Hello friends –
Two months ago I wrote to you all about having a hard time writing, and the way it feels like my brain has changed after the depressive spell that ate a year of my life. After that letter, a few friends reached out to me about facing similar challenges, so it seems like there’s a lot of it going around. Which makes sense: everyone has personal challenges, and right now we’re facing those challenges against the backdrop of a country that’s spiraling ever-further into a hellscape, with a bad news cycle that never rests, and justice feels entirely illusive. We’re dealing with shared trauma and that trauma makes it incredibly hard to do … well, anything. But I digress.
What I identified in that letter was a sense that my brain just isn’t clicking into story mode the way it used to, so instead of feeling like at least a third of my brain is always telling a story while I go about my daily life, it’s been silent. And I identified a big reason for that — I think — in that I was just never letting my brain rest quietly. The methods I used to get through a hard year had become habits, and those habits were not a great match for creative recharging. So here’s my follow up, after a couple of months of trying to prioritize creative relaxation.
The results are mixed.
First, what wasn’t super successful: pulling away from podcasts and video games, which were the best ways to turn my brain off when all I got from it was anxiety. I think that’s a combination of habit and, well, I like those things. My plan had been to only listen to podcasts during my morning commute, leaving the evening trip home for reading or just creative thinking, which is great in theory. In practice, it was rare that I actually did that — pretty much only if I just didn’t have any podcasts that had updated that day. I also think part of it is that I’m not reading that much. Certainly more than I was over the last few years, but I don’t tend to have a book in my bag at all times so I don’t have one to just pull out and open. (That discussion could be its own newsletter, hmm. Stay tuned, maybe.) So podcast is my default; it is what it is.
Video games … I mean, my sister got me a Playstation for my birthday, so. That’s still a thing. I’ve been thinking about ways to limit the time spent — rules like only after I’ve done something creative, or only for an hour a day, or…
But the problem is, I know full well that those rules are artificial. I can make them up, but I don’t have to follow them, because I’m the one who made them up. The consequences to breaking my own rules are … uh, non-existent. So none of those limitations have stuck. Maybe rules and limitations where the only consequence is berating myself is not the best way to go? Who knew. Anyway, I’m still mulling it all over, but also in the mean time I’m playing Horizon Zero Dawn for about two hours an evening, so I’m calling that a failure for now. Bummer.
But! There were other outcomes from this project!
The more mixed was the idea of seizing on any tiny seed of an idea in my head and letting myself play with it for fun. To write something just for myself, with no expectation of ever making it anything publishable, but to somehow do that WITHOUT turning it into an obligation that I MUST do or I’m right back to berating myself. Basically, I was trying to re-train my brain to spit out ideas … and that the reward for doing it would be getting to write something just for the sheer fun of it. And I did have an idea! And I wrote words down! In fact, I wrote about 8,500 words, mostly while I was on vacation, and I am quite fond of them.
And … that’s it.
It’s not an insubstantial amount, and I am by no means complaining. I wrote something and had fun and that was the whole point. But, alas, my brain didn’t pick up on it and start giving me nice ideas to chew on just for fun… and I think it’s worth noting that I pretty much only did this while I was on vacation. It isn’t something I’ve managed to re-integrate into my daily life. I guess it’s nice to know that I can have flashes of story that light me up, even if it’s rare, and maybe it won’t always be so rare. It feels like this should feel like more of a triumph, but it actually feels like … pretty much nothing. I’m glad I did it, I hope to do it more if and when I feel like it, but it didn’t really do much for motivating me or getting me excited and enthusiastic, it’s just sort of a neat thing to have done.
And now for the unequivocally good stuff: in the week after I wrote that newsletter, I wrote 9,000 words of my actual manuscript. The week after that, I wrote 6,700 words. In the week after that, I wrote another 7,000 words… and finished it. So basically, yay!!!!!!
Here’s what happened there: I decided to let go of what had my writing process, of writing about 2,500 words a time a few times a week, which I’d established and kept to for many years but which had not felt fun or exciting or productive recently, and to experiment with writing every day instead. Which I purposefully didn’t let myself say to anyone for two weeks, and in fact, I barely admitted it to myself. Instead, what I told myself was that all I was going to do today was to get home after work and write for half an hour (which is usually about 1,000 words for me) before getting up to cook dinner or play video games or whatever… Just today. Only today.
