Some days writing is like trying to sail against the tide and each word is rough and choppy and you don’t even have a chance to come up for air before you’re battered by another wave of self-doubt. It’s exhausting and miserable and sometimes it feels endless. But even if a bad writing day turns into a bad writing week that turns into a bad writing month, nothing lasts forever. Not good days, not bad days. Not success and not even failure. There is an ebb and flow to everything and when you’re staring at that blinking cursor or that blank page and seeing a way out feels totally impossible, maybe it’s time to stop looking ahead and start looking behind.
I’m in the middle of a writing drought and it wasn’t caused by burn-out or even fear. It’s just one of those strange moods where all I want to do is nothing. I used to fight this feeling and I used to hate myself for even having it in the first place because I have deadlines and obligations and dreams and none of those things can happen or be taken care of if all I’m doing day in and day out is sitting and staring at the walls. But that was before I realized it was only temporary. That was before I realized that sometimes taking a break can actually be a good thing.
See I used to have all of the fears about not meeting my word count and writing terrible first drafts and waking up one day having lost all of my talent as a writer. I was constantly afraid of both the things I did and didn’t do but all it really boiled down to was a fear of failure and a fear of the unknown. I was new at this and with only a couple of completed novels under my belt–all of which were written using completely different processes–I still didn’t know what I was really capable of and therefore had no idea whether or not my expectations were realistic or if any of what I was going through and/or struggling with was “normal.” What I’ve come to learn though is that there is no such thing as normal and that as long as I put my heart and soul into it, I’m capable of doing pretty much anything.
But these are truths that take a long time not only to realize but to accept. As artists there is this perpetual tug of war going on inside us between our most confident self and the one that hates every single thing we do and when we don’t have very much experience it’s often the shame and the doubt that tends to win out. Because that’s what we know, and when our triumphs are few and far between, it’s what we expect. But all it takes to change our reality is to change our perception of it. Now when I’m feeling stuck I don’t jump straight into panic mode. I don’t place blame and I don’t punish myself with negative thoughts. Instead, I stop and I think. And not about what still needs to be done but about what already has been.
Writing never gets any easier. When we grow out of certain bad habits it’s only a matter of time before we create new ones and when we conquer one obstacle ten others spontaneously manifest. But what does change, what does make things more manageable is the fact that after a while these setbacks are no longer surprises. It’s the surprise of failure that makes it so devastating but if we can make peace with the fact that it’s inevitable, that some days our writing will be terrible and that others we might not write at all, we can turn ourselves into observers of these “failures” rather than heartbroken participants. A bad writing day is nothing to panic about and neither is a terrible first draft. Sure, that sinking feeling of impending doom still nags at me sometimes when I’m forced to acknowledge something I’m not that proud of, but before it paralyzes me completely all I have to do is think back to all of those other bad days and all of those other terrible manuscripts and then I realize, if I found my way out once before there is absolutely no reason that I can’t do it again.
Patience is key when it comes to writing but so is forgiveness. If we can’t learn to be compassionate and accepting of ourselves then there is no hope for improvement. Because who can grow when they’re constantly afraid of being a disappointment? Who can grow when they’re constantly afraid to fail? I’m not as afraid of failure as I used to be but I know that’s only because I face the reality of it on a daily basis in ways both big and small. Failure is a part of life, an inevitability that can actually turn out to be a huge blessing. Because down in the trenches of failure, that’s where we learn and when we learn we grow and growing is the only way to truly change our vantage point. No one reaches the top of a mountain without stopping to look back at the journey. It would be a waste. Because that hindsight is a gift. It’s a reminder that we once suffered and struggled and doubted…and we lived. We made it out alive and the next time we’re forced to face one of our fears, we won’t bow down and tremble, in fact we won’t be afraid at all. Because there’s no reason to fear something you’ve already conquered and you can’t lose a battle that you’ve already won.