…ignoring the signs and pretending everything’s fine.
The last time I finished a long writing project (i.e. something that I hadn’t sat down and written in one sitting) was in November 2018. I published the last bit of Resisting Taqdeer on 13 November 2018, which was 11 days after I started a new job (the job that I have right now). I’ve written short little things since then. I’ve had a radio show that latest a fun, nerve-wracking seven months and I’ve submitted to anthologies. I’ve tried starting other stories (oh, I’ve tried so many times). I’ve tried to finish the poor, neglected duckling that is Masquerade. And I’ve gotten nowhere.
Sometimes I’m still not sure if there’s a story left in me. Except… of course there is. I may not have the skill or talent to tell them but there are rich, gorgeous, vibrant ideas tucked into a corner of my brain. You might know the one – it’s that out of the way, kind of awkward to get to place that you shove everything you don’t have the energy to deal with? The one that you need to drag out the step ladder to get to, move four boxes and a rusty fan to even see. In that carefully tucked away little place, the stories are crammed one on top of the other and they’re waiting. They’re just waiting for the day that I open the door again.
So why has it taken eighteen months for me to do something about this? Time is a factor – and my time is stretched so thin these days that sometimes the only people I talk to on a daily basis are the people I work with. There’s something really, terribly wrong about that. Since October of last year, I’ve become so accustomed to my life revolving around my day job that I almost stopped noticing that I kept not getting round to returning calls and messages from friends, kept making mental notes to talk to family that I don’t live with and never actually doing it, kept putting work before everything else.
It’s a unique kind of struggle to have a job that you – for the most part – love that is also turning you inside out. I’m living life kind of on hard mode anyway because my health requires me to invest a certain amount of time and money in it every month (more so than the ‘average’ twenty three year old) and when work started piling up higher and higher, I started triaging. I thought that I’d only be in this situation for a few months. I knew that the end of year period was always busy for us. I thought it would even back out and I’d reclaim my balance. Reader, it did not.
I’m not going to lie, right at the beginning I thought being busy was a sign that I was doing something right. I thought that it meant I was a valuable part of the team and I was almost proud of the fact that I was putting in extra hours. I was really, really invested. Did I mention that I loved this job? I still do, on good days.
Soon, being busy turned to being overextended to the point that my mother had to come and check that I was awake in the mornings. I was sleeping so little that I would sleep straight through my alarms – or, I’d wake up and then fall back asleep between turning the alarm off and mustering up the conviction to get out of bed. I became very good at getting ready for the day in fifteen minutes or less and grew to rely heavily on services like Uber Eats or Mr Delivery so that I’d eat something between waking up and getting back home at 4, 5 or 8 at night.
I was tired all the time, I didn’t talk and I drank a ridiculous amount of coffee. My self-esteem dipped because there was no possible way for me to do everything I wanted to in a day. I worried that I was a bad friend, I worried that I was a bad employee and I mostly just worried that there was something wrong with me.
I stopped writing. At first, it was because I didn’t have the time and then, it was because I was afraid that every word I typed was garbage. It wasn’t fun anymore; it was a chore. After that, it got scary. Writers have pretty decent imaginations and mine was fully engaged in feeding my anxiety and helping me second-guess myself.
I did talk about it. I don’t usually talk about things but this time, I talked about how frustrated I was with the situation and I talked about how burned out I was going to be by the end of it. We tried to figure out solutions (some personal growth there) but there just weren’t any to be had, really. We were in a jam and we just had to get through it. We did – things are no longer quite so crazy at work – but it took the better part of six months to do it. And then… pandemic, which brought its own special challenges.
I have a lot of leftover bad habits and I didn’t really notice them… until Thursday two weeks ago. I had a really great night. That sounds stupid, right? But I did. I worked until I reached a decent stopping point (still a little late, but baby steps) and then I stopped. I did nothing else for the night. I didn’t try to write a blog post like I’ve been struggling to do for ages. I didn’t try to catch up with a friend. I didn’t try to study. I played a dumb little block matching game and then lay on my bed to read Ask a Manager posts until I stopped finding new ones.
It was amazing. And then I turned on my laptop the next morning and got sucked back in.
Oh, that’s an anticlimax. Those are the worst, aren’t they? It’s true, though. I went right back to doing things the same way (even a little bit more frantically) because while I’d become aware that something was wrong with my balance, I don’t live in a movie. Deadlines still existed and I needed find a way to meet them.
Before you groan, roll your eyes and hit the back button, just give me a second. See, the kind of change that I need is not the kind that can happen in a night. Not without being unsustainable. This has turned into a routine and it’s going to take some solid work to figure out how to create a new, better one that still lets me hit work deadlines (because, hey, I gotta eat).
So, why have I told you all this? Well, aside from just wanting to complain, I wanted to reach out to the other writers who stumble across this (all three and a half of you). It can be incredibly daunting to start writing again when you’ve stopped for any length of time. Those mental muscles are like any of your physical ones, they atrophy when unused. That’s why every time in the past eighteen months that I’ve tried to jump back into my old thousands-a-day word output, I failed miserably. I forgot what I’m telling you all right now and became convinced that I was a fraud and had never actually written a decent sentence in my life. I thought about deleting everything – the unfinished and finished projects. Thankfully, I never got all the way to wanting to get rid of my books or pull them from Amazon.
Anyway. I’ve written about this a tiny bit before, way back in 2017 and today, I stumbled across this screencap of a Tumblr post that reminded me of it:
Without starting to exercise those muscles, and without clearing out the backlog of muck, I’ll keep getting tripped up by those same feelings of inadequacy – and you might too. It sucks that there’s no lightning bolt of inspiration that’ll turn back the clock for me but it’s also pretty comforting to know that the problems I’ve been having are normal and they’ll pass, just so long as I treat them with the right ‘medicine’. For me right now, that’s going to be doing a bunch of prompt responses like I used to do when I just started writing.
One final thing: I’ll never say that you shouldn’t do something you love as a job. But what I will say is that if you choose to go into a field where your main hobbies now become work or somehow related to work, you need to pick up a new, separate hobby and you need to keep a watch on the amount of time you’re investing into work. This applies to a normal 8 to 4 and to personal passion projects. Do not go months and months without speaking to your friends because you’ve become consumed by something that was only ever meant to be a part of your life. A large part, yes, but one single part that you take regular breaks from.
P.S. I hope you’re all staying safe and well (physically and mentally).