It’s hard being a writer who isn’t writing. That’s probably the most obvious statement in the world beyond water being wet, but it’s where I’ve been for months now, and when most of your social circle online is made up of writers, the guilt and fear and shame and anger and resentment and everything else pile up quickly.
About 95% of this is due to the day job, which has required extra hours/mandatory overtime for months on end, a situation that’s likely to continue at least through the end of the year. I’ve never had much success trying to write on the weekends, so the hour on weekday mornings that I spent writing was the majority of my writing time, and for week after week that’s been absorbed into work time. As easy as it sounds (especially to myself) to say, well, write in the evening instead, or some other time, it hasn’t been that simple. I can’t get up any earlier or go to bed any later (I’ve learned I can’t sacrifice sleep and still be a functional human being), so for a long time I’ve felt… stuck. Trapped.
It hasn’t all been process issues, though. There’s also the feeling of having a dozen different directions I could go in, project-wise, and yet not being sure what I really want to work on. And since I haven’t had time to go into anything deeply, when I have had twenty or thirty minutes to work on something, the time has mostly gone into trying to figure out what I should work on, or trying to brainstorm ideas for whatever anthology had the closest deadline, and then not feeling like I made any progress when I couldn’t come up with anything viable. (And there’s always that feeling hanging over me of “you’ve only completed one short story THIS WHOLE ENTIRE YEAR,” which then brings on that anxiety of, I need to get going, I need to finish something else NOW, I need to catch up on this blog and Three From Waynesboro isn’t getting updated nearly often enough, and probably everyone’s forgotten about it, and see, that’s yet another thing I’m behind on…” Et cetera. And then the brain stays in anxiety mode, which is lousy for making anything, especially when you only have fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.)
I know that, at least for right now, the way I think about my work needs to be different from how writers are usually told (directly or implicitly) to think about it. For one thing, I find myself wanting to think more like an artist, to approach creative work as an experiment, as play. As much as I might well need (or even want) one someday, right now my entire soul recoils at the words “business plan.” And yet I know what I want, as soon as possible, is another book, whether that’s a novel or novella or a short story collection. I want that feeling of completeness, of the finished thing with a cover, of hey, look, people (self), I have been doing something after all.
It’s just a long road to get there, especially when you feel like you’re not making any progress beyond pages of random notes or odd phrases that pop into your head.
I try to tell myself, though, that at least I’m remaining open. Those notes and phrases are still me being receptive, listening, gathering. It’s a difficult mindset, because it goes against that grain of “ONLY word count matters, ONLY the writing counts as real — research, listening, brainstorming, listening to podcasts, reading blogs about writing — none of that really counts” that writers hear so much of. I understand the advice — sure, you have to actually write sometime — but I’m reminding myself that I haven’t totally shut down. My writing isn’t all in some room gathering dust with the door closed and locked. I haven’t shut myself away from all aspects of it. In some ways, I’m thinking about it more than I ever have before, and that’s not a terrible thing.
(And I’ve signed on for the Notebook Project again, which was fun last year, and is a great alternative to NaNoWriMo, and which I hope will loosen things up even more, being as low-pressure and potentially playful a challenge as it is.)
All that said, it’s surprised me to realize that what bothers me about not writing isn’t so much the not-writing part; it’s the not-publishing (or at least sending things out) part. I’ve always felt that submitting and publishing work is that last part of the creative process — things don’t feel finished until they have a home somewhere, even if it’s just being shared here or on my website — and it’s bothered me more than I expected, to not have new things to put out there. But I print out guidelines of magazines that I’d like to submit to, sometime, when I have something again, and I put them in a folder, and they’re safe, and right now that has to be enough.
So. I’m still trying, and I’m trying to go easy on myself in the meantime. I’m reading blogs like The Fluent Self and Bane of Your Resistance and Tiny Buddha and Chris Oatley’s blog, and Austin Kleon’s newsletter, and Keri Smith’s blog. I’m reading Natalie Goldberg and Elizabeth Gilbert (and listening to Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons). And I’m seeking out new sources of input for art and poems and essays (like The Sun). I’ve kept having this feeling, for months, that if I can just explore enough creative work that’s different, unusual, thought-provoking — enough randomness, enough novelty — I can somehow find more depth and variety in what I create myself.
I’m trying to reframe this, instead of a dry spell, as something of a hibernation, if not the tiny hope of a metamorphosis. If conditions become favorable again to write the way I used to, I want to be ready; if they don’t, I want to adapt enough to be able to keep going.
And now… well, now it’s time to work. As usual. But at least I won’t have “update my blog” hanging over me for a while. 🙂