. This happened twice in a row. Then I thought that I was pushing myself to work too much or too often. So I took a break.

After my break, I felt much better – for about a day. Then I went straight back into feeling like shit and static filling my head. Maybe I was overwhelming myself with the steps to write something to completion. So I built a system to keep myself focused. This worked for about two weeks and then I fell right back into the pit. 

Maybe I was depressed again. So I decided to narrow down what I was doing, lighten my workload. But I still suffered this…blockage of sorts. What the hell was going on?

Finally I realized I felt the worst when something external reminded me about writing. Someone would ask how my book was coming along. Or they’d make a snarky comment about how I wasn’t working on a Saturday. Just taking a peek at Medium I’d get bombarded with all kinds of writing advice articles. 

The articles were, interestingly enough, the worst. Individually they aren’t bad, but I’d sit down and read a bunch in a row. Every single one of them basically saying the same thing: I should be writing content every single day. 

And the problem isn’t that producing content is bad. I’m writing content right now. The problem starts when you let this outside world into your private routine. When you allow others to tell you how to write or what to write or when to write. And this happens very easily when you feel that your process or your job isn’t valid.

So what changed? 

I can’t say for sure exactly where I unfucked myself. Most likely, it was a culmination of a few things. 

First, I stopped trying to make myself an “authority” on anything. I stopped writing the how-to posts here. This eased my impostor syndrome quite a bit, and being honest about it felt great, but had the unintended side effect of a minor, uh, existential crisis. 

What should I write now? What do I even have to say? Do I have something to say? Should I just stfu and shut down the blog? 

The adage is to write what you know, but what did I really know? Well…I knew a lot about my own experiences with depression and anxiety. So I drafted up a few Medium articles on that. And never posted them.

I’m still learning how to be more honest with myself about my emotions – broadcasting heavy thoughts like that with my name out there for everyone to see felt…wrong. I just couldn’t make myself do it. What I wrote was “authentic” I guess, but publishing it just didn’t feel like me. I kept asking myself, “if not that, then what?” I agonized over this for way too long until I finally asked myself the real questions:

What drew me to writing in the first place? What is it that I like to read?

scenic view of city during nighttime
A whole new wooooorld…
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

I love books that are filled with characters who struggle. I love stepping into worlds that are rich and vibrant. Adventures that make me feel alive. Relationships that feel authentic and sweet, even if they start off a bit rocky. I want to open a book and see a massive universe I can set out and explore. Especially if it goes beyond what the author has written. 

Stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, The Witcher, The Dark Tower series. Any world that allows you to imagine yourself living there is like catnip to me. I use literature to escape and I’d love to write the same for others. 

I have ideas for short stories, too. I’ve written several, and in the spirit of the year of finishing things, I will still try to finish the majority of ones I abandoned. But publishing shorts is not my calling. Worldbuilding is. 

This conclusion made me realize I’m incapable of following the route the internet has drawn up for writers. Though there’s more money to be had in publishing an article every day on Medium and in writing and submitting shorts (assuming they get accepted). Guest posts, cross posts, affiliate links, Pinterest infographics, Twitter quotes/screenshots…all of these things and more are great ways to monetize your writing and to gain an audience. I’ll have to do some of them eventually, too. None of this is bad. It’s just not what I should be doing right now.

I should be writing. I should be living in the worlds I’m crafting so that when I’m done, you can live there, too. 

Because of this realization, I was able to shed the imagined expectations weighing me down. I don’t need to write 40 hours a week. Sometimes writing means getting thoughts down on paper (or pixels) whether or not they are coherent. I am writing every day, and a lot of it is unusable crap. If I need to stop mid workday and play Bugsnax or (god help me) Detroit: Become Human in order to relax, I should. If I need to take a whole day or week off in order to “refill my creative bottle” (Thanks for the metaphor, Arbor!), then I absolutely do. If my workday consists of me walking around my office in circles, mumbling new storylines or dialogue to myself, then so be it! 

Stephen King says to write with the door closed, edit with the door open. He’s referring to writing a story exactly how you want to tell it, and then editing it so that it can appeal to other people as well. I feel like it should extend to your routine, too. Don’t let other people dictate how you work, just make sure you eventually do get to work. 

These steps together eventually got me back on track, and I really hope outlining them will help anyone else suffering from a constant burnt-out, static-brained, panic-stricken blockage of words. Basically I think it all boiled down to getting back to why I started writing in the first place. 

A caveat

This is the part where I reiterate that I am so, so privileged. I get a small retirement payment every month, so I can feel like I contribute a little to my household. Beyond that, everything gets covered by my husband. We saved for a long time, we finagled our finances, and eventually got to the point where me not having any other income was doable. I can rest easy while I make-believe and do other weird writer shit. My circumstances are not normal. 

