Sometimes I wondered if my relationship with writing is unhealthy.
I’ve joked with my partner that I am so grateful he isn’t a writer because it forced me to talk about topics other than writing.
Writing takes up 90% of my thoughts (or at least, my interesting thoughts).
I spend 6-12 hours a day writing or doing writing related activities (reading, proofing, brainstorming, teaching writing, etc).
I don’t take days off unless I am travelling, have out of town visitors, or a backlog of errands I’ve been ignoring and need to attend to (sometimes not even then!).
Recently, a friend asked me what I do in my free time. I didn’t have an answer. I was totally baffled. I mumbled that I enjoy cooking, and the rest of my free time is spent socialising with friends or family.
I chose to pursue a doctorate in creative writing and when I’m not working on my thesis, I am working on my online platform: a space dedicated to sharing writing advice and adjacent tips (time management, productivity etc).
For years, much of the non-fiction content I consumed was about writing (podcasts, blogs, YouTube channels, documentaries, and books) and for a while, the only movies I could stomach (or justify watching) were movies about writers or who’s protagonist was a writer (Julie and Julia, Stuck in Love, Misery, The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society).
Recently, I was watching an interview with … a writer … and the interviewee mentioned a book by Phil Tetlock called The Fox and The Hedgehog. Basically, the book seeks to answer the question, is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? (The idea being that foxes survey the field while hedgehogs burrow deep into the ground). After running a series of test, it was revealed that generalist tended to be better at problem solving.
In this same vein, I’ve wondered whether my obsession with writing has shrunk my life.
What important things am I missing out on by being so devoted to this one area of life?
Strangely, while most of my internal world is filled with writing, much of my external world is not.
Few friends ask about my writing or my writing life and when they do, the conversation runs for less than a minute.
In the past, I’ve craved a writing community where I could geek out on the craft, business, and life of being a writer. Fortunately, I now have friends that meet that need, but I’ve also satisfied that craving for connection through this blog, my YouTube channel, and Instagram page.
Something that does trouble me though is how writing is consistently on my mind. If I find myself in a situation that is ‘social-lite’, as Sarah Wilson would describe it (in the company of others but you’re not connecting in any meaningful way because you’re both on your phone, watching a movie/sports/TV, or the conversation never moves beyond small talk), I see these as an opportunities to scurry away.
They’re distracted; they don’t feel like talking; they’re checking out; they won’t even notice if I leave … then I make my escape and go get some writing (or related activity) done.
Rather than staying in the moment and asking said person to put their phone away or turn off the TV, or me making the enough to steer the conversation in a more meaningful direction, I flee; and in that fleeing, I wonder what opportunity I am missing out on. What revelation goes unrevealed because I’ve left the room?
Recently, I spent a week helping out a friend who opened a pop-up restaurant. I worked seven day straight and racked up nearly 50 hours on my feet (not including travel time which was 90 minutes each day).
At the end of it, I was spent. I am no longer hospitality-fit.
I vowed that I wouldn’t do anything productive during my first day off. I needed to rest. I promised myself that I wouldn’t open my laptop, work on my novel, my thesis, or any of my contract work.
The first few hours of my morning were bliss. I lingered in bed reading while drinking tea and I took my time making breakfast.
Now, for the recorded, I’m usually a pretty even-keeled person; I’m not terribly anxious. But on this day, when I vowed not to work and I didn’t have any other set task to fill my time, say a social engagement or even the tedium of domestic chores and errands, I found become very … uncomfortable.
Which then lead me to question whether writing (or general busyness) had become a numbing activity. Where another person might check out by scrolling on their phones or reading hollow listicles on Buzzfeed, I used writing (and productivity: the most social acceptable form of numbing) to keep myself distracted.
The irony that most self-help books encourage people to use writing as a way to STOP numbing out and to tune into their feelings does not escape me.
Is it possible for writing to become a numbing activity or is it the exact tool we all need to deal with our shit?
The only conclusion I can come to is: it depends.
Recently, I started reading Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightening and in the opening pages she describes as equally restless day where she was dripping in unexplainable despair. (In fact, she opens the book with the line: ‘I have not seen writing lead to happiness in my friend’s lives’).
She grabbed a friend in an equally icky state walked up a large mountain and check in.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Bad,” her friend replied.
They drove to Natalie’s home and sat in meditation for an hour.
“How do you feel?” Nat asked.
“Bad,” her friend replied.
Natalie pulled out some notebooks, a fast writing pen, a timer, and they got to work. They each wrote for half an hour, read to each other, and then went again. By the end of the second round they were both beaming.
And perhaps that’s why I, and maybe you too, are so obsessed with writing. Because writing can do stuff for us that other mediums and activities can’t. We can reach different parts of our psyches, relish in the challenge of seeing whether we can pull a narrative technique off, and find satisfaction in the general practice of art making.
When you give yourself to writing, it gives back.
But writing is just one part of our lives and how we feed our writing is by living our life.
If we constantly check out of ‘social-lite’ situations, we’ll soon find ourselves unable to fill the blank page.
We need to have deep conversations, follow our curiosity, explore, and become educated on a wide variety of topics (that means consuming interesting content that is not about writing or writers).
Instead of using writing as a fix for restlessness, sit in the feeling and really think about how it actually feels in the body. Then open the notebook/word document and describe that sensation in detail. You might use this material one day, you might not, but at least writing has been put in its place as a support tool rather than an insidious device for productivity (and potential dopamine hits).
There is little division between my work and my life. I cannot imagine not writing. But we cannot compartmentalise our lives, everything is connected and everything feeds into everything else.
In order to have a good writing life, we must have a good life period.
As Natalie says …
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