Monday, May 29, 2017

Fuck Advice

Okay, chickadees, let’s talk about writing advice and mental health.

There’s this writing bromide that you have to write every day to be successful. It’s not new; it’s been around a long time, but another article just turned up peddling this.

And, like most writing dogma, it is bullshit. Like the time my college advisor told me to never talk about my writing projects, because I’d lose my drive to write them. Not true, at least not for me. I LOVE talking about projects. Thinking aloud helps me brainstorm, and other people’s reactions help me maintain the emotional energy for a project. (Remind me to tell you sometime about how many years I’d had the idea for #JurassicUnicorn before I started writing it.)

A lot of people--Seanan Maguire, Aleksei Valentin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Daniel Jose Older, Alex Acks, etc.--have torn the write-every-day advice to shreds on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s classist. It’s unnecessary. It can lead to bad writing. It's ableist.

Yep. Yep. Yep.

About a year and a half ago I was considering checking myself into a facility for a nervous breakdown. 2015 had been intense: my biological father had died, I’d gotten married, and I’d started a new job. I taught a full load of three classes across two of UM’s branch campuses, and—because I needed the money and didn’t know my limits—took an overload of two extra classes on the main UM campus. On top of all of this, I was trying to maintain my own demanding internal writing schedule, writing every day no matter what, and blaming myself for laziness and inefficiency when I didn’t meet my writing goals.

By the time Christmas break came, I told my parents I couldn’t visit them because I was too overwhelmed. In truth, I had been isolating myself from people around me because any social engagement, no matter how minor, felt impossible. One night I woke Wil up in the middle of the night to tell him that I was having fantasies about hurting myself. “I’m not going to,” I assured him. “But it scares me that I’m even thinking this. I just feel safer if you know.”

I had anxiety, brought on at least in part by pressure I was putting on myself to do everything at 100%. My body had been trying to get my attention for a while, with insomnia, stomach problems, headaches, neck and back pain, and an eye twitch. But I didn’t listen until I hit that mental wall at Christmas.

It’s taken me the last year and a half to get out of that space. I used medication, counseling, and mindfulness to treat my anxiety, but the most radical thing has been self-forgiveness. Being easy with myself. With writing, that means letting myself off the hook for the days I don’t work. And being more honest about what I call “work,” because even now I have a habit of saying “I didn’t work today” when what I mean is “I grocery shopped, e-mailed five students, read half a book for class, called the vet, cleaned the house, and went to choir practice, but I didn’t write or revise fiction today.” That other stuff—the stuff I’ve had to train myself to think of as “work”—is a vital part of my life. And I am a whole person. I am not a machine that produces words.

What’s been amazing about the process of learning self-forgiveness is how difficult it was at first, how much I resisted it because what if I get soft, get lazy, don't I need the guilt to produce?. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’ll start forgiving myself now.” Or, I did, but the rest of me didn’t believe it for a while. I had to keep waking up, keep saying it, writing about it, reading it in tarot spreads, talking about it with my husband, my counselor, my friends.

What’s even better is how much easier it is now. You know how it feels when you’ve got the flu, and then you have your first back-to-normal day again? How bright, how easy, how lovely everything is, relative to having the flu? That’s how it feels now that self-forgiveness is a reflex. When I don’t check everything off my list and instead of internally self-flagellating, I’m more able to shrug and say “Oh well. There’s always tomorrow.” Not every time. But more than I used to be.

Which is not to say that self-forgiveness is going to be easy or learnable for every person. I want to share this story because my ability to forgive myself was hard-won, and it still feels like a miracle to me. But even this advice—is this advice?—can be damaging if you take it and feel guilty for how much guilt you feel. Maybe you have a harder time shutting off your brain than I do, because we have different brain chemistry. Maybe you lived longer with people who shamed you or told you that you were worthless, and those messages are more deeply engraved into your identity. In my experience, learning to be easy with yourself is still worth working at, but don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself with. As an old boss of mine used to say, "Don't should on yourself"--whether that should is writing, or self-forgiveness.

The big thing is: No advice is foolproof. Fuck advice.

3 comments:

Marion said...

Kate, I am so sad to read that you had to go through that, and glad that you found the right self-care and are doing better. Yes, it's great if you have the kind of life where you *can* write every day if you want to,and few of us do. Speaking for myself, there was no way that was possible before I retired.

Anyway, the column is great. It is honest and so clear-sighted, a great resource for many emerging writers out there.

Kate Lechler said...

Thank you, Marion! <3

Jana Nyman said...

How did you know I needed to read something exactly like this? Have my chickadees been spreading secrets when I'm not looking??