If you want to only write novels, then do it! But keep a day job. Don’t force the pressure of finishing a novel on yourself – you will fail, and it will suck the whole way down. Establish a writing routine around your work. If your job leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, write at the beginning of your day. If you can’t concentrate on work when you write beforehand and it’s threatening your job, find a different job (while still working at your current one). 

If you want to write articles every single day and you think you know your niche, then try it while you still have a job. With either of these options, you want to be able to support yourself (or nearly be able to support yourself) on the money you’re making from your efforts working around your dictated schedule. If you find yourself making excuses, procrastinating, getting easily discouraged, doing or being or feeling anything that keeps you from producing regularly, do not quit your job. 

Anyway, the point is…

…enjoy the go! Oh wait, no, that’s something else. 

But seriously, have fun while you work. If you can’t figure out how to enjoy it, it’ll be more difficult. And if you’re anything like me, the pressure to work while miserable will make you crumble. Sure, I can bust my ass to meet the occasional deadline, but I would die as a journalist. Knowing your work style, your limits, and being honest about and honoring them both will make all the difference if you’re having issues writing like I did. 

And I almost guarantee I will forget this by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around again…

The Year of Finishing Things

It is very late into January, and everyone has already written their posts focusing on what they’ll start this year. I would like to write about an end. Let me explain.

April 2020

woman in black shirt holding orange ceramic mug
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

This is the time that I really started to understand that Covid-19 was a thing. I hadn’t been in the office since March 15th, but it was late April that I really started to feel like I could die from it.

Everyone around me, however, kept on working like nothing was happening. There were no “is everything okay?” check-ins, everyone kept to their timelines, work quality was about the same from everyone…else. Personally, I wasn’t doing so great. 

Anxiety kept me from sitting through even one full meeting since April. I regretted never having finished a single novel, never pursuing writing seriously, and here I was with the very real threat of dying everywhere around me. So (after spending way too much time panicking about this) I started a blog. I decided I was going to go all in as soon as I possibly could. 

The blog

I spent a lot of time at the beginning writing a backlog of posts. That way I could simply schedule them to go up each week while I went back to writing fiction. I kept holding onto this excuse for much longer than I should have, but I did manage to develop a writing habit and schedule. 

Even though I’ve been through writing classes and have written stories for most of my life, impostor syndrome demanded I stick to the basics if I ever wrote “how-to” posts. And since I was so busy writing those, I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything “writerly” to blog about like I wanted to.

Eventually I figured out how to fit writing fiction into my schedule. By that I mean I had a pretty deep backlog of posts to pick from and couldn’t realistically use that as my excuse anymore.

Because of my blog, I developed a massive self-consciousness about my fiction. Since I had the audacity to try to tell anyone how to write anything, I felt that all my writing needed to be perfect. All while telling others that “writing is rewriting” and “all first drafts are crap,” of course. This caused me to start and abandon a ludicrous amount of work.

Quittin’ time

person in black pants sitting on brown cardboard box
¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Late October we finally got everything together financially to allow me to take a year off. The idea was basically to see where this goes. Just in time to start NaNoWriMo! Because the NaNoGods demand a virgin sacrifice, I chose to start a brand new novel (discarding the idea I’d been toying with already earlier in the year). 

But now, I was no longer bringing in any money. Time was ticking. I had zero submissions accepted, no novels written, barely any views or followers, and almost no interaction on any content I wrote. This is where I started to crush myself under the pressure. 

I say “crush myself” because my husband has had no hand in putting pressure on me. He has done nothing but be supportive through all of this. So I just…pressured myself enough for the both of us. 

Y’know, like ya do.

Cue the depression

woman lying on bed with pink and yellow floral pillow
Hooray…
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

This brought on the feelings of I can’t do this and I’m a total failure. I felt guilty for not making any money from this dream job and I felt stupid for trying to tell others anything about the craft. 

On top of all of that, I had physical illness creep into my life. So now I was sick, in pain, constantly tired, AND depressed while trying to keep working at a job that has yet to give me a payday. 

I know that no one should expect to start making a living wage off writing less than a year after taking it seriously. But I couldn’t help but keep reading all these articles about how this person wrote 100,000 words in a weekend or made 10,000 off their first month, and my stressed out brain just kept pointing back at itself saying, “why isn’t that you?”

Everything settled into a general feeling of burnout, so I just stopped for a week or so. I played a new game (Detroit: Become Human – I’m literally addicted to it), read a few books, played with my cats, tried to exercise a little…then came back ready to create a brand new (honestly ridiculous) writing routine to try to counter all the problems I had before.

I’ll write much more on it later, but know that it’s a work in progress.

A part of designing this new routine included the decision to go back to a novel I started in November 2009. Even after a decade, the general concept of this book and the world within it hadn’t completely left me. 

It was already outlined, mostly written, had characters and worldbuilding, and generally was okay. 

