“You shouldn’t get disillusioned when you get knocked back. All you’ve discovered is that the search is difficult, and you still have a duty to keep on searching.”—Kazuo Ishiguro
Greetings from the climb out of a dark place. Middle age is a surprisingly bewildering space to navigate. Years turn into decades and you lose some of the fantastical chemicals that flow through you in youth. You’ve picked up quite a bit of wisdom, but you find yourself facing new challenges in work, family and health. Both challenges and solutions appear to be growing exponentially at once. It reminds me of a Socrates quote: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, & that is that I know nothing.”
My expertise both at my day job and in my writing life continues to grow. At the same time, the hurdles that I have to jump in order to do it all keep growing as well. I’m out here succeeding and suffering, suffering and succeeding, lol. Writing books, launching books, editing books—it’s all a privilege to be able to be expanding my literary output and be growing my booklist. At the same time, I’m burning energy I don’t have in order to achieve my dreams and meet my deadlines. All my knowledge cannot protect me from my human need for rest and restoration.
I turned in the latest draft of my novel in December. Since then, I’ve been sluggish, withdrawn, and grouchy. The effort it took to work full workdays and then write hours into the night really depleted me. So much so, that sometimes I don’t even recognize myself in this exhausted lump of person I’ve been dragging around. My friends are rightfully joyous in celebrating each milestone with me and I always remind them that it’s hard—really hard.
If I’m looking at it like a researcher, I would note that it took me four months to recover from the push to complete my last draft (if I am indeed recovered). I was supposed to get my next round of edits at the end for February. But there were some delays and I’m so grateful for the respite. I would not have been able to tackle a fresh round of changes in that depleted state. All I was fit to do (after I was done with my day job every day) was lay around, avoid the phone, watch shows, and sleep. Now as we’re closing out April, I’m just starting to feel like myself again. Of course, the edits will be here in a week or two. I’m not shaking in my boots though. I’m heartened by the lift in energy that seems to be creeping through me. I’m choosing to believe I’ll be rested up and ready to wrestle with this final round.
I’ve long thought about the bravery it takes to write/make art. To develop work—or even to meet a goal, we have to face:
· the unknown: We put pen to paper without exactly knowing what will become of our efforts. The questions immediately start spiraling. What am I writing? How will I develop it? What’s the best structure? How long will it take to write? Who will read it? We must bravely wade through these questions, knowing there’s no answer—at least not in the immediate moment of creation. We must gently encourage ourselves to be brave enough to create without the answers.
· our flaws: Then as we attempt to see the work through, we are constantly smacked in the face with our flaws. The missed writing sessions, the less-than-perfect sentences, the plots that meander, the confrontation of facing characters you don’t quite know yet, the expert procrastination strategies to avoid the work, the dead ends in narrative. They all have to be faced, acknowledged and navigated if we want to complete the work.
· our doubt: We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t worry about the value of our efforts. You have to be ambidextrous to get through projects. With one hand, you’re creating the work. With the other, you’re fending off doubt, slapping away the corrosive questions ricocheting through your consciousness. Is this good? Is this important? Will this matter? Will I even finish it? You’re certain not to finish it if you succumb to doubt. Managing doubt is equally as important as growing your craft. You have to be doubly skilled—skilled at the work and skilled at jumping the mental hurdles that would hold you back.
· our significance/insignificance: After you fight through all of those challenges, there’s always a larger obstacle waiting for you. Just by committing to a project, you are asserting the significance of your voice and ideas. And the moment you value your work and prioritize your creativity, a voice quickly emerges asking who you think you are. Who gave you permission? Who validated this course of action? I find the best thing to do with this mental interrogation—as with every other manifestation of doubt—is to sidestep it. We’re human. That means we can’t ever stop doubting and wondering, so we have to find strategies to acknowledge it, move around it, and keep going. Self-questioning is built into the human machine. It’s how our brains work. You can’t stop it, so you must learn to disobey it, disarm it and carry on.
I started this post talking about middle age. That’s because now, a new level of bravery is required. I now know that continuing on this path is depleting. I know that I could come out of the next draft lifeless and dull again. I now know that I can write the books, I can complete the tasks, meet the goals (though often not by the deadline, lol). If I want to continue (and I do want to continue), I have to be brave enough to engage, knowing that the cost could be high, the recovery could take months. The new wisdom is that the books will get written—what I didn’t know was the cost I will pay for each draft of each book (at least until I can retire from my day job and write full time).
I hope this is not too dark for you all. I know that when I find something tough, it makes me feel better knowing that I’m not the only one struggling. So I hope this is a gift to you to hear the validation that if staying in the game is challenging for you, you are not alone. But real talk, I know it’s both comforting and horrifying that the challenges remain as you continue to grow your output. I have begged plenty of full-time writers with lots of books behind them to tell me that it gets easier—they all refuse. Every book is its own beast, they say. It’s like starting over each time.
I’m searching for the high note to leave you all with. I guess I can say joy is earned (because underneath the exhaustion, I’m a satisfied soul), productivity is its own machine, and we are all capable of doing hard things. I suppose I could be exhausted with nothing to show for it. I can say that I have something solid to point to—this draft, I can say, this book, this round of edits, this is why I’m depleted.
I guess I can also say that although the cost is high, I know that I will recover. I will get back on my feet. And once I’m back to fighting form, I’ll be ready to tackle another round of writing.