Sometimes you need to hit pause on your writing relationship
Last year was a low point for me and my writing. The dynamic was starting to feel like a bad marriage. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page. So, I had a trial separation. Here’s how we got back together. #writingcommunity #writerslife
At the end of last year, my relationship with writing felt like a bad marriage. Life was stalling in other ways, care of the pandemic and my tally of unsuccessful submissions, applications and pitches was getting depressing.
I wasn’t writing and I hated that I wasn’t writing but I just couldn’t seem to do it. There was no excitement. No chasing the unknown or following curiosity. No lightness or joy to it. Something that had been a life force for me had turned rotten.
It was feeding all my worst core beliefs. When I thought about writing the associations were dark and heavy; sadness and unworthiness, invisibility, despondence. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page.
How can you write with those shadows at your hand? You can’t. Like all relationships, if it’s bringing you more sadness than joy, it’s worth examining if it it’s time to get out and for me it was. The idea was to have a trial separation, get some distance, have a think about it all and see if I could rekindle what we once had.
Here’s how I made it back to the page.
- Read if you can’t write
Someone once said that if you’re a writer who isn’t writing, then you should be reading and vice versa. Reading is sustenance, joy and escape. It’s immersion and fascination and the repeated exposure to text is also instructive. There’s a kind of osmosis occurring as you take it all in. There are styles you’ve never read before, structures you hadn’t imagined, impossibly gorgeous language and clever plotting. So, if you can’t do nothing but are finding it impossible to do something, reading is a good way to start the journey home.
2. Ban yourself from writing…or not
If the writing (or inability to do so) is causing the pain, then step away. Don’t write. Just put a ban on it for an amount of time that lets you off the hook. This isn’t wheedling yourself out of your regular writing practice or habit. This is an intervention to get you back there. You can’t make it better without a bit of distance and reflection.
And if not-writing is a not-option then….
3. Make it mean nothing
My writing had all become so loaded with the expectation of outcome. I needed to make it mean nothing so I could love it again. You can’t just turn off your desire to be published or your hopes that what you write will be ‘good’ but you can write things that aren’t meant to go beyond what they are.
Keep writing in your journal. Excavate the emotions that are setting it all off until you get a little nugget of something. Go old school and write letters to friends, birthday cards longer than they need to be, post-its with too much detail. Write notes apropos of nothing in particular, stories or poems that you don’t have any future plans for beyond the action of simply writing them. Or see number five for writing exercises that offer writing practice minus a loaded expectation of the outcome.
4. Don’t let it steal your other joys as well
Writing is a big part of my identity, so the rot I felt there started to spread through to other aspects of my life. Try and isolate it to stop the spread. Champion the healthy relationships you do have and the aspects of your life which are bringing you joy. Give them more time and attention. It’s the same advice for anyone going through any other negative thought cycle. Do some exercise. Spend time with the people you love. Do things that relax you and make you happy. Try to stay present and avoid the constant mental replay and fast-forward.
5. Learn something
This is a great time to admit humility and allow that there’s always more to learn. Read a book by a writing teacher (Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas). Read a book by a writer talking about their process and advice (On Writing by Stephen King, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck).
This is a chance to try new things and think about process rather than the outcome. Writing exercises are exactly that, exercise. They’re a great way to write without expectation and for this writer, it was the way back to the page. It was a reminder of what I love about writing, what I get out of it and why, for me, it’s a relationship worth sticking with.
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