Just finish it, my rational mind urged. 

“FINISH ALL THE THINGS,”

my super excited side exclaimed. 

letters on yellow tiles forming the end text
Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

I have about 64 stories/poems/songs/rants just hanging out in my Drive folders. About 9 of these are unfinished novels. This isn’t even including all of the ideas I’ve jotted down but not started yet. I have enough to last me probably until I die, but I’ve decided to have a go at finishing as much of them as I can for at least a year.

The hope is that getting these pieces completed will be both satisfying and educational. If I also manage to sell a couple of them I wouldn’t complain.

In the process, I’m sure I’ll hit snags and roadblocks, find the occasionally piece of shit, or maybe even a few hidden gems. Any insights I gain or interesting tales I can tell you about this experiment I’ll happily share, since this’ll feel more authentic than posting writing tips every week. 

I understand that this kind of stems from impostor syndrome as well, but if it gets me back to writing and posting more consistently, I’ll take it.

Wish me luck.

When You’re Unable to Write

woman in white shirt showing frustration
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Sometimes you’re not going to be able to write. You will wake up sick, injured, depressed, or in some other condition that prevents you from working. And if you’re anything like me, you will hate yourself for it. Let’s take a moment to examine this scenario.

What does this look like?

This is more than the obvious, “there are no words on the page.” When I talk about not being able to write, I don’t mean a surface-level “I don’t feel like it” or “I’m too busy.” I’m referring to the physically painful realization that you are incapable of putting letters down on the page to form words. Everything you have tried has failed and now your cursor blinks in time with its raucous laughter, taunting your ineptitude and the obvious forthcoming ruination of your writing career. You are doomed. Fade to black. Despacito plays.

Just kidding. But it feels this way, especially if you don’t have a lot of support behind your work.

What causes this?

Not being able to write has many different causes. Sometimes it’s a simple case of writer’s block or mental resistance. There have been so many articles written about this, including my own, so I won’t really go into detail about that here. What I wanted to talk about today is when you are struggling in some way that interferes with your ability to get thoughts from your brain to your fingers.

When you’re struggling with physical/mental illness, you’re under a lot of stress, or when you haven’t been sleeping, eating, or exercising like you need to, it can cause a thick fog to drift into your skull. It dulls your thoughts, slows you down, and makes everything feel a thousand times harder to do.

For me, it has been all of the above reasons all at once. The first day, I thought “oh sure, why not take a break? It’s alright.” The second day it started to turn into, “you should really be working, Charlie. Maybe try harder?” Then while sitting at the computer, feeling physically terrible, the thoughts of “if you don’t write anything right now, you’re taking advantage of your situation,” started to creep in. By day three and four, it was “wow, you’re really never going to amount to anything, are you?” and other nonsense.

And it is nonsense. A lot has been going on, and that’s okay. Even if I never wrote another word as long as I lived, it doesn’t mean that I never amounted to anything. That’s…a tad extreme, isn’t it? What does that mean, anyway? Amounting to what? For what? 

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Here I am, writing again (and there was much rejoicing). The important part to remember, is that unless you continue to berate yourself and tell yourself that you’re nothing, I feel like there’s actually only a slim chance of never writing again.

So what do I do about it?

Be kind to yourself and ride it out. Some people depend on writing a super huge amount of words every single day in order to survive, and I’m going to be honest: I unfortunately have no advice for you. You are far beyond where I am now or probably ever will be.

But for the rest of you who aren’t living the hustler life, here’s what I’ve learned over the past week or so (yes, it’s been way longer than I would like, but that’s okay):

  1. It happens to just about everyone. I think it actually happens to literally everyone, and those who say it doesn’t are lying, but I’ll let it be.
  2. Beating yourself up about it only makes it worse. 
  3. Denying care to yourself (such as medications you need or getting extra rest) will only make it worse. You cannot punish yourself out of this. You aren’t being lazy, you are being mortal. That’s okay.
  4. Don’t think that you can jump straight back into full days or pre-episode efforts right away. Take it easy when you get back. Maybe you can get right back on the horse, but I would recommend trying half or quarter efforts first. 
  5. I have realized this problem is recurring for me, so I’m going to build a backlog of posts, stories, etc. This means I’ll have something to fall back on when this happens again. At the very least I want to have blog posts I can schedule so I don’t miss a Saturday post. 

What does the future hold?

Unknown. I will continue to work on getting back to a normal, full-time schedule, and then I’m going to try to keep track of everything from here on out. Major events, hours worked, the way I feel after each day is over and throughout the day as well, to make sure I’m not doing this to myself through overwork. I’m also going to keep an eye on what I’m eating, how much I’m exercising, how often I see the sun (hiss), and the like. Maybe I’ll figure out some kind of formula for how I can minimize future episodes. For now I’m going to keep being kind to myself so I can continue even a little.