Writing Tips

How Do You Write When You Feel Like $#^! ? 5 Steps for Effective Damage Control

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There’s the kind of sad that fuels hauntingly ethereal poems. Can’t wait to turn this boo-hoo into moo-moo! Because I’m going to milk this pain. Sorry for that analogy, vegans.

And then there’s the kind of sad where you don’t want to get out of bed. But if you did, you would destroy all your writing. “I suck, so it must too.”

This isn’t an academic exercise for me because it just happened.

Has this ever happened to you:

1) You feel like you’ve made all this progress in dealing with your emotions and getting things done;

2) You feel like a different person now and even have a hard time relating to your past self?

And then something happens. The wind shifts. You’re forced into a situation that you would rather avoid. Or maybe there is a subtle trigger. You find yourself behaving in the old, “unenlightened” ways and you get a horrible, obnoxious, blast from the past right in your face?

For me the trigger can be something as seemingly innocent as a movie or show about high school. I empathize with the characters and transport myself there to the bottom of the pecking order. I start to think: “Well, I haven’t changed at all. Because here I am, after all these years, still feeling alone and still not a successful author, and still wanting all the things that I used to want that I can’t have, and that wouldn’t make me happy anyway.”

Yikes.

The experience is different for everyone, but the result is the same: good writing doesn’t get done and potentially awesome ideas can go to waste. All because of some distorted thinking and a momentary lack of vision.

What can be done?

Step 1: Don’t delete your shit just because you’re sad, and don’t wholesale dismiss your work.

Don’t do it! Think long and hard before you delete. Highlight or strike-through, but do not delete!

Follow this rule of thumb: if your eyes are still puffy, don’t assume that your writing is … stuffy?

Step 2: Don’t think only in terms of progression and regression.

Too often, we can make things worse by criticizing ourselves and labelling events and actions as progressive or regressive.  

For example, if you used to be in the habit of watching Netflix in the afternoons or drinking with your friends, but now you catch up on chores, you may be inclined to label those old behaviors as “bad” or somehow unnatural. But if you really think about it, the trivial decisions made throughout the day are neither good nor bad intrinsically. Instead of constantly trying to live up to an ideal or avoiding behaviors or situations that remind you of the past, you can instead strive to live in the present and adapt to the circumstances as they unfold.

See, you can learn something from self-help books.

Step 3: Keep a journal.

There are many reasons to write things down.

Many of the things that you write will not be published.

Writing about a difficult experience is probably not going to release you from the emotional pain forever. But, it may make you feel better for a while.

Step 4: Make some coffee or tea.

I used to hate it when people would tell me to just “get over it” or “move on.”

In fact, this is why I don’t share many of my feelings anymore.

The fact is, you often can’t just snap your fingers and “get over it.”

It may take years or a lifetime.

Nowadays, I try to parent myself. Instead of dismissing my feelings, I choose to take breaks by engaging my senses, meditating, or doing something “productive.”

It’s like, “well, this does seem kind of hopeless, but on the bright side, we’re all going to die, so there’s no reason for me to feel so inferior that I can’t get out of bed.”

Step 5: Rinse and repeat.

Being sad is going to change the way you write and change the way you view your existing work. This is inevitable. How can I incorporate my sad work into my happy work? How can I manage to maintain a consistent tone when nothing in my life is stable? Should I start over? I can’t answer these questions. But I can say that all experiences can make your writing better because read that somewhere. People who can’t appreciate the ebb and flow of life cannot be writers. You are not one of those people; therefore, you will figure it out.

I ran out of steps, but I’ll leave you with one more thing: managing expectations.

I think that living in an instant-gratification world can be very detrimental to a healthy writerly mindset. When negative emotions come, we can get wrapped up in comparing ourselves to others. At this age, I should be like ______. I think this comes from having skewed expectations.

Being a writer has never been the safe bet. What even is a safe bet these days? It’s more complicated than putting in the work and getting paid. This is especially true if you’re like me, constantly pushing the envelope. My novel has a prologue and a musical number in the third chapter. Do you think literary agents are going to like that? I don’t.

It’s unrealistic for me to believe that my writing will become an instant success. I also have to live with the possibility that what I do may never be commercially or critically successful, even after I’m dead.

All I can do is try to understand the method behind my madness and respect that. Maybe I can delude myself a little (it’s so punk to be weirdly brilliant in ways that few people will ever understand). What else is there? I can’t expect instant commercial success, or any commercial success.

Sometimes, all you can do is follow the steps and shove your soul into the black box that is the publishing world.

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The check engine light within

“Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

-Anonymous

This morning, right after I filled up the gas tank, I turned on my car and it did a weird little half-start and the check engine light glowered at me. “Wonderful,” I thought, “I’m so glad I had the transmission serviced recently.” I debated with myself about whether to go home and complain to my daddy or take my chances and complete the drive to work.

As I left, I became convinced that there was something wrong with the car. “There’s more slack than usual in the gas pedal,” I mused. “Something’s not right.”

I pulled over and decided to  re-start the thing. I was so nervous that I turned the engine off without putting it in park first.

Well, I got going again. I was on the freeway, watching the tachometer like a hawk and listening for weird noises. That was about as methodical as I could get about the whole thing, considering that my knowledge of the internal combustion engine and whatnot is severely lacking. Everything seemed normal enough, and then the light just went off by itself about thirty minutes later.

I’d say there’s a possibility that there was never anything mechanically wrong with the car in the first place. It being a newer car built in 2012, it has all these fancy computers. Maybe it’s too smart for its own good.

Why did I tell you this boring story about something that has happened to a lot of people? I guess because it got me thinking about sci-fi stuff and my friend, the sympathetic nervous system. And the line between perception and reality that may or may not exist, depending on whom you ask.

I guess my car and I were meant for each other because I’ve got an overactive check engine light too. At the slightest provocation, I can create worlds of terror out of bad memories while anxiety punches me in the stomach so hard I can’t breathe and depression holds down my arms and legs in its own vague, ghosty way so that I hardly notice it on account of the punching. And then, I open my eyes after the pain settles, and nothing is there. Everything is eerily normal.

And Stella’s car glides merrily along the freeway.