Uncertainty and Overwhelm in Writers

I wanted to share with you this article from Lit Hub, “George Saunders on Overcoming Uncertainty in Writing,” specifically this part:

Since I first stumbled on this idea, I’ve found it oddly comforting. If I have a story that is a mess, full of places I can’t live with, instead of thinking, you know, “And you call yourself a professional writer? Just look at the mess you’ve made!” I try to think, “Ah, you have skillfully revised yourself into a place where the key to getting the story to its higher ground lies in this little handful of messy places. Good for you! And look, there are only, like, six of them. And they are messy because—well, because they have the potential to be really beautiful, but they don’t know how yet, the poor things.”

The whole article is worth a read. (Note to sensitive readers: it references sex but doesn’t describe sexual acts.)

I wish I was back in that uncertain-writer stage rather than here, in the overwhelmed-slug stage.

I spent two wonderful and difficult years busting my tail writing in my MFA program, and now I’ve spent two years… not writing. I could blame it on the pandemic, on moving across country during a pandemic, on completely switching careers during a pandemic, on getting my teaching license and crafting curriculum—from scratch, no less—for eight completely different classes while teaching and nurturing 200 high school students and keeping small humans and dogs alive, half of the time as a solo parent.

It makes sense why I’m burnt out, and I need to remember that energy, especially for someone with a chronic illness, is finite.

Yet there’s still that little part of my brain, the part that is usually occupied with imposter syndrome when I’m writing, that has declared dead my passion for writing, adding, Maybe I never liked writing anyway, and why should I spend my limited energy doing something I don’t like?

And my heart says, But you do like writing. You smile when you think of your characters. Nothing can come close to that dopamine hit of discovering a perfect line of dialogue, of making a creative breakthrough in a story.

So many writers I know, especially querying writers, have had their hearts bruised or even broken and are ready to give up. Their heart is saying, “I want to keep going,” and they’re saying, “Hush now, you’re hurt. It’s time to rest.”

I’m going to be honest. Writing is generally not fun for me. It’s often excruciating. I feel like an idiot…most of the time. Why can’t I make this work? Why can’t I just write something, anything, without getting distracted?

It’s easy to just not do things that are hard, especially when you’re tired and are running on fumes and can barely bring yourself to watch a television show.

It’s OK to do the bare minimum. To be in survival mode.

It’s difficult to pull yourself out of survival mode.

This summer, I’m trying to drag myself out. One thing I’m trying is looking at tasks in one of three categories:

  • Required (things to do to “function” as an “adult”)
  • Refreshing (restful activities that require very little energy)
  • Rewarding (hard things that make me feel like a human being rather than a robot doing)

It’s kind of like Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix, but more personal, less corporate feeling.

Thanks to the hierarchy of needs, I’ve realized it’s pretty hard for me to do anything rewarding when I’m overwhelmed by those required tasks.

Thanks to ADHD, it’s pretty difficult for me to accomplish any of those required tasks without an immediate reward.

So I’m pairing as much of the refreshing things with the required things as possible. I need to do outdoor chores (required)? OK, I need to listen to an audiobook at the same time (refreshing). That TV show I’ve been wanting to watch for months? I will watch it. In fact, I need to watch it, because I need to sort through my kids’ old clothes.

I’m starting small, pairing one required with one refreshing task per day and choosing one rewarding thing per week. My hope is way more frequent than that, but I’m trying to go easy on myself.

I’ll read poetry and paint every day! No, I’ll read poetry and paint once a week.

Get out a journal, or just write a comment below, and answer these reflective questions.

  1. Where are you at with your writing right now? Are you certain? Uncertain? Bruised? Overwhelmed?
  2. What is your goal for this season you’re currently in? Is it a S.M.A.R.T. goal?
  3. What would the midpoint look like for that goal? How would you know that you’re halfway there?
  4. What would half of that look like, the quarter point?
  5. What are your daily or weekly goals? If being a “daily doer” hasn’t worked for you, take any daily goal you set for yourself and turn it into a weekly goal.
  6. Now cut that daily or weekly goal in half.

Something is better than nothing. Many writers are perfectionists, who think that something has to be 100% (or an impossible 110%) or it may as well be 0%. Take yourself out of that all-or-nothing mindset. You may know that done is better than perfect, but 10% is infinitely better than 0%.

“One page a day can be a novel draft in a year” doesn’t sound like a lot of effort, but it is a marathon, and we’re not all marathon runners!

One sentence a week is a paragraph per month.

One book written in five years is still a #&%@!$* book.

I know I’ve said goals need to be SMART, and therefore quantitative, but whether you set your goals in minutes or words, when you are trying to determine whether a writing session was a success or not, try not to focus so much on the quantitativeness of your work but instead reflect on the experience.

We are not human accomplishers, we are human beings. Spend some time this week being a writer, just enjoying the process and what you can learn from it.

Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor. We can only write greatness by navigating through an ocean of not-great words and ideas. Every session is a learning experience.

Approach your next writing session like Saunders, saying, “What’ve we got here? Let’s see what we can do. It’s going to be all right.”

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