I told myself that I was only going to do it today for three weeks, and wrote about 23,000 words, and finished a project that I had been dragging myself through with no momentum until then. Wow!!
Why only today? Well, there are a few pieces at play. One is that I am someone who naturally gravitates toward lofty goals and commits myself to them entirely, and hey, I’ve often succeeded at them! Especially with writing! (Every time I have done NaNoWriMo I’ve succeeded, just sayin’.) But I pretty purposefully didn’t want to do that here, because a whole big part of this process has been experimenting in ways that I don’t beat myself up over if I fail. I knew that if I’d decided to write every day, and then missed a day, I would be upset with myself. So when my brain started to say, “You know, you could do this every day…” I would respond to it with, “Maybe! But I’m not gonna! Instead I’m just going to do this today,” and then I’d sit down and do it.
I got that model from my dad, actually. He quit smoking after 40 years, back when I was in elementary school. Except if you asked him, he’d never tell you that he’d quit smoking. He always said he just wasn’t going to smoke today. And as a result, he didn’t smoke at all for the last 20 or so years of his life. All I did was flip it around. I’m not going to write every day, that is way too much pressure. I’m just going to write today. I can manage that.
The other reason I was so hesitant is honestly funny because it’s so petty: I didn’t want to take what’s given as common advice. Every writer runs across it at some point — that the best way to be a writer is to write every day. Sometimes it’s phrased in a “you must do this to be a real writer” fashion, which I HATE; often at this point what I’m actually seeing is the backlash to that idea more than the idea itself. But it’s there, it’s under the surface, lurking. Since my process was never daily and I wrote two whole actual books (and a bunch of other drafts) that way, I clearly didn’t need that advice, thank you very much.
(I also get my stubborn, contrarian instincts from my dad, come to think of it.)
But in this case… I mean… I needed it. The best way I can think of describing why is a metaphor borrowed from Susan Dennard, who in turn was borrowing it from Holly Black. It’s like swimming in cold water. If you keep getting in and out, you’re always going to be freezing; if you stay immersed, you’ll eventually get acclimated and feel warmer. It used to be that the scenes and voices and fun ideas bouncing around in my head were enough to keep me immersed. Well, they’re still quiet. So now I needed another way to immerse myself, and it turned out that writing daily was what did that for me. And oh man, when I started to see my word count growing steadily for the first time in a couple years… yeah, that felt great.
(Which is hilarious too, because I spent years purposefully trying to de-emphasize word count in my process. Focusing on it for most of my 20s had actually made learning to edit myself harder, because that’s a ton of work that can feel like it’s going nowhere if you’re used to watching numbers climb. But oh man, after months of frustration, seeing that number steadily grow in such a short time was awesome.)
So all of that is pretty exciting!! Yay finished draft!! But of course now I get to … uh, write it again? Better this time? Hahahahaha awesome, especially considering what I just finished was already a rewrite from scratch. But I think the third time will be the charm, and hey, there’s precedent for that. It was the third version of Bound by Blood and Sand that eventually got published. At least this time I’m pretty excited to get back to work, and I have about 2/3 of my outline figured out, so I’m feeling pretty good.
One last thing as I wrap up: I’d really like to recommend that if you’ve found any of this talk about depression and making space for ideas interesting, you check out the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I didn’t read it until after I’d finished the bulk of the writing and experimenting I talked about above, but it definitely got some more wheels turning for me — and a lot of the frustration they talk about are things that I’ve felt when I’m struggling with writing. (Hence, last time I wrote I don’t think I described what I was going through as burnout; now I think it is.) It’s about how women in particular handle stress and actual real things we can do to handle it better, and when I finished it I immediately sat down and wrote out some of the feelings it dredged up in a journal — which is not, like, a thing I do — and some of the emotions hit me so hard I actually started crying.
So yeah, there’s a lot there, and dealing with this stuff is hard, and it’s an ongoing process. I certainly feel better about where I am than I did two months ago even though I don’t really have my imaginary friends back, and I’m trying to let that be enough for now.