Today, just this:
Well, not quite. I’ve been encouraged to blog about this. This being what’s been going on lately on the writing front.
I woke up last Thursday morning experiencing the strangest jitters and shakes. I was tremble-y and weak all over. My body was warm, but my insides cold. It turned out to be a result of stress. I know, who would have thought I’d be stressed out, right? I mean, I may seem antsy and highly-strung most of the time and have no patience for the waiting game, but I also do things to help de-stress, like swim or listen to Joe Hisaishi and Nell, or play a musical instrument. I promise I’m chill! (Except it’s usually the neurotic ones who proclaim that.)
But no, apparently I was having an allergic reaction to work. Not just work-work, but the other work I do after office hours. In short, my writing. I was stressing myself out because of the thing I love most.
Accomplished writers always tell us aspiring writers that in order to make it, we need to treat our writing as our second job, one of equal importance as our official one that pays the bills.
I don’t dispute that – writing requires discipline and effort. The only way through is to devote the time and energy necessary to creating the best possible story you can pull out of yourself. So after the nine-to-five (so to speak), I dive straight into my manuscript the minute I get home. No time for dinner. Just munch on some fruits as I pound out the words. Keep going until my eyes can’t stay open anymore. Next morning, wake up at the crack of dawn to swim before going to work.
This routine seemed to work just fine for a while. I mean, I was hitting word count, getting shit done, living and breathing my story, doing what was required of me at work, and staying healthy. Right?
But it seems I might have been going about this the wrong way, if the recent bout of adverse physical reaction is any indication. Insufficient sleep, for one thing. And an all-consuming obsession to squeeze that story out and hating myself whenever I couldn’t get it going.
This led to general frustration and resentment and other unpleasant emotions that, needless to say, made the problem worse. The stories stalled, and ideas spluttered to a halt. I kept trying to crank up the engine, but it just groaned and refused to cooperate. I made note-cards, drew three-act structures, tore down each manuscript to its bare bones, rewrote synopses, trying to get to the root of the problem and understand where I went wrong so I can pick up from there again.
When I wasn’t writing, I felt restless and guilty. (Even right now, as I’m writing this blog post, there’s this voice in the back of my head nagging at me to stop procrastinating and return to the manuscript!) But when I was writing, I felt stuck. Nothing was working.
My dad remarked the other day that my modus operandi is unusual and not very efficient. “You work in sprints, two-hour bouts of manic energy and then you crash,” he said. “Regular people work at a consistent pace so that they can last longer. A slow-burning flame will keep you going further.”
This is in line with what I overheard a swimming instructor tell his student the other day in the pool: “No one is pressuring you; only you are pressuring yourself. You just need to try. Trying and failing is how you learn.” The kid he was coaching tried and failed gloriously, but managed a perfect length of backstroke by the end of the session.
I didn’t realise that I was creating my own problem until that moment. I was burning myself out because I was too impatient to get what I want. No one is pressuring me; I’m just hurrying myself to get the next book published. And the thing about publishing is that it takes a loooong period of time – years – from conception to publication. If there’s ever one job you need patience for, it’s writing.
We think that, because we’re in our twenties, we need to make shit happen already. It’s been almost four years since I graduated. Why haven’t I achieved something yet? (Okay, yes I published a book, but what about the next one? And the next? And the one after that?) When am I actually going to start living the life I always dreamed of?
But maybe our twenties is the time we lay all the groundwork for the career – and the life – we want in our thirties and forties and beyond. Maybe we need to work at our craft now with consistency and devotion, and focus on putting one foot before the other instead of staring off into the distance and wishing we were at the finish line at this moment. (Where is the finish line anyway? Don’t we just keep setting new goals for ourselves?)
Because like Rilke said,
And like Hermann Hesse preached:
And when all else fails, like Elizabeth Gilbert said at her TED talk, maybe all we really need to do is simply return to the one thing we love more than ourselves, “put our heads down and perform with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from us next”.
For all the dream-chasers out there, are you sprinting towards your goals or running a slow and steady marathon? Do you occasionally feel burned out? How do you restore equilibrium in your life? I’d love to hear about your writing journey!
[Related Story: How Wanting Makes Us Want More]