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On Showing Up, or the Year I Lost My Fear of Writing

Some 1.5 years ago, I walked into a therapist’s office and said a bunch of stuff that can be summed up as “I can’t work on my art because I’m too stressed and/or depressed, so can you please fix what’s wrong with me so I can work again.” What followed was a very productive six months, in which not only did I get better, but also became able to see what was wrong with my original request.

Then came the hard part. Teaching myself to work on my art again without repeating what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a five-year-long spiral into a burnout. I’m not saying it was all bad: during those spiraling years, I’d conceived a series of six novels and wrote 2.5 first drafts, two of which got edited to different degrees of completion. I even got two manuscript requests for the first novel: in one case, I proceeded to revise on request but was still ultimately turned down; in the other, I got signed to a small publisher, but they went out of business.

Looking back, I now realize that if I ever wanted to quit writing (or, quit trying to become a published novelist, anyway), the autumn of 2017 was the perfect time for it. I had just moved house. First-Novel had been returned to me after the publisher folded, without as much as an editing note. The first draft of SecondNovel had been untouched for months.

I didn’t quit in the autumn of 2017. Instead, I opened up First-Novel and decided to give it a quick read-through and polish before starting to submit again. A couple of months later, still in the early chapters, I came to realize that it would take more than a quick polish. It would take months of consistent work.

It was around that time that I chanced upon Growing Gills, a book by Jessica Abel, with the very relatable sub-title How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. I’ll talk about it in detail at a later date. For now, I’ll just say it was a great help, and probably the most useful thing it had taught me was to plan for the life I had, not the magical time-managing unicorn life in which I half of every day writing, and the other half on paid work, while remaining sane, healthy and in functioning relationships. Another uber-useful trick was weekly reviews, preferably with an accountability buddy (a ritual in which I was eagerly joined by a friend of mine, an inspired yarn artist).

A lot of things had happened since autumn 2017, and the novel edit was going unimaginably slow – but I persisted. (Almost) every week, goals would be set. Some weeks I’d meet them, some weeks I wouldn’t. It didn’t matter, because there were then the next week’s goals. My goals changed based on my ability to handle them: from “target wordcount to edit” (quickly abandoned, as some parts needed much more work than others), to “hours to spend editing” (abandoned at first because even that felt as too much pressure), to simply “open the file and do some editing on X days”.

It was probably the first time in my life that I consciously adjusted my ambitions downward and, well, kept calm and carried on. Even as it became obvious that the edit I was working on would take many more months than expected. In mid-2018, I said I give myself to the end of year. Now it’s December, and it looks like I’m only halfway done, and I unanimously ruled that it’s okay.

Also, for the first time since I’d decided I was going to be a published novelist, I had come to accept that perhaps I’m not going to be a published novelist, or, won’t have a career as a full-time writer, at least. Perhaps I would simply continue working on my books a few hours a week, and enjoy it. Maybe I could just dabble. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to be a capital-w Writer after all. Weirdly enough, none of those thoughts were very scary. (Confessing them right now is, though.)

The whole “maybe I don’t have to be a writer” thing was sitting really well with my brain. I looked around for other things I could do, including a distance learning course in psychology. I seriously considered a few interesting job offers that came my way – and while they haven’t led to anything (yet), it felt very liberating to actually consider them, not shoot them down as a knee-jerk reflect because “I can’t have a full-time job, I’m trying to make it as a writer!”

When sharing these sentiments with a close friend with whom we have shared history of making art, I said something like: “You know, even if I had all days in which to write,I don’t think I can do writing as a full-time job. It’s just not something I can handle for more than a few hours a day. ” It felt very true at the time. Over the years, writing for me had become so wrapped up in Meaning, Identity, Purpose and many other capital letter words, that I’d need to battle anxiety at the start of every writing session. Even when I was free to set my own goals, the best I could do was “do some editing on X days.” It was clear that I could only handle this stuff in small doses. And that, I have decided for myself, was also okay.

Then I went on a writing retreat. Three days in a beautiful country house with quiet rooms and catered meals. No workshops, no feedback sessions, no structure aside from optional mealtimes. I was free to write all days – or not write all days. Among the fellow writers I shared the house with, some would lock themselves in their rooms and hit word targets, while others would freely admit to spending an afternoon napping or reading, instead. There was no shaming or pushes for productivity.

So, for three days, I was in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere, with nothing to worry about, and free to do anything I wanted. I could nap, read, walk in the country, play on my laptop… What I did was work on my book. For three days, I worked for 5-6 hours a day, and was genuinely shocked at how natural it felt. There was no “cold start” anxiety to overcome. There was no watching the clock to see if I’d done my hours yet. No arbitrary targets I had to hit before I could go and relax. I just wrote and edited. Full time. And it was great.

Upon return, I had to resume work on a large paid project with weekly deadlines that I could only hit if I spent 2-3 hours every morning working on said project, and nothing else. Having wrapped it up and taken some time to unwind, I ran an experimental day in which the same 2-3 hours before lunch were dedicated to writing. It went swimmingly. Even without the country house, I edited comfortably for hours, and could’ve continued after lunch, too, were it not for the paid work needing my attention.

So, inspired by that success, I made plans for the week, this week that I’m at the start of right now. Spend the first half of the day writing, the second half, on paid work. Even with a few hours’ exercise budgeted into every other day, this schedule lets me finish work by the time my partner gets home, so we can spend evenings together. Somehow, after a year of planning for the chaotic life I had and doing my best to just show up, I’m now looking at a schedule that looks suspiciously like the magical time-managing unicorn life I had dreamed of, but knew I could never actually have.

So… let’s see how it goes